Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Sabermetrics" and "Analytics"

What is sabermetrics?

We sabermetricians think we know what it means ... one definition is that it's the scientific search for understanding about baseball through its statistics. But, like a lot of things, it's something that's more understood in practice than by strict definition. I think a few years ago Bill James quoted Potter Stewart: "I know it when I see it."

But how we see it seems to be different from how the rest of the world sees it. The recent book "Scorecasting" is full of sabermetrics, isn't it? There are studies on how umpires call more strikes in different situations, on how hitters bat when nearing .300 at the end of the season, on how hitters aren't really streaky even though conventional wisdom says they are, and on how lucky the Cubs have been throughout their history.

So why isn't "Scorecasting" considered a book on sabermetrics? It should be, shouldn't it? None of the reviews I've seen have called it that. The authors don't describe themselves as sabermetricians either. In fact, on page 120, they say,

"Baseball researchers and Sabermetricians have been busily gathering and applying the [Pitch f/x] data to answer all sorts of intriguing questions."

That suggests that they think sabermetricians are somehow different from "baseball researchers".

Consider, also, the "MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference," which is about applying sabermetrics to sports management. But, no mention of "sabermetrics" there either -- just "analytics".

What's "analytics"? It's a business term, about using data to inform management decisions. The implication seems to be that the sabermetrician nerds work to provide the data, and then the executives analyze that data to decide whom to draft.

But, really, that's not what's going on at all. The executives make the decisions, sure, but it's the sabermetricians who do the actual analysis. Sabermetrics isn't the field of creating the data, it's the field of scientifically *analyzing* the data in order to produce valid scientific knowledge, both general and specific.

For instance, here's a question a GM needs to consider. How much is free agent batter X worth?

Well, towards that question, sabermetricians have:

-- come up with methods to turn raw batter statistics into runs
-- come up with methods to turn runs into wins
-- come up with methods to estimate future production from past production
-- come up with methods to quantify player defense, based on observation and statistical data
-- come up with methods to compare players at different positions
-- come up with methods to estimate the financial value teams place on wins.

But isn't that also what "analytics" is supposed to do? I don't understand how the two are different. I suppose you could say, the sabermetricians figure out that the best estimate for batter X's value next year will be, say, $10 million a season. And then the analytics guy says, "well, after applying my MBA skills to that, and analyzing the $10 million estimate the sabermetricians have provided, I conclude that the data suggest we offer the guy no more than $10 million."

I don't think that's what the MIT Sloan School of Management has in mind.

Really, it looks like everyone who does sabermetrics knows that they're doing sabermetrics, but they just don't want to call it sabermetrics.

Why not? It's a question of signalling and status. Sabermetrics is a funny, made-up, geeky word, with the flavor of nerds working out of their mother's basements. Serious people, like those who run sports teams, or publish papers in learned journals, are far too accomplished to want to be associated with sabermetrics.

And so, an economist might publish a paper with ten pages of analysis of sports statistics, and three paragraphs evaluating the findings in the light of economic theory. Still, even though that paper is sabermetrics, it's not called sabermetrics. It's called economics.

A psychologist might analyze relay teams' swim times, discover that the first swimmer is slower than the rest, and conclude it's because of group dynamics. Even though the analysis is pure sabermetrics, the paper isn't called sabermetrics. It's called psychology.

A new MBA might get hired by a major-league team to find ways of better evaluate draft prospects. Even though that's pure sabermetrics, it's not called sabermetrics. It's called "analytics," or "quantitative analysis."

I think that word, sabermetrics, is costing us a lot of credibility. My perception is that "sabermetrics" has (incorrectly) come to be considered the lower-level, undisciplined, number crunching stuff, while "analytics" and "sports economics" have (incorrectly) come to symbolize the serious, learned, credible side. If you looked at real life, you might come to the conclusion that the opposite is true.

My perception is that there isn't a lot of enthusiasm for the word "sabermetrics." Most of the most hardcore sabermetric websites -- Baseball Analysts, The Hardball Times, Inside The Book, Baseball Prospectus -- don't use the word a whole lot. Even Bill James, who coined the word, has said he doesn't like it. From 1982 to 1989, Bill James produced and edited a sabermetrics journal. He didn't call it "The Sabermetrician." He called it "The Baseball Analyst." It was a great name. About ten years ago, I suggested resurrecting that name for SABR's publication, to replace "By the Numbers" (.pdf, see page 1). I was voted down (.pdf, page 3). I probably should have tried harder.

In light of all that, I wonder if we should consider slowly moving to accept MIT's word and start calling our field "analytics."

It's a good word. We've got a historical precedent for using it. It will help correct misunderstandings of what it is we do. And it'll put us on equal footing with the MIT presenters and the JQAS academics and the authors of books of statistical analysis -- all of whom already do pretty much exactly what we do, just under a different name.

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At Tuesday, March 29, 2011 6:07:00 PM, Blogger Bob Timmermann said...

I would also think a change in the name would make SABR conventions look a lot less imposing to people outside the organization.

At Tuesday, March 29, 2011 8:03:00 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

I think you mentioned part of the answer in passing at the beginning. Sabremetrics is about baseball, and other things (the Sloan conference, analyzing swimmers) are not, or at least not exclusively.

As to why 'baseball analysts' don't call their work 'sabremetrics' I couldn't say. But I don't think I would ever call what I do sabremetrics because it doesn't involve baseball. I guess I think of myself as a sports statistician.

At Tuesday, March 29, 2011 8:05:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Right, that's a point ... I use "sabermetrics" to refer to all sports, but others don't. "APBRmetrics" is just too weird for me, except when explicitly referring to members of the community.

At Tuesday, March 29, 2011 10:50:00 PM, Anonymous Cliff Blau said...

I agree with Bob. Calling it sabermetrics makes it look like SABR is only about statistical analysis. (See this article, for example: http://www.thegoodphight.com/2011/3/29/2078812/on-luck-a-dialectical-analysis-of-the-sabr-debate).

At Tuesday, April 05, 2011 2:28:00 PM, Blogger Don Coffin said...

As the one who started (and named) "By the Numbers," I would have named it "The Baseball Analyst" (if the name hadn't already been taken) or "Baseball Analytics" (if I'd thought of it).

At Tuesday, April 05, 2011 3:50:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...


I bet Bill would let us have "The Baseball Analyst" if we asked him for it ...


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