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Sabermetrics faces a perception battle, but it's one worth fighting

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Watching ROOT Sports talking about sabermetrics in their pregame show made me think about how far the movement has come - and how much farther it can go.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I watch about 90 percent of Rockies games on my DVR because a live game that can reach 3½ hours is a large investment of time in a team that has already lost 93 games, so I usually fast forward through the pre-game show. This time though, I was intrigued by how ROOT was going to do on the sabermetrics segment they were advertising at the show's open. Educating ROOT Sports viewers about the numbers that are used by decisionmakers in the game is a noble pursuit and I applaud Ryan Spilborghs and Jenny Cavnar for putting together the segment.

First, a definition of what I mean when I say sabermetrics. Sabermetrics is, at its core, looking at baseball from an empirical standpoint—using data-driven insights to seek objective knowledge about the game. For a GM, it's about identifying the statistics and traits that are the most important and leveraging those statistics to not only build a better team but also to maximize chances tactically with that team once in individual games. For a fan, it's about creating a great fantasy team, winning arguments, and most importantly, developing a deeper understanding about how the game they love works.

The pursuit of this knowledge isn't for everyone, of course. Many just want to turn off the rational centers of the brain and enjoy the simple beauty of the game and root, root, root for their team/players. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this—but it's just not the way my brain is wired. I seek objective knowledge wherever I can find it and like the thought of developing that deeper understanding about what makes baseball tick.

There's also a considerable amount of people that espouse the values of just watching as much baseball as you can to identify tools, potential, and that stuff you can't find in a spreadsheet while hiding in your mother's basement. There's definitely value to this point of view, but what the vast majority of major league teams have found is that pairing statistics with scouting is the way that tends to produce the most success.

When watching the segment on ROOT Tuesday night, I tried to put myself in the mindset of the fan I was before I found Purple Row: a baseball enthusiast that was open to hearing about numbers but didn't grasp much beyond BA/OBP/SLG and the traditional "box score" stats. After all, if ROOT wanted to aim their stats segment at people like the fan I am now they would be talking every pregame show about it for the entire time.

The segment, as many such seem to do, with a joke about this being for nerds. Jenny: "It's time for our nerd segment"—in this case with an application of nerd glasses. Now, I don't think this was meant with any malice, but I think it would tend to contribute to the general ROOT viewer population not taking the segment seriously.

If we frame sabermetrics (and those who endeavor to gain objective knowledge) as something only attainable through lots of hard math and therefore not for a significant amount of the population. It's simultaneously something that alienates many who already possess a basic understanding of sabermetric concepts and something that demotivates many of the people that might potentially gain some insight into the players they've been watching all year.

The first statistic the ROOT duo jumped into was OPS (On-base + Slugging percentage). Now this one is already part of many box scores, so it's not a terribly unfamiliar statistic even to most casual viewers. The graphic shown is a list of Rockies players ranked by OPS at Coors Field this year.

Spilly does a good job of benchmarking that .800 is a decent OPS number, but what might have been helpful here for those new to OPS is to have the components broken out on the graphic. For example, Drew Stubbs has a .999 home OPS, which is broken into a .388 OBP and .611 SLG. Similarly, it would have been helpful to explain that at Coors the Rockies as a team have a .902 OPS this year, an indicator that not only have the Rockies mashed at home this year, they also have a home environment in which that .800 OPS number isn't really very impressive.

Along those same lines, when the graphic moved into a rank of Rockies by their road OBP, it's good to note that Colorado has only an anemic .631 OBP on the road, making Michael McKenry's .841 road OBP (albeit in only 89 plate appearances) that much more relatively impressive. With that said, Spilly really did well here to explain the concept of slugging percentage and why Colorado's been so much better at home. Research has shown that OBP is actually more important to scoring runs than SLG, but it's good to get both out there to fans.

At this point, Spilly transitioned into his next stat, wRC+, but not before Jenny interjected with the fact that OPS is actually something that most fans would be at least somewhat familiar with. Furthermore, she said, if you were confused by OPS, you really weren't going to understand this next stat. To reiterate, this isn't a great position to take. These concepts might seem complicated, but really it's not that difficult to grasp them if explained well, which brings me to my next point.

Spilly moved straight from OPS, a stat that many casual fans use, to wRC+, a concept that, while certainly a better indicator of offensive prowess, is a big leap for fans. I understand that the segment was only allotted a brief amount of time, but I might have considered the introduction of OPS+ instead, if only to introduce viewers to the concept of "+", which uses park factors to contextualize performance and put it on a scale where 100 is average.

That way, we might find that Charlie Blackmon has been about league average offensively despite his .285 batting average, .333 on-base percentage, and .438 slugging percentage. You might also show that even with the benefit of Coors Field, Troy Tulowitzki's 170 OPS+ placed him among the very best players in MLB.

When discussing wRC+, Spilly and Jenny glossed over most of the "wRC" part of the equation and focused on the "+" mentioned above. Which is fine to an extent, because that is a very important concept for viewers to grasp. Understanding that the hitters fans see day in and day out putting up these gaudy numbers are helped by the environment and that the pitchers they see giving up plenty of hits and runs are hurt by it makes fans understand that maybe, just maybe, the problem with the Rockies isn't just pitching. As Spilly applies it, it's showing that the players on the team have proven they can hit at home, but need to make those adjustments on the road. It's a nice sentiment, though it's much easier said than done.

Still, the "wRC" part of wRC+ is also a neat concept that I would have liked to see expanded, though a segment of this brevity might have been difficult to explain it properly.

The idea is basically that data has shown that each method of getting on base has produced a certain amount of runs. For instance, a homer creates on average 2.101 runs, so it is weighted higher than a triple (1.616), double (1.271), and on down the line. How often a batter gets on base via each method leads to his weighted on-base average (wOBA). What wRC+ does is figure out how much better than league average a player's offensive production is and contextualize it with his home environment.

After the wRC+ discussion, Jenny asks the very cogent question, "Who uses these statistics?", then dips back into the "sabermetrics nerds" well. The honest answer to that question is just about everyone in a front office in baseball, to some extent. It's a valuable way of contextualizing offensive production and finding assets that traditional stats might have undervalued.

I guess if I were trying to get you to take away anything from this meandering walk through sabermetrics, it's that the field suffers from a negative perception that it's for nerds only and that it's incredibly complex to grasp. This leads to well-meaning but less than informative segments on TV like the one I just described. Don't get me wrong: I'm very grateful and excited that ROOT is producing these segments and I hope to see more of them in the future.

Even five years ago I couldn't have conceived of such a segment running on a regional sports network. Sabermetrics has made tremendous strides in that time, but I think many more can be made. I sincerely hope that, by slowing eroding the mystique and obfuscation surrounding some of these sabermetric concepts, the amount of fans engaging in intelligent, data driven baseball discourse will increase dramatically.

There are a lot of great resources out there for people just starting with the pursuit, but the one I particularly recommend is the Sabermetric Library from FanGraphs.

I've highlighted a few valuable entries below if you're interested:

In about an hour or two of poking around the library, you can be up and running on your way to a deeper understanding of baseball. I sincerely hope you give it a shot.