I’m Not a Sabermetrician

Rob Neyer has a nice post in which he uses my valuation of Raul Ibanez as an example where the sabermetric community is not in agreement. Rob has a great point: there is a lot of disagreement among baseball analysts.

The sabermetric community is quite broad, and I’m not sure how to properly define it. But, I will say that I consider myself to operate outside of what most people consider to be the sabermetric community, but that I often study similar questions. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say some of what I do is sabermetrics, but my approach and methods are different than the community standard. This doesn’t bother me.

I’m an economist. I didn’t grow up reading Bill James, playing Strat-O-Matic, or participating in old Usenet groups. I wish I had been aware of these things, but I think that my outside perspective has been an advantage when analyzing baseball.

In the comments on Rob’s site, there are two comments that I want to post here. The first is from Mitchel Lichtman (MGL).

JC, with all due respect, is an economist with some knowledge of sabermetrics and not a sabermetrician. As well, I don’t think he is an expert on projections by any means. There are plenty of experts with respect to projections, and I don’t think – in fact I know – that any of them will project his value at anything close to 14mm per year.

And this is my response.

I agree with MGL, I shouldn’t be considered a sabermetrician. I have never claimed to be a member of this community. What I do is apply my knowledge from my economics training and experience with analyzing data to issues in baseball. While MGL believes I do not understand certain sabermetric principles, I believe many sabermetricians (MGL included) underestimate the difficulty in analyzing baseball phenomena, especially when it comes to valuing players. Sabermetricians have made important discoveries (Voros McCracken’s work on DIPS was an important and correct finding); however, much what passes for research within this community is not sufficiently rigorous to reach the conclusions often claimed. There are many academic researchers from a variety of fields who have significantly advanced the understanding of baseball that receive scant mention in the sabermetric community. For example, Michael Schell’s Baseball’s All-Time Best Sluggers is the most thorough treatise on hitting ever written; yet, few individuals mention his work or attempt to replicate his methods. You rarely see economists Gerald Scully or Tony Krautmann mentioned when attempting to value players, despite the fact that their methods were published in reputable peer-reviewed economics journals, where established experts vetted their work. Academics are not always right, but I believe the checks ensure they are more likely to reach correct conclusions than informal online discussions.

Just to clear things up.

6 Responses “I’m Not a Sabermetrician”

  1. Rodney Fort says:

    Thanks for the post, JC.

    In my experience, it occurs to me this way (the difference between SABRmetricians and economists).  SABRmetricians are trying to determine the MP part of MRP = MP x MR.  This is important work and part of what economists also try to do when they work on MRP.  Indeed, there is much to learn everywhere from both SABRmetricians and economists on this part of the interesting problem.  What distinguishes economists, in the main, is the rest of the story on MR.

    This leads to interesting discussions that, I think, miss the point of the importance of what the two types of researchers do!  Economists (partly in the name of parsimony) might not be as precise as SABRmetricians in capturing MP (although many economists are pretty good SABRmetricians in this regard–I think of you and Dave Berri).  In essence, if two MP measures are quite highly correlated and one is easier to get, then in the ultimate regression analysis OF MRP why worry about the more complicated measure?  This bothers SABRmetricians doing heroic battle over which MP measure best captures player contributions to winning.

    And, learned first-hand in my interactions with them, SABRmetricians simply are not interested in the MR part.  So, no surprise, whenever they do bring it up, they do it in ways that bother economists.

    But the idea that the analyses are at odds is counterproductive.  Both are important in determining MRP.  Economists doing MRP may sharpen their analysis by paying attention to SABRmetric results–some measurements may be worth the extra effort– and vice versa.  Thanks again for the post.

  2. J. McCann says:

    First of all I would trust an economist’s math and methods more than just “some guy in his mom’s basement”, but I have seen some well reasoned and extensive work that missed one key point, and then that messes up a lot of the conclusions.  (For example, not accounting for the relative strength between leagues, both year to year and accross time.  Baseball nuts should know that integration, expansion, war and year round training all had huge effects that don’t readily show up in any single year’s stats.)

    The best work is done by trained statasticians and/or economists who also full time baseball cranks.

  3. PWHjort says:

    Here’s a few quotes from a Bill James article entitled “Intro to Sabermetrics”

    “(I have been asked to speak to a Risk Management Seminar being organized by someone who has some connection with the Red Sox. I thought about how I would explain Sabermetrics to a group of intelligent people who didn’t really get what we doing, and this is what I came up with. The following is the text for a talk that will be delivered in mid-June, and, since I had to write it, I decided to share it with you.)”


    Sportswriters discuss a range of questions which are much the same from generation to generation. Who is the Most Valuable Player? Who should go into the Hall of Fame? Who will win the pennant? What factors are important in winning the pennant? If Boston won the pennant, why did they win it? If Kansas City finished last, why did they finish last? How has baseball changed over the last few years? Who is the best third baseman in baseball today? Who is better, Mike Lowell or Eric Chavez?
    The questions that we deal with in our work are the same as the questions that are discussed by sports columnists and by radio talk show hosts every day. To the best of my knowledge, there is no difference whatsoever in the underlying issues that we discuss. The difference between us is very simple. Sportswriters always or almost always begin their analysis with a position on the issue. We always begin our analysis with the question itself.
    If you find a sportswriter debating who should be the National League’s Most Valuable Player this season, his article will probably begin by asserting a position on the issue, and then will argue for that position. If you find 100 articles by sportswriters debating issues of this type, in all likelihood all 100 articles will do this.
    What we do is simply to begin by asking “Who is the National League’s Most Valuable Player this season?” rather than to begin by stating that “Albert Pujols is the National League’s Most Valuable Player this season, and let me tell you why.” That’s all. That is the entire difference between sabermetrics and traditional sportswriting. It isn’t the use of statistics. It isn’t the use of formulas. It is merely the habit of beginning with a question, rather than beginning with an answer.”
    “We are no more statisticians than we are historians, or scouts, or accountants, or computer programmers. I suspect that everything we do is much the same as what many of you do. We look to the past, and we try to organize the things we have seen so that they make some sense. We ask ourselves “how many of those were there?” and “how many of those others were there?” and “How many of them ended well?” and “How many of them ended badly?”, just as I would imagine most of you do. ”

    If you accept Bill James’ position, which I’d trust him of all people to come up with a definition for Sabermetrics, you are certainly a Sabermetrician.  A Sabermetrician is, to me, simply one that studies sports in a scientific manner.  To begin with a question, rather than an opinion, is what makes research successful.  You know this just as I do and you are therefore a Sabermatrician.

  4. MGL says:

    I wrote this response to JC’s comment on Rob’s blog:

    I agree with JC. I should also add that there are many good “sabermetricians” who are something other than “sabermetricians” in their day jobs. In fact, most of them are. So it was unfair of me to say that JC is an economist but not a sabermetrician. We are not yet at the point that someone goes to school and receives a degree in sabermetrics (in fact, that will probably never happen). Sabermetrics is not really an “accredited’ field. Sabermetricians come from all walks of life and professions.
    I don’t know JC’s work well enough to say anything particularly credible about him with regard to sabermetrics. He appears to be a real smart guy and a good econometrician, or whatever you call that. I have read some very good work by him, including his book, The Baseball Economist, which was excellent – I highly recommend it. He does clearly know a lot about sabermetrics. I did and do disagree with him regarding the $ value of Ibanez and of closers in general, but I probably disagree with SOMETHING posited or opined by just about any other person versed in sabermetrics. Nothing wrong with that. Sabermetrics is far enough from an “exact science” that sabermetricians should and do “disagree” on lots of things.

  5. tangotiger says:

    “And, learned first-hand in my interactions with them, SABRmetricians simply are not interested in the MR part.  So, no surprise, whenever they do bring it up, they do it in ways that bother economists.”

    Rodney: I don’t think that your experience with sabermetricians is broad enough to make this statement about sabermetricians.   There are some who apply MR, by service class, in establishing valuation, including applying discount rates.

    The safer thing to say is that both sides can learn more from each other.  But, there is already tremendous overlap.  You simply haven’t seen it.

  6. Rodney Fort says:

    I don’t know who you are, tangotiger, but I’ll be the judge of the breadth of my experience thank you.