Braving New Territory: Nuanced Stats and Why

Scott Cunningham

Learning is something we never stop doing, even in the world of nuanced statistics.

As I start, I want to make something clear. This is not meant to start an argument. It's not meant to convert the masses. This and the series of posts that follow are meant to explain the more nuanced baseball statistics of today, why we use them, and what advantages they have over more everyday statistics. I don't plan on throwing out insults, and I don't plan on having any thrown my way. These are purposely put on Saturday to act as a set of posts for people who want to read them, for people to want to learn more about modern statistics but don't necessarily want or know where to go to find an explanation of them. If you have no interest in these statistics, then, by all means, you are not required to read them. If you are interested in learning and having a discussion - I plan on learning a few things along the way as well - then continue reading.

This is the first of many posts that I plan to put out on Saturday. It's on Saturday so it's not in the "regular turn of posts" and people don't feel compelled to read them. I've been asked about various statistics several times throughout the past season - what they are and why I use them - so I thought the offseason would be a good time for this. My plan is to go BIG to small on the concepts - WAR to ISO to why K%-BB% is better. I'll rotate back-and-forth between the main areas of baseball - offense, defense, and pitching - in order to cover a number of topics, and I'll be using the Braves and their players as examples to illustrate various points.

Again, I mean these to educate and not to inculcate. I'm not here as a missionary, though I'd be lying if I didn't hope this series could persuade a few people. The following is how I plan to break each post into sections.

Everyday Statistics and Their Flaws

You'll notice how I've avoided the term "traditional statistics." Over the past decade, this term has come to have a negative connotation, and I prefer to avoid the name-calling. Instead, let's go with "everyday statistics" because they are the ones thrown around every day and have been for years. It's more accurate, in my opinion.

This section is here to identify the statistics that are essentially being improved upon and/or replaced, but I don't plan to call any of these statistics "stupid." These statistics were created for good reason - to observe and document what happens on the field - and while they may not strictly tell us what it's believed that they do, these statistics don't deserve any disrespect. No "Kill The Win." This is just an explanation of what statistics are used and why they don't mean what they've come to "mean."

Nuanced Statistics and Why

Again, you'll notice that I've avoided the term "sabermetrics." I'm not a fan of the term, and I cringe a little every time I use it. First of all, the name comes from SABR (Society for American Baseball Research). So the term should be "SABRmetrics," but even with that, the purpose of SABR is more history than stats. In my humble opinion, it's just not an appropriate term. "Nuanced statistics" gets more to the point - there's more detail, calculations, etc. that go into these newer stats and metrics.

The point of this section is to explain how these statistics or metrics improve upon everyday stats and how they either fix the flaws of their elders or at least improve upon them. I'll give you context and examples of how these terms are used and why. While there will be some math involved, I don't plan on that being a major part of it, and I plan on making these explanations more about the general idea than the specific details. Again, I'm here to explain why they're here in the first place, not advocate for their "truth."

What's Yet to Accomplish

I won't advocate for their "truth" because there remains a lot left to do. Some people take this as a negative thing, but then they go on to use computers that become obsolete by the time they get shipped to their house. The point of these more nuanced statistics was never to define absolute truth but to get ever closer to it. Believing the end is here is just as naive as believing these are pointless tools. There are all sorts of things we use even though they aren't perfect, and if we didn't, we'd still being hunting and gathering.

On the flip side, this is an admission that there are flaws with what we currently have. There's no point in trying to deny it. Instead of avoiding it, we should embrace the weaknesses. Study them and fix them. They won't fix themselves. Eventually, the stats and metrics we use today will be improved and replaced with better, more accurate ones. Such is Progress.

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So I hope this sounds good to at least some of you. I'm here to help, and I expect there will be questions, concerns, and debate. Let's just try to keep it civil and to the point. As I've mentioned, these statistics aren't perfect, and I'm interested in seeing what everyone thinks should be added, etc.

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If you want my honest opinion on the grand scheme of things, I think these more nuanced statistics have already "won." Front offices around baseball all use them, and many have research departments dedicated to developing their own systems. Even the mainstream media has begun to address and use them, and at that point, it's really just a matter of time before they become part of the lexicon. That being said, I don't think they are a necessary part of enjoying baseball in the same way I don't think being a "prospect expert" is a necessary part of enjoying baseball. Does knowing about them make you more educated on baseball and baseball moves? Sure. But it requires more time and effort that some simply don't have or willing to give. But you don't see people yelling at people who read reams of information online about prospects as being "nerds" who need to watch a game, and I think it's time to start looking at stats people that way. After all, a lot of us are on Twitter... gasp... watching and talking about baseball all the time.

What I hope this series does is give an offseason-long (maybe longer, who knows) tutorial on nuanced baseball statistics that takes approximately 10-15 minutes a week.

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