Listen up sports fans, America needs your help

It’s a new year, but we’re all up to old stuff.

Really, what’s changed? Take a look around and see whether you can spot the differences. This isn’t a kids’ game, though — I bet you can’t find a monkey in a bush where there wasn’t one before. It’s the same picture.

But we’re sick of this. Americans are calling for change. And we’re looking for the person who will deliver.

I’m hoping the change comes fast, because I can’t wait for the fall. By then, things better be different.

They can be. As we speak, people are working for change. Every day, millions of people are working to make things different. But their efforts need to be focused properly. Only by aiming true can they succeed. Let me suggest where to aim.

Changing the future requires understanding the past and the present. And so we constantly seek to better understand that which has happened and that which is underway. Scholars have applied this drive to various fields for centuries, and all of us do it consciously and unconsciously every day. But this effort has only hit sports recently. And I hope a similarly serious movement spreads through the rest of our society this year.

The movement to understand sports — to really, truly understand what goes on in a game or a season — has taken hold most strongly in baseball. Since the 1970s, a group of devoted baseball fans has driven a serious study of how baseball games are won and lost. Their amateur research has been developed and refined, becoming more widely accepted as it has spread across the country. Their insights and recommendations have even reached the front offices of several major-league teams.

Their work was made famous by Michael Lewis’ 2003 book “Moneyball.” The title was Lewis’s term for the application by a cash-poor major-league team of a philosophy that the amateur researchers called sabermetrics. Lewis profiled the Oakland A’s and their fiery general manager, Billy Beane, whom he shadowed for a season. The name sabermetrics is a derivative of the acronym SABR, short for the Society for American Baseball Research. Its inventor is the most prolific and important of such researchers, a fan named Bill James. Since the early 1980s, James has supported himself by researching baseball statistics from his home in Lawrence, Kan. A single fan, whose research merely entails reviewing box scores, is responsible for some of the greatest advances in our understanding the national pastime.

James and other fans analyzing baseball statistics in recent decades realized a few crucial facts about the game. Starting with the simple observation that winning teams are those that score more runs than their opponents, the researchers set out to understand exactly how a team scores runs and prevents the opposing team from scoring runs.

Thinking in this simple but essential way led to the understanding that getting on base is the most important thing a batter can do to help his team. Conversely, keeping runners off the basepaths is the most important thing a pitcher can do. Batting average and ERA, long heralded as the most important statistics to judge player talent, are giving way to newer statistics that more accurately represent how much each player does to create — or prevent — runs. Enter OPS, WHIP, Runs Created, and many more. As it has gained prominence, sabermetrics has revolutionized how all of us — from fans to team executives, writers to scouts — understand baseball. More important, it has changed how the game is played.

America needs sabermetrics.

Maybe not exactly, but we need our own movement toward a sabermetrics-style understanding of our culture. A new president will be nice, but the change I seek is more serious, more difficult and more important. And it will come from all of us.

Like general managers in the days before sabermetrics, public figures analyzing the state of our country are working off faulty assumptions and a limited understanding of the statistics they’re analyzing. Talking heads and deadline reporters have lost me. Over vacation I watched hours of TV and read countless newspaper articles as I followed the beginning of the 2008 presidential primary season. And repeatedly, the “journalists” I heard managed remarkable twists of statistics, mashing and regurgitating the numbers so as to make them unrecognizable, driving them to the point of irrelevance.

The people analyzing statistics for us have no idea what to do with the numbers.

Baseball executives were once in this position. Fans took it upon themselves to do the work that mattered. Fans figured out what was important to winning games, and they spread their research, so much so that it reached baseball’s upper management. Today, general managers like Billy Beane of the A’s and Theo Epstein ’95 of the Boston Red Sox are open followers of the sabermetrics that fans generated. The fans are still going, still crunching the numbers — and with more encouragement than ever.

The talking heads and pundits leading us into this new year are treating statistics as poorly as the sports world once did. And as the average sports fan did, it’s time for the average American to correct the pundits, who supposedly know what they’re doing. Let’s not allow our understanding of issues and the campaign to be distorted by superficial and lazy analysis. As a country, let’s take a page out of the sports nation’s book.

If we achieve no other change, I at least hope Americans will help make statistics valuable beyond sports — and soon.

Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College. His column appears every Wednesday.

Comments