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Analytics vs. Traditionalism: The great baseball debate that no one wins

There are two schools of thought that are at war with each other among baseball fans and it isn’t good for anyone.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

If you have been a baseball fan of any stripe over the last few years, you have witnessed a grand debate that has run rampant on social media, frayed friendships, and caused more than its fair share of hurt feelings and yelling at one another. It has been omnipresent in baseball coverage from World Series play by play broadcasts to lowly blog articles to tweets from egg accounts that may or may not be Russian bots trying to mess with all of us.

No, it hasn’t been over the changing of the rules of baseball to speed up the pace of play nor has it been the old standby of designated hitter vs. let pitchers hit. It hasn’t been the presence of performance enhancing drugs in the game’s past and present and the accompanying “which players need asterisks next to their names” nor has it even been debating the merits of bat flips. Sure, we all yell at each other about those things still, but that is just good, clean fun most of the time.

Instead, what we have seen is a broader divide where sides have been chosen, lines in the sand have been drawn, and Hatfield and McCoy-esque disputes have arisen over old-school vs. new school. Analytics vs. traditionalism. Batting average vs. wRC+. Defensive shifts vs. stay at your position. ERA vs. FIP. Whatever the specific disagreement or characterization, it is a division that is very real and has permeated nearly every aspect of how all of us talk and think about the game of baseball to the detriment of all. Instead of finding common ground where all these points of view can coexist like they have in most baseball front offices, it has turned into a zero sum game that someone is either in one school of thought or another. Someone is absolutely right or absolutely wrong.

Case in point, you may be aware that Red Sox adviser and long-time sabermetrics guru Bill James found himself in a bit of trouble this week. The short version of the story is that Mr. James found himself sparring with folks on Twitter (as he has been known to do) in a broader discussion about the state of baseball’s labor market and how well major league players are paid. There was a lot of back and forth on this and it is definitely worth reading all of it for context, but here is the quote that caused the most uproar.

In fairness to Bill, his comments were in the context of a labor discussion and that the game of baseball is beyond just the players and is heavy dictated the mechanisms and structure of the game itself, but Twitter is terrible for nuance and the quote was absolutely a bad look (it appears as though the offending tweet has since been deleted). It certainly didn’t help that Bill has been one of the faces of ideas and metrics (fair or not) that some feel reduce players to numbers on a spreadsheet, so he very likely had some folks waiting in the weeds for him to say something that they could pounce on.

So what happened? Well, to say that Mr. James was ransacked on social media (and other forms of media for that matter) may be a bit of an understatement. Various articles came out that Bill thought that all players are replaceable and the Red Sox, MLBPA, and countless media and sports personalities made statements distancing themselves from him and/or denouncing him. It was not a good day for him to be sure.

Here is the problem, it is absolutely true that Bill failed to articulate his point well and chose his words poorly especially within the confines of Twitter which is a breeding ground for lack of nuance, misunderstanding, and lack of context. It is also true that Bill can at times be overly snarky and condescending towards those that he doesn’t agree with or that he doesn’t think have taken the time to understand his point of view. None of these things is going to engender as much thoughtful consideration and benefit of the doubt as one would hope for in such situations.

On the other hand, his comments were in the context of a broader discussion about baseball’s labor market and whether some players are overpaid and underpaid and what that means for players like Scott Boras clients (which was the original topic before things went off the rails) who are players in a league filled with deep pocketed owners. He didn’t call up the Wall Street Journal and say “players are not people and we have 300 more just like them waiting in storage”, drop the mic, and hang up. His ideas are certainly up for debate....there is no question about that, but it is hard to believe that James simply doesn’t acknowledge the importance of players and the human element of the game.

Herein lies the problem. This is just one example of the rhetoric surrounding an issue in baseball turning into an us vs. them dichotomy. Those in favor of advanced metrics and new school approaches will say that assessing player value based on a multitude of data that is now available through a lot of hard work and trial and error is the best approach and using more traditional methods is fundamentally flawed and not the best way to maximize a team’s/player’s chances of success and often actively hurt them.

Those on the traditionalist side say that newer schools of thought take away some of the aspects of baseball that are more entertaining and dramatic, introduce measures that are unnecessarily convoluted and difficult to parse, and that the results of these data-driven approaches ignores the human element of baseball and generates a product on the field that isn’t as good. Neither side seems interested in acknowledging that the other has good things to offer.

Complicating matters is that there are those who are opportunistic when it comes to this sort of drama. Go ahead and run a search on Google right now for Bill James and you will find plenty of material of those that seek to stoke the flames. Like this one. Or this one. We have national broadcasters in the middle of the World Series talking about how bad the current state of baseball as opposed to “the good old days” is rather than the game itself. We have prominent national writers and analysts quote tweeting people who use batting average or wins as reasons why a player is better/worse than another and putting them on blast to thousands of people.

There are entire brands that are being formed as we speak of around the idea that “we are plain-speaking folks that crap on analytics when they are wrong and reminisce about baseball from the 1970s” as well as “those who use traditional stats are dumb, we are smart, dumb people are dumb, listen to us be smart”....neither of which are helpful and put the focus on how one side or the other talks and takes the focus away from the game itself.

The sad thing is that this is a divide that is only really being fought with this level of fervor amongst fans and the media. Baseball front offices (with some exceptions to be sure) already understand that advanced metrics and data analysis can provide a ton of useful edges for their teams while also understanding that things like leadership, work ethic, off the field issues, and clubhouse chemistry are important for an organization. All of these are pieces to the same giant puzzle and some teams have figured out how to solve it better than others.

Baseball is a great sport, but it is far from perfect. Minor leaguers are grossly underpaid, attendance and ratings are struggling in some markets, team employees (not just players) are being overworked and underpaid, the game’s stars and successful teams are marketed poorly, and coverage of the game by traditional media is dwindling and cheapened by whichever Skip Bayless clone happens to be in season on a given day. These are all real issues that warrant our attention together as fans of the game that we all want to see prosper no matter how one thinks about the game. Instead, one of the great “debates” we are having is one that none of us win.