Mathletes

I haven’t seen the particular ad yet myself, but apparently Sportsnet is using Travis Snider’s fielding percentage in some of its advertising for the upcoming Jays season. I’m going to assume that the vast majority of people who bother to read baseball blogs know enough about the game to know that fielding percentage is not even remotely a good way to evaluate a player.

Anyway, the ad led to an interesting Twitter exchange last night between Stoeten of DJF fame and a guy who goes by GoatmealCrisp about why exactly Sportsnet would take such a tack in its promotional course.

Goatmeal argued that the ad is for the “casuals” and that people who know better are watching the games anyway. Stoeten, who was making the most of St. Patrick’s Day, was having none of it.

Now, I’m with Stoeten 100% in that nobody should be pretending a worthless stat means anything, but the second half of his statement might not be entirely accurate.

I’ve often wondered why words like “grit” remain so prevalent in discussions of baseball and what makes a player good or valuable to a team. The following map might, in part, help explain the reluctance of some people to adopt new ways of looking at the game:

What you’re looking at is a map of Canada, drawn up to show numeracy skills for a recent feature in the Globe and Mail. Red is bad. Going by these stats, there are an alarming amount of people in Canada who lack the basic math skills to “live fully in a modern economy.”

The consequences of poor math skills are many and affect more than just the individual who struggled with calculus in grade school:

The financial crisis of 2008 is often blamed solely on the banking world’s irresponsibility, but individual decisions by people struggling to understand their mortgages, or the true cost of a loan or a debt, arguably helped bring world economies to their knees.

To be sure, people losing their jobs and their homes is a much more important issue than the widespread acceptance and understanding of a stat like ISO, FIP or any of the other advanced metrics out there. But if people can’t wrap their heads around a personal loan or a mortgage, with the huge implications those things can and do have on their personal lives, how can we expect those same people to be bothered with the sabr movement?

Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying people who don’t “get” math are stupid — far from it. I know there any many, many factors that go into what people can or can’t do intellectually and the individuals in question don’t have control over all of them.

And I’m not excusing large swaths of the mainstream media for continuing to look at the game of baseball in an outdated way. Good media should be reporting things in the best way possible — including taking advanced stats and explaining them, or converting them into language most people can understand. Unfortunately, most media doesn’t work that way — for a number of reasons, some understandable, some horrible.

Sportsnet really shouldn’t be promoting the Jays with Travis Snider’s fielding percentage. But if you run into a Jays fan in the real world who likes to talk about simple, outdated things like fielding percentage, it might worth it to see if they’ve got a grasp of fielding range or something else that you can get a good sense of without looking at numbers. If they do, their use of fielding percentage as a go-to metric might not be entirely their fault.

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6 thoughts on “Mathletes

  1. While I agree fielding percentage is not the be-all, end-all fielding stat that people with no knowledge tend to gravitate to, it is not as completely useless as you make it sound.

    Except for OF-ers, it doesn’t hold much real value out there.

    But for infielders who play the same position and get somewhere around the same number of chances in a given season it’s a decent way of comparison.

    Or, an infielder’s career fielding percentage isn’t a bad metric either. It seems something that is more valuable the larger the sample size is.

    Now I agree you can’t just say that Player A has a higher career fielding percentage than Player B so he’s a better fielder.

    But Player A over his career has a significantly higher fielding percentage than Player B over his career, so he makes fewer errors? You can assuredly say that. And while it says nothing for their range and overall fielding skills, the amount of errors a fielder makes is closely tied to how good their fielding percentage is.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents. I haven’t seen these commercials about Snider yet either. Out of curiosity, how good was his fielding percentage last year I wonder? Hahaha.

    • Thanks for the comment, Cole, but I couldn’t disagree more.

      The main problem I have with fielding percentage is the error. It’s a totally subjective stat. For example, let’s say there’s a hard grounder hit to the second base side of the shortstop and look at how two different players might handle it.

      1) If it’s Derek Jeter at SS, he’ll stand there and wave to the ball as it zips out to left-centre for a base hit. There will definitely not be an error on this play.

      2) If it’s John McDonald, he’s laying out for the ball and very likely getting a piece of it. Now, if Johnny Mac knocks the ball down, but doesn’t manage to turn it into an out, there’s a chance he’ll be charged with an error.

      Despite Johnny Mac maybe getting an error, I’m confident that most people would say he’s a better defensive player than Jeter. And the advanced defensive metrics agree that McDonald is better.

      Fielding percentage says Jeter’s better.

      If that’s not reason enough to toss that metric in the trash, I don’t know what is.

      Oh, and Travis Snider’s fielding percentage last year was a whopping .979!

  2. Clements, you are being far, far too extreme in your judgements.

    Errors are called on players when it is a play that should be made with routine effort. If Johnny Mac “lays out for the ball” an error will never, ever be called. When’s the last time you saw a guy get an error on a ball he laid out for ? (Unless of course he then gets up, has time and air mails a throw).

    Fielding percentage should more aptly be called “per cent of the time a fielder successfully completes a play that for him requires routine effort” … Better??

    Jeter’s slightly higher career fielding percentage than Johnny Mac over his career tells me not that he’s a better fielder than Johnny Mac, it tells me that he has successfully completed a small percentage more plays that for him are routine, over the course of his career.

    You’re right, that’s hardly a great defensive metric, but again I will reiterate it’s not as useless as you might make it seem. While you can cherry pick a Johnny Mac versus Jeter example to illustrate your point, my only point in al lthis was that if you do for example have someone with a .910 fielding percentage over a career versus .980 or so, that more than likely is a pretty significant difference and the player with the higher percentage is likely a superior fielder (considering equal opportunities).

    • Dude, you’re right. I am cherry picking and using extreme examples. It’s worth using Jeter though, because he’s widely viewed as an excellent defender what with all the gold gloves he’s won.

      Two more things:

      1) If fielding percentage is truly the “per cent of the time a fielder successfully completes a play that for him requires routine effort” then it’s a relative stat and in no way should be used to compare players as it would set the bar a lot higher for some than others.

      2) You have a lot more faith in official scorers than I do!

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