The statistical revolution in sports may have reached its apex Tuesday when Jonah Lehrer, writing for Grantland, wrote this piece on Sabermetrics.
Grantland hasn’t yet worked its way into my rotation of websites yet, so I didn’t see Lehrer’s piece until the evening, by which point it had already been picked apart by the notoriously thin-skinned statistical community like a carcass by the side of the road.
(Before going further, it should be noted Lehrer is probably smarter than you – he majored in neuroscience at Columbia, and studied at Oxford for two years as a Rhodes Scholar. It seems he may have drifted outside of his comfort zone in this piece, which was all over the place.)
The first dismemberment I saw was by Tom Scocca of Deadspin. I heard a rumor a week ago there was some trepidation (read: fear) among a few writers at Grantland about having their work dissected by the likes of Scocca and Tommy Craggs, and what Scocca did to Lehrer’s piece will only add to the rumor. Scocca linked to a Baseball Prospectus piece by Colin Wyers that ended like this:
Lehrer dresses his argument up in a Malcolm Gladwell-like pop sociology motif, but it’s the same argument that curmudgeony old sportswriters have been using since the dawn of time: these geeks aren’t really sports fans. Not like the rest of us. If only they could get their heads out of their spreadsheets now and then, they could learn to live life a little, enjoy themselves a bit.
Well, guys, I appreciate your concern, I really do. But do me a favor, would you? Just shut up. I know which end of the bottle the beer comes out of, I really do. I’ve watched ballgames outside, in actual sunlight—no, really. If knowing that a pitcher’s BABIP against rate in a small sample is largely unpredictive of his rate in a larger sample makes it harder for you to enjoy watching a game, I’m sorry. But if knowing more about baseball makes it harder for you to enjoy the game, then I’m really not seeing your case that you’re the better fan than someone like me.
I know those things and I still love baseball. Love love love it. And you can have whatever opinion you want to of people like me and the work we do. But stop, please, just stop questioning whether or not we love baseball. It’s demeaning, it’s insulting, and it’s been a hoary old cliché for longer than I’ve been alive. Let it rest in peace.
Then came the biggest surprise: Tom Haberstroh of ESPN’s True Hoop ripped it apart:
I have not met a sabermetrician who believes that there is nothing to be gained outside of the realm of analytics. Intangibles exist and they have power, even if sabermetricians have struggled to pinpoint and measure that power. No sabermetrician would honestly believe that they are all-knowing. That is precisely why they have strapped themselves in for this quest for objective information.
Haberstroh’s piece had the feel of a lecture – as if he were a veteran of a statistical society who shouted down some mouthy newbie during rush week.
Finally, Lehrer responded on his Wired blog. I actually thought this wasn’t a terrible retort:
Even when we pay lip service to intangibles – and everyone does – those intangibles are still mentally devalued by our newfound reliance on numbers. We can’t help it. There’s just no way to plug the intangible variable (say, the quirks of personality, or the comfort of a front seat) into our rigorous model. And so what we do? Well, if you believe the decision-making literature, what we often do is neglect that hunch, that sly intuition, that errant feeling, since it suddenly seems so unserious. That’s just the way we think.