Will Leitch and Jonah Lehrer on sabermetrics

By Jason Wojciechowski on June 28, 2011 at 11:35 PM

Today, Jonah Lehrer had an article in Grantland that quickly became infamous in the internet stat nerd community and prompted a politely vicious response from Colin Wyers at Baseball Prospectus (free, I'm pretty sure). The piece blames sabermetrics for giving us too much information to reasonably sift through, leaving us valuing bad metrics. More importantly than "us," Lehrer says, teams are left overvaluing statistics.

On June 17th, Will Leitch had a guest spot on Prospectus hitting, as it would happen, some similar themes. He wrote there about his father's ignorance of basically everything not happening on the field: stat fights, contracts, prospects, and the whole mess of other information that obsessives like you ad me (you're reading this blog, right?) thrive on. He expresses some longing for those days of ignorant bliss, writing, of this remarkable age of baseball information, that he "sort of hate[s] it."

Lehrer's mistake was simply asserting without proving that teams that rely on statistics are doing so to their detriment. Hilariously, he cited the Mavericks as a team that did not place too much faith in the numbers. As Wyers mentions, and as many of us who follow these things are aware, the Mavericks under Mark Cuban have been at the forefront of using new methods, statistics included, to understand the game, evaluate players, and create strategy. Statistics, in Lehrer's mind, are a genuine negative for sports, even though his evidence for this ranges from nonexistence to laughably incorrect.

Leitch, by contrast, makes no claim about statistics qua statistics or their place in the game itself. His article is broader in scope in one sense and narrower in another. On the one hand, he writes about information, specifically the great mass of such that is always at our fingertips, even, thanks to our smartphones, at the games themselves, not just statistics. On the other hand, his argument, if you want to call it that (it's more of a contemplation of his own views of the game), is merely that we don't watch the game the same blissful way that we used to when we were ignorant. (Implicit in Leitch's point, note, is that the teams themselves have to a frustratingly large degree not adopted what are now mainstream sabermetric views about things like bunting, hit-and-run, and so forth. Would baseball be less of an exercise in fist-shaking for us stat nerds if the stat nerds were in charge in the dugout, too?)

This is where I quibble with Leitch: what he doesn't say, because he's writing about information, but which I think has to undergird his entire point, is that obsession is what has made us (again, you're reading this) unable to cheer for sacrifice bunts and intentional walks and Francisco Rodriguez getting another save, not sabermetrics.

Here's the thing: I interact with dozens of people on Twitter every day who aren't stat nerds in the least. They like batting average and home runs and maybe sometimes even sacrifice bunts. They're old school. But you know what they are anyway? They're baseball nerds, because they can tell you how much money Adam Rosales makes and how many options Daric Barton has left and who the A's third baseman at Midland is. We don't see eye-to-eye on how to evaluate these players and whether Bob Geren should be fired and whether Billy Beane likes soccer better than baseball, but we all watch the game more like Will Leitch does than like his dad does. When we watch, even if we don't boo sacrifice bunts, we're constantly considering whether a struggling first baseman might be sent out to make way for the hot prospect at AAA, who is available on the the trade market around the league, whether the pitching coach is doing enough to correct the middle-reliever's tendency to leave balls up in the zone, why the manager can't form a sensible platoon with the four decent outfielders, and on and on and on. The great availability of information about baseball abets these ponderings, but I don't believe it created them, and I don't believe sabermetrics did either -- the stats revolution just gave some of us obsessives, the ones with more spare time or more facility with numbers or more curiosity about certain aspects of the game or whatever it is that drove us in this direction, one more thing to worry and think about, one more way to criticize or laud or favorite manager or GM or player.

Lehrer, then, is wrong because he's wrong about the facts, or at least he refusese to prove the things he claims. Leitch, on the other hand, isn't wrong so much as I think that he doesn't take the final step to examine the true root cause of our broken innocence when it comes to watching baseball: obsession, not statistics.