Sabermetrician Bill James, from his 1981 Baseball Abstract, on the difference between sports writing and sabermetrics:

1. Sports writing draws on the available evidence, and forces conclusions by selecting and arranging that evidence so that it points in the direction desired. Sabermetrics introduces new evidence, previously unknown data derived from original source material.

2. Sportswriting designs its analysis to fit the situation being discussed; sabermetrics designs methods which would be applicable not only in the present case but in any other comparable situation. The sportswriter say this player is better than that one because this player had 20 more home runs, 10 more doubles, and 40 more walks and those things are more important than that players 60 extra base hits and 31 extra stolen bases, and besides, there is always defense and if all else fails team leadership. If player C is introduced into this discussion, he is a whole new article. Sabermetrics puts into place formulas, schematic designs, or theories of relationship which could compare not only this player to that one, but to any player who might be introduced into the discussion.

3. Sportswriters characteristically begin their analysis with a position on an issue; sabermetrics begins with the issue itself. The most over-used form in journalism is the diatribe, the endless impassioned and quasi-logical pitches for the cause of the day–Mike Norris for the Cy Young Award, Rickey Henderson for MVP, Gil Hodges for the Hall of Fame, everybody for lower salaries and let’s all line up against the DH. Sports writing “analysis” is largely an adversary process, with the most successful sportswriter being the one who is the most effective advocate of his position. I personally, of course, have positions which I advocate occasionally, but sabermetrics by its nature is unemotional, non-committal. The sportswriter attempts to be a good lawyer; the sabermetrician, a fair judge.

For that reason, good sabermetrics respects the validity of all types of evidence, including that which is beyond the scope of statistical validation.

Stefan Jovanovich responds:

Bill James picked an easy fight. The sportswriters have always been more clueless about baseball than any other American sport because it has no set plays other than the steal and the sacrifice bunt. Any fool with a Press Pass can learn the names of the pass routes for a wide receiver and then ask the coach why he called for the slant instead of a fade. It is no accident that the writers with the least experience in baseball have been the most enthusiastic supporters of sabermetrics. The statistics provided by Mr. James and others have become for journalists the core of their pseudo-wisdom.

Professional baseball started using statistics before American football players were allowed to use the forward pass and before Dr. Naismith cut the bottom out of his peach basket, but the players, coaches and managers have never believed that the box score was the game. Sabremetrics is deeply emotional in its belief that it is a “fair judge” of what happens on the field. Its “theories of relationship” are interesting but largely useless is determining the “character of the borrower”; yet character remains at the heart of what happens on the field - even in April. On that score alone Gil Hodges and Nellie Fox should both be in the Hall of Fame. James is right about sports writing being largely an adversary process, but then almost all journalism is now some form of “Gotcha”. His stats have become like the body counts in contemporary war reporting; the ultimate confirmation that the civilians pecking away at their laptops really do know more than the people wearing uniforms. But, the notes alone are not the music.


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