unforeseen consequences

Another follow-up on my baseball post. I’m getting two kinds of feedback: (a) you’re a moron, sabermetrics is awesome, and (b) you’re absolutely right, sabermetrics is terrible.

Let me emphasize a point that I think is perfectly clear in the piece itself: I love sabermetrics. I started reading Bill James in, I think, 1981; I have written fan letters to him, Rob Neyer, and (later) Voros McCracken (for heaven’s sake); when James came up with the earliest serious attempt to evaluate fielding, Range Factor, I spent countless hours that should have been devoted to my doctoral dissertation trying to improve it — using (by the way) pencil, paper, and a TI SR-50 calculator. I was pontificating about the uselessness of assigning wins and losses to pitchers when Brian Kenny was scarcely a gleam in his father’s eye. If in those days one of those sabermetricians had offered me a job as an assistant, I would’ve dropped out of grad school in an instant.

So in many ways it has been enormously gratifying to me to see the undoubted insights and revelations of serious statistical study make their way into the practices of professional baseball. But such changes have had some unforeseen consequences, and my post was largely about those.

This, by the way, is what those of us with a conservative disposition are supposed to do: When everyone else is running to embrace some new exciting opportunity, we warn that there will be unforeseen consequences; and then, when we have been (as we always are) ignored, we help conduct the postmortem and point out what those consequences actually were. (I was, needless to say, not allowing my conservative side to have a voice when I was so absorbed in sabermetrics — but that was because I never for one second imagined that people running professional baseball organizations would pay attention.)

Now, we might actually like the new opportunity. We might think that on balance it’s worthy to be pursued. So we don’t necessarily stand athwart history shouting Stop. We might instead stand judiciously to the side and quietly ask Do you know what you’re getting into? Because there will be trade-offs. There are always trade-offs.