Thursday, September 20, 2012

I’m a Sabermetrician and I Oppose the Expansion of Instant Replay in Baseball

When it comes to baseball I define myself first and foremost as an adherent of the principles of sabermetrics. I define myself secondly as a baycurious fan (I root for the teams on both sides of the San Francisco Bay).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sabermetrics as the “the application of statistical analysis to baseball records.”

The Oxford English Dictionary does not yet include a definition for baycurious.

But let’s get back on topic. As I understand it, sabermetrics is the search for objective knowledge about baseball. Stats experts compile data on what happens on the field and use it to properly weight and value each action by a player as rigorously and independently as possible. The community of sabermetric friendly writers and bloggers then massage and interpret that information to convey it in a vaguely comprehensible manner to their readers and friends, the latter of which quickly learn to change the subject whenever possible.

So what I don’t understand is why it is assumed that sabermetricians and their less-mathematically-capable cohorts should be in favor of instant replay in baseball. Now, don’t get me wrong, if every play in baseball were subject to instant replay through either an NFL-style review system (shudder) or a more palatable fifth umpire setup, one element of uncertainty in the game would be removed. Sabermetric analyses would become slightly more indicative of the true talent levels of the players involved, but only slightly.

Think about it this way: Michael Bourn of the Atlanta Braves is a very fast runner, so far this year he has successfully stolen 39 bases in 50 tries, resulting in an very respectable 78% success rate. Many of those plays, by their very nature, were assuredly quite close, and it is entirely possible that through umpire error one, maybe even two or three of the times Bourn was thrown out at second he should have been called safe. In which case he would have achieved a success rate of 80, 82 or 84%, different to be sure, but it does not substantially alter Bourn’s objective value or the subjective way in which we perceive him. Had be been thrown out a few more times, it would had an equally noticeable, but hardly life-shatteringly negative effect on his statistics.

Instant replay could make sure that what happens on the field is slightly more objectively recorded. However, officiating mistakes have a negligible effect on the values of individual players and teams as the errors in judgment are (hopefully!) not the result of inherent biases against certain players or teams. Forcing the umpire to make a mistake is not, as it is insoccer, a repeatable skill. Thus the errors will come close enough to evening out over the aggregate that they will have an almost inconsequential effect on how we view individual players. As far as I can tell, the only measurable area in baseball in which players can influence the rulings of umpires through their own skills is that of pitch framing by catchers. As no one is seriously suggesting replacing home plate umpires with robots, this exception can be discounted.

Alright, so instant replay will only improve our understanding of the true skill level of baseball players slightly, but it is still an improvement, so why do I, a self professed sabermetrician (with admittedly non-existent math skills), oppose the expansion of instant replay?

I am not captive to the absurdly romantic notion of some “human element” being essential to true enjoyment of the game. When the umpires make a mistake I do not consider it a particularly beautiful aspect of my chosen leisure activity. What I do value, however, is the fact that when an umpire’s arm goes up, to signal either out or safe; that, as they say, is that. I can then whoop and holler, high five and fist bump (if I happen to be at an A’s game, I can do the Bernie lean), or I can curse and yell, and start to throw things and then recover my sanity just in time to express my frustration but avoid assault charges.

The one thing I do not want to do is wait.

Maybe I am just too much a part of the instant gratification, plugged in, ADD generation, but when my favorite player rounds third and heads for home I don’t want to wait for an official review to determine whether my celebration or consternation was warranted.

To me, the infinitesimal benefits to our statistical understanding of the game that would result from the expansion of instant replay are not out-weighed by the omnipresent fear, now part and parcel of football, that your moment of absurd excitement or even more absurd disgust will be cancelled out by a minutes-long trip to the review booth.

I have gracefully accepted the place of home run video review in baseball: the fences are too far away, the fans too close to the field, and the ballparks just too damn quirky to ignore the fact that when the ball reaches the seats, or at least appears to, the umpires need some help. However, just because I profess to be a sabermetrician, does not, and should not necessarily mean that I want replay expanded to the entire field. If you are in favor of instant replay I will of course respect your opinion even as I argue with you, I simply believe that you should not assume I am a member of the Joe Morgan-esque brigade of stats haters because I do not agree with the supposedly majority opinion on instant replay. The two need not be synonymous, just as sabermetrician need not conjure up images of pocket protectors, pale skin, and mother’s basements.