Criticizing Sabermetrics in the Early ’80s

The following are two excerpts from journalism on sabermetrics in the early 1980s. I reprint them here because they display two of the major themes that have apparently come up in criticisms of sabermetrics from the very beginning on up to today. This letter to the Toronto Globe and Mail, titled “Slippery Swami” and appearing on Thursday, May 24, 1984, said of the paper’s Bryan Johnson:

Your Swami of Sabermetrics, Bryan Johnson, is proving himself to be a very slippery and resilient swami. His method is like that of a salesman who, having forced his way into your home and set up his demonstration before you can protest, finally has to be physically ejected from the premises.

And what is he selling? Q: (to sabermetrician) Were Baltimore Orioles the best team in baseball last year? A: It’s too early to say. They did win the World Series, but that was only because they were able to score more runs more often than their opponents. However, if we look at this in terms of ballpark distortion, and if we take into account other erroneous and misguided perceptions of reality . . . Would you buy a used World Series from a guy in an orange Rabbit? Terry Finn Toronto

And, in Daniel Okrent’s profile of Bill James in Sports Illustrated in 1981, Okrent didn’t really criticize James, but he did describe James’s absentmindness and his disengagement from the physical world sport takes place in:

Driving home one night with a friend from a Royals game in Kansas City, James stopped for a lonesome red light while delivering a brilliant soliloquy on the statistical evidence of Shortstop Freddie Patek’s decay as an effective player. The traffic light changed to green, and then it changed back to red. It changed to green again, back to red and back to green again before James’ disquisition ran its course and he returned to earth. “Oh, the light’s changed,” he said, and proceeded calmly down the road. . . .

His father, George, 74, who still lives in Mayetta, Kans. (pop. 246), where Bill was raised, says of his son’s boyhood, “Mostly, Bill had his nose in books, but he was a baseball nut, too, like a lot of other people. He was just nuttier than most.” And a lot smarter, too. Unfortunately, a statistician’s mythology is not like that of a fastball pitcher; we have no mental picture of young Bill hurling stats at the side of a barn, sharpening his nominal curve.

James also made the point that baseball is a dream for sports-minded statisticians and mathematicians because it so thoroughly tracks the movements of the players during a game: “A baseball field is so covered with statistics that nothing can happen there without leaving its tracks in the records. There may well be no other facet of American life, the activities of laboratory rats excepted, which is so extensively categorized, counted and recorded.”

Published in: on November 12, 2009 at 5:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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