“Does Everything Have to be Measured?”

This was an insightful question asked by a friend last month on Facebook, from a longtime mentor and former colleague who is a lapsed baseball fan. He read a review of Keith Law’s book on statistics (I’m patiently waiting for the paperback) and posted:

Why does everything have to be measured? My past delight in the game was fueled by what I understood and didn’t quantify, like understanding that runners didn’t even try to steal on certain catchers.

I’m no math whiz but I have a fair background in baseball statistics, professionally and as a fan. And with those fuzzy credentials I can confidently say: Yes. Yes, we should measure whatever we can. And the reason is that some of those measurements — perhaps even just a few of them — will help us gain a better understanding and appreciation of not only how the game works, but also improve our use of the most meaningful and telling statistics derived from those measurements (more on that later this week).

The big caution here is data overload, and making poor conclusions (or creating poor stats) from the data. We have had a virtual explosion of baseball data over the past 10 years, thanks to in-park telemetry that literally captures thousands of data points every game. And some of that data is erroneous, or missing — remember, this is still new technology — so we don’t yet truly know what all of the data is revealing. But it’s revealing something. The next challenging wave will be, over the years, to separate those telemetry data signals from the noise (using Nate Silver-speak) and produce even better, more accurate statistics.

And just why would we want to do that? Because we love the game. And statistics help fuel that love. It’s NOT an either/or proposition here (scouts vs stats; what I see vs what I compute; analytics vs observation). One part informs the other. I can enjoy a beautiful Clayton Kershaw curveball or a stunning catch by Jackie Bradley Jr or an Aaron Judge bomb … AND I can enjoy using statistics to help discover whether Kershaw is on pace to be the best pitcher of all time, and just how special was that JBJ home-run robbery, and where Aaron Judge’s rookie season ranks on the all-time list. Without the on-field game, the sport becomes a mere spreadsheet. Without the numbers, the sport becomes a repetitive blur, unfocused and without form — 700,000 pitches each season, signifying nothing. I need both.

And even as we have learned so much more about statistics (and thus the game) in the past 30 years, the “delight in what we understand and cannot quantify” will always be there. Despite the millions of data points and the thousands of numbers at our disposal, we’ve merely made a dent in our knowledge of this simple yet complex game, still completely unpredictable, still a sport where the very best teams in history win only two out of three games, and the very worst of the worst go home winners at least 50 times a year.

So measure it. Measure it all, dump the numbers that we discover are meaningless, and let the rest fuel our knowledge, enjoyment, and understanding of this most lovely and most mysterious sport.

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