On being skeptical about Bill James’ skepticism about skepticism

Of course I recommend reading Joe Posnanski’s new piece about Bill James. And of course the timing couldn’t be any better, since before Bill went to work for the Red Sox, he was the world’s most famous Royals fan.

But if you already know the back-story, here’s a bit of new material worth some discussion:

Right now, Bill James thinks this sort of arrogance can be dangerous in the sabermetric community. There is more baseball data available now than ever before, and the date grows exponentially. "Understanding cannot keep up with the data," he says. "It will take many years before we fully understand, say, some of the effects of PITCHf/x (which charts every pitch thrown). It’s important not to skip steps."

He sees smart baseball analysts and fans get mesmerized by the data and lose touch with their own basic understanding of the world. People are becoming skeptical of everything, including things that don’t deserve skepticism. During this World Series, many people — yours truly, included –€“ attacked the strategy of baseball managers without considering that the manager has much more information than we do and that there are so many things that none of us know, no matter how detailed the statistics.

He groans whenever he hears people discount leadership or team chemistry or heart because they cannot find such things in the data. He has done this himself in the past, and regrets it.

"I have to take my share of responsibility for promoting skepticism about things that I didn’t understand as well as I might have," he says. "What I would say NOW is that skepticism should be directed at things that are actually untrue rather than things that are difficult to measure.

"œLeadership is one player having an effect on his teammates. There is nothing about that that should invite skepticism. People have an effect on one another in every area of life. We all affect another’s work. You just can’€™t really measure that in an individual-accounting framework."

Directing skepticism at things that are difficult to measure … As I’ve mentioned a few times, I have ABSOLUTELY been guilty of that, and the example I usually cite is pitch-framing. Tim McCarver used to rave about it, and routinely expressed my skepticism. Because a) it didn’t make a lot of sense to me (why wouldn’t the umpire just focus on the baseball and the plate? why would the catcher matter?) … and b) there wasn’t any way to measure it.

Of course, now we know that pitch-framing or something like it is quite real. We’ll probably be arguing about how real for some years, or at least until the strike zone is automated (not that I’m advocating such a thing).

But how many things like pitch-framing are out there, really? And how many of those things won’t be illuminated soon by OMGf/x?*

* Yeah, I know it’s StatCast. Still haven’t made my peace with that, though. Did they have to choose the most generic name for something so exciting?

More broadly, I will agree with Bill that arrogance is dangerous in sabermetrics, just as it’s dangerous in nearly every endeavor. If you think you know everything, you’re not going to learn anything. Which is the point of the whole thing. But Bill has admitted many times that he doesn’t keep up with the latest work being done, and almost nobody could keep up with everything. I don’t keep up with everything, either, and I probably avoid, whether consciously or not, the more arrogant material out there.

That said, I just don’t see a lot of arrogance. I see a lot of skepticism, which is a good thing. I see more and more writers grappling with more and more issues of exceptional complexity … and if we wrote about only those things that are unequivocably untrue, we wouldn’t have a great deal to write about.

So no, I don’t know with metaphysical certitude that Billy Butler has a significantly better chance than Mike Moustakas of hitting Madison Bumgarner. But I’m sure enough that I’m willing to write about it. And I think Bill would write the same thing, if he were free to do that.