Some polite comments on Mac Engel’s article “Mathematics is not a friend of baseball”

Perhaps Mac Engel is a brilliant satirist or perhaps he is just trying to get people to pay attention to him.

As a statistician, I’m going to make an assumption (that’s what us stats guys do), and I’ll start by assuming that Engel is indeed sincere in his belief that “Mathematics is not a friend of baseball” in his article of the same title. Assuming this is true, it seems clear to me that he doesn’t really have any idea what he is talking about.

Engel’s article opens with some jokey, over-the-top claims about math in sports (number-crunching will ruin your kid’s dodgeball game!). But his overall point appears to be in earnest. In his second paragraph (if you can call anything in this a paragraph; it’s more collection of individual sentences) he says (emphasis added):

Scores of math whizzes, nerds and live-in-their-parent’s-basement geeks are threatening to turn Royals at Rangers into a Bobby Fisher vs. Boris Spassky chess match, minus the intellect.

This sentence demonstrates clearly that Engel does not understand the nature of statistics today and how they are applied to baseball.

First, the phrase “live-in-their-parent’s-basement geeks” is being used derogatorily here to indicate that statisticians are losers unable to function in society, and are thus relegated to their parents’ basements because of their personal and professional failures. This was my first indication that Engel has no idea what he’s talking about. These “live-in-their-parent’s-basement” geeks surely exist , but in today’s world these geeks more often come in a different variety: the employed-in-a-recession-six-figure-income kind. (There’s also the rock-star-stats-geek like Nate Silver, who is more important to the New York Times’ website traffic than most of its regular journalists.) While journalism jobs are rapidly disappearing, jobs based on data are expanding so rapidly that there are not enough people with the skills to fill these positions.  Nearly all of the successful businesses in the world know the value of data (see: Book, Face) and you can argue that one of the big differences between Obama and Romney in the last election was how the two campaigns handled, managed, and took action based on data and analysis (Obama embraced it, Romney largely ignored it; how did that work out?). The point is, the best way to make decisions is when those decisions are based on data and appropriate analysis. Baseball is a game where many decisions must be made, and those decisions can best be made when they are aided by data.

Secondly, Engel seems to fail to grasp a major difference between chess and baseball: chess is deterministic; baseball is not. Every time a chess player moves Bg5, the bishop gets there with certainty, whereas in baseball, not every routine fly ball will get caught (and sometimes they bounce off your head and go over the fence). He correctly notes that this uncertainty is what makes baseball exciting. As he says: “Math is never wrong. Baseball very much is, which is why I love it.” I’m not sure exactly what he means by “math is never wrong,” but when he says “baseball very much is,” I assume he is implicitly referring to random event outcomes. And this is precisely why math, specifically statistics and probability, is useful in making decisions in baseball. Statistics and probability give us a principled way to quantify uncertainty about events that have occurred in the past and events that will happen in the future. Statistics can’t say what is going to happen on any given play with certainty (e.g., Miguel Cabrera will hit a home run in this at-bat), but it can help someone to make statements about how likely an event is to occur (e.g., Miguel Cabrera is more likely to hit a home run in an at-bat than Norichika Aoki). And just because we can’t say with certainty what will happen on any given trial doesn’t mean that it isn’t useful. There are entire companies that exist based on events that might only occur 1 in 1000 times (think click-throughs on an ad, or responses to fake Viagra emails).

So what numbers and maths are specifically ruining baseball in the opinion of Engel? Is it the often cited and complicated wins above replacement (WAR) statistic? Nope. Is it the opaque Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR)? No, not that either. The entire rest of the article is about how math has ruined the game and made us a “prisoner to all of these bleepin’ numbers,” and his example is: PITCH COUNTS!

Pitch counts are an example of math in baseball in the same way that page numbers are an example of math in literature. If you think numbers and math are ruining baseball, which I disagree with thoroughly, I’m sure you can make a reasonable argument, but you need to be more persuasive than talking about pitch counts. There is a reason the Oakland A’s won all those regular season games with their tiny payroll, and it wasn’t simply luck. They were making better decisions that everyone else at the time because they were using data in a better way than their opponents, and it gave them an advantage in the long run.

So what I’m trying to say is that math and statistics aren’t ruining baseball. Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to go do the dishes. I can hear my mother yelling at me from upstairs.


Posted on June 5, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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