How I learned to stop worrying and love data (in sports and beyond)

By John Irwin

I was wrong.

It was February 2013, and a column written by sophomore me appeared in Central Michigan Life, where I was an editor at the time. It was about an issue near and dear to my heart: baseball.

And in defending the sport I’m most passionate about, I made an egregious error: I tried to be funny and failed. I mean, look at that horrendous pun I used in my old column: “Make love, not WAR”? Come on, 19-year-old me. Sure, you were young, but you were better than that.

Also, I threw statistics out the window in favor of my gut feelings. Call it a truthiness moment, if you will.

I was ranting against Wins Above Replacement, a statistic used by baseball fanatics to determine a player’s relative worth. The higher a player’s WAR, the higher his value to the team. As young, naive Irwin explains:

Here’s WAR in a nutshell: By calculating a player’s UZR, BABIP, pythagorean record and other statistics through a linear rates system (no, I don’t know what any of that means), we get a number. The number is supposedly how many wins that player gives a team over his backup.

Opponents of WAR, such as myself, like to point out that tangible statistics — think hits, batting average, home runs — should be given precedence when deciding the value of a player. Because, you know, they’re measures of actual happenings on the baseball field and not the result of an obscure calculation very few understand.

It’s still infuriating that some gave rookie superstar Mike Trout consideration for MVP over the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, the first winner of the coveted Triple Crown since 1967, because of WAR.

I stand by that last statement. Cabrera certainly deserved the 2012 MVP over Trout.

And I also stand by my defense of simpler, tangible statistics like RBI counts as serious ways to analyze the game.

But I am ashamed of my younger self for failing to recognize the value of statistics and data in sports.

As the Detroit Tigers kicked off their season yesterday, it was abundantly clear yet again, as it is every year, that baseball, like most sports, is a numbers game. It hasn’t always been, but it has morphed into one.

This is a good thing. Pitchers and catchers are more easily able to prepare against opposing hitters, analyzing their weak spots. Hitters can do the same in return. Managers can more effectively put on defensive shifts, as has increasingly been the case over the last couple of years. And fans can better appreciate the flow of the game — or can better be upset over how much a player is getting overpaid (see: Justin Verlander).

Similar principles can be applied to the real world, as well. I’ve grown to appreciate data and statistics as tools to view the world, not just sports, in a different light. Numbers don’t lie, after all, and they can expose truths normally hidden in our everyday experiences. Just over the past year, number-crunching has allowed us at Insider to shine a light on everything from budget shortfalls at Central Michigan University to who is to blame for decreased funding from the state of Michigan, and more.

And far more sophisticated statisticians and data journalists like Nate Silver have perfected the art of allowing numbers to expose new truths about our politics, economy and lifestyles.

Obviously, data is not the end-all. There is something great to be said about the “eye test,” both in sports and in more serious matters. But numbers, even complex ones, shouldn’t be disregarded simply because they do not have a simple explanation. There is a good reason so many statisticians rally behind them.

So, to my younger self and to anyone else skeptical of advanced statistics like WAR: Never give up your batting averages and RBIs. But don’t dismiss complex numbers only because you don’t completely understand them immediately. It’s likely that, if you give them a chance, they’ll reveal something completely new to you.

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