The Braves lost to the Mets on Thursday night. Shocker, I know. At this point, you shouldn’t be surprised by that kind of outcome, but hopefully you’ve long since made your peace with it. I know I have. However, that was not the only negative of the night for Braves fan watching the game on TV. During the top of the 7th inning, Chip Caray, Joe Simpson and Tom Glavine carried out a small-minded attack on sabermetrics that was troubling on two different levels. Not only did it demonstrate an unwillingness on the part of baseball commentators to continue learning about baseball, but it also cruelly belittled the efforts of an ever-expanding community of people dedicated to enriching our enjoyment of the game by learning as much as they can. This brand of aggressive ignorance can only mislead or alienate its viewers, doing everyone a great disservice by clinging to the past. I have definitely not made my peace with that.
The Braves commentators have the resources to learn about sabermetrics and discuss it thoughtfully on the air, allowing the casual fan to think about baseball through a potentially new but wonderfully intuitive prism. They also have the capacity to not discuss sabermetrics at all and essentially maintain the status quo. Clearly, that would not be my ideal scenario, but at least it would not do a great deal of harm. However, Joe and Tom chose a third option in which they argued without any evidence at all that stats which are any more sabermetric than ERA or RBI are completely useless, instead attributing their existence to nerds in mom’s basements needing to justify their existence in the baseball community.
So how did this all begin? Well, since Shelby Miller started the game and his well-publicized lack of run support has left him with a 5-14 record and a 2.86 ERA this season, Chip began a discussion about how to properly evaluate a pitcher. Tom jumped in first, arguing that the only stat he really trusts is innings pitched because he believes that official scorers ruling or not ruling an error can muck up the interpretability of ERA as a measure of a pitcher’s ability. In fact, this is a valid point and not even the biggest issue with ERA, but certainly not a reason to throw it out completely. Joe disagreed, arguing that ERA was invented “to balance a guy that may have a bad win/loss record but you check his ERA out and no he pitched pretty well”. Of course, why would you even need the win/loss record in that case?
However, they were in perfect agreement that nothing else was necessary. Instead, Tom said, “I mean, give me something, give me something else. Because I don’t know what else are you gonna use.” How about RA9 (runs allowed per 9 innings) instead of ERA to combat his concerns about official scoring? Maybe FIP or another defense independent ERA estimator? Not a peep! I do have to give credit to Chip for getting pretty close when he said, “It’s about run prevention more so than anything else. And really good pitchers prevent runs, and that is something directly in a pitcher’s control. If you don’t give up walks and hits, you’re gonna win.” Sadly, that’s as close as they would come to enlightenment.
Instead, Joe argued that, “We got insiders trying to justify what they do and now we got sabermetrics or these metrics guys trying to say, ‘Wait a minute I’ve come up with something new that I think is brilliant, I invented it.'”
Tom agreed, chiming in later with, “To me this just sounds like one of those things where these are the over-the-top sabermetrics people that are trying to make themselves more relevant.”
Without ever substantively discussing the pros and cons of any sabermetric stats, the broadcast team not only claimed that they serve no purpose, but additionally that the people who worked on creating them amount to nothing more than snakeoil salesmen. That is disappointing not only because of the blatant ignorance they demonstrate about the sport they are paid to discuss every night, but also because they double down on that ignorance by insulting the people who had the temerity to innovate and try to understand our beloved game better. There is no excuse for this lack of professionalism that encourages anti-intellectualism and reinforces hurtful stereotypes. In the end, it’s the viewers who lose out, and especially in a season like this one, they have endured more than enough losses. It’s time to raise the bar.
All quotes come from Brad Blackburn’s transcription of the telecast, which can be found here. I make a few stylistic modifications for maximum clarity.