Steve Cameron: Baseball has gone VORP speed ahead

April 26, 2010 

STEVE CAMERON

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics."

-- Mark Twain

As a lifetime fan who also has been a sports journalist for a good share of my adulthood, I think I've earned the right to an opinion on numbers.

And what they mean to these games we love.

OK, here's the first -- and most critical -- thing to remember about statistics of any kind...

Anybody can be right, depending on what stat you choose and how you turn and twist the thing to fit your argument.

So why am I revved up today?

Well, I suppose it's because a very talented sports columnist, Bill Simmons of ESPN.com, seems to have sold himself out to the humorless number-crunchers who have buried baseball in something called "sabermetrics."

I was shocked when Simmons wrote a piece admitting that he'd fallen into the clutches of people like Bill James and others who have managed to convince baseball executives, mainstream journalists and even some serious fans that the sport is ALL about numbers.

Players aren't humans, they're statistics with uniforms.

The sabermetric crowd laughs aloud at the old, now-disgraced numbers we used to study on baseball cards -- batting average, homers, runs scored and RBIs.

These have been replaced with formulae like "OPS-plus."

(This is a complicated equation to combine on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted for the player's home park. When numbers are compared against a norm of 100, you wind up with something like Albert Pujols being 44 percent better in this category than an average player in 2009.)

No offense to Bill James, the guru of sabermetrics and a man determined to remove baseball's soul, but I don't need "OPS-plus" to know that Pujols was miles better than an ordinary schmuck.

The sabermetricians now have so many baffling stats within other stats, combined with idiotic acronyms, that the whole thing is laughable.

How much time does a fan want to spend at the ballpark learning about UZR (a defensive stat that supposedly tells you about a player by dividing the field into 64 zones), VORP, BABIP or FIP?

Does that sound like fun?

Meanwhile, I remain a Kansas City Royals fan -- I know, I know -- and just this week I caught parts of a couple games on TV.

There was a situation in Toronto where the Royals were trailing 2-0 in the sixth inning and one of the Jays stroked a two-out hit to center field.

The guy tried to stretch the thing into a double and should have been thrown out, but second baseman Alberto Callaspo got himself slightly out of position taking the throw. So he had to lunge clumsily out to attempt a tag, and when umpires see that on a fairly close play...

Safe.

Replays showed it was an out, but Callaspo's poor positioning "sold" the wrong call -- and what followed was a walk and a three-run homer to make it 5-0.

The stat boys will note pitcher Brian Bannister's inflated earned run average and all of that -- but three earned runs wouldn't exist if the silly Royals played good fundamental baseball.

You know, it was a cinch that with computers now integrated into every phase of daily life, eventually numbers would take over sports.

My first clue that we were headed down the wrong road occurred when pro football scouts began judging potential draftees by measuring things like vertical leap, time to run a course around cones, etc.

Me, I'll trust my eyes to see if a guy can play.

But personnel directors are terrified to buck the computer -- that same device that claimed Mike Singletary was too short to play middle linebacker in the NFL.

Right.

Do statistics have a place in sports?

Sure, if you take them in the proper context. And they don't have to be complicated, either.

Even using the most basic stats -- like runs scored in baseball -- if you take a 3-year or 5-year sample...

You're going to find that really good players have really good numbers.

Leave VORP to Mr. Spock, thank you.

Steve Cameron is a freelance columnist for the Sun-Star. He can be reached at stevecameron1000@gmail.com.

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