Sabermetrics: The art of numbers in sports

Sabermetrics disintegrates bias and discrimination when judging players; numbers are immune to such fallacies.

Samee Zahid June 06, 2012
So, it was when Scott Hatteberg hammered a home run for the Oakland Athletics (Oakland A's) on September 5, 2002 that baseball had a new ideology to celebrate. The Oakland A’s had made the 20th consecutive groundbreaking win, all due to their manager, Billy Beane’s, fascinating, albeit controversial, stratagem to incorporate ‘sabermetrics’ into the baseball universe.

First put forward by Bill James, sabermetrics relies on the tactical analysis of baseball games and players by utilising objective and empirical data. In layman’s terms, it is the philosophy of using numbers and statistics to make decisions and value judgments. This success galvanised and reshaped the modus operandi of not only baseball teams, but of teams in all sports fields the world over.

The victory symbolised the coming of age of an ideology; an ideology that had finally silenced its critics.

In football, the implications of sabermetrics are highly tentative. Analysts and experts term the presence of a myriad variables in the game, as the primary reason as to why this method will ultimately fail.

However, they are oblivious to the vitriolic criticism sabermetrics faced when it was initially introduced.

Billy Beane and his understudy Paul DePodesta were labelled ‘idiots’ and were accused of following the "stupid work of college professors, which had no place in baseball."

This showcases that, like in any paradigm shift, change will be met with heavy resistance. And, it is no surprise that the ones who were naively carping upon Beane were majorly scouts, whose jobs would definitely be threatened by the rise in workload that they were intent on suffocating and eliminating from their field of work. They look upon their work as an art form–an acquired skill.

Numbers are insentient, therefore how could they replace them? If teams found out that statistics are more efficient than scouts, these scouts would be out of jobs. After all, when numbers can be a sure shot in attempting to value and judge a certain player, why would want to employ an individual to carry out a subjective study on that player?

Essentially, the sport of football has, for time immemorial, been stagnant and opposed to any form of change. When compared with other forms of sport, football has been the one to have undergone the least amount of evolutionary activity within its system. Not only the sport itself, but management styles and tactics have remained largely the same.

The reason?

Romanticism.

This is a game that is possessed by an overwhelming amount of nostalgia and love for the past. Ask any football fan and he will dreamily reminisce about Pele’s meteoric rise in the 1958 World Cup, or how Diego Maradona single-handedly demolished the English team in the 1986 edition. Such fans later become managers, and their lives become devoted to traditional approaches that might achieve the same results as their predecessors.

[[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk-kXwjASEE]]

Even when you might have the odd discrepancy here and there, football overall is conservative. Liberal methods and strategies lack the support and are never wholly advocated, even by their users. But, when you have solid evidence in support of your method (like the Oakland A’s, and the Red Sox) things are likely to change.

So, how would you actually implement sabermetrics within the footballing scope?

One obvious answer would be that, it would help a team when it needs to select the appropriate players for its squad. If player A has a better goals-per-game ratio than player B, the former would certainly get the nod in the first team.

Secondly, when managers are enveloped in a sport containing a plethora of talented individuals, and they’re in a rut deciding who to get and who not to, such number crunching becomes particularly helpful in developing a shortlist.

Players can be thoroughly examined as per their statistical achievements and if potential is observed, then further scouting can take place. It is imperative to consider that sabermetrics disintegrates any possibility of bias and discrimination when judging players; such a flaw only exists within the realm of human scouts. Numbers are immune to such fallacies.

If it can be unanimously agreed upon in the future that, sabermetrics does in fact work, then what would be the practical consequences of such a concurrence?

Would firms start noticing that numbers do accurately represent their employees?

Currently, a clear answer cannot be found. However, it can be undoubtedly said that, there indeed will be a ripple in the professional world when such a proclamation becomes standard knowledge.

Follow Samee on Twitter @Samee_24
WRITTEN BY:
Samee Zahid A first year A Level student hopelessly in love with the world of football who aspires to one day be successful in the field of finance and banking. Has a strong penchant for philosophy and logical constructs and tweets @Samee_24
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

COMMENTS (32)

Abdullah | 8 years ago | Reply There are firms out there that do statistics on football such as Opta and have started to be extensively used by some teams to evaluate players. There are websites such as http://www.whoscored.com/ that provide detailed statistical analysis on each player in the top 5 European leagues. @King Crimson players like Xavi and Scholes have extremely high passing accuracy with Xavi at 92% and Scholes around that 90 % level. The point is there are stats out there and can be used. Damien Comolli was has been part of unsuccessful signings at Tottenham as well and cannot be used as an isolated example on the failure of statistics.
Doosam | 8 years ago | Reply Good article by Samee. After seeing "Moneyball" I have been thinking the same and realized how far behind sports like cricket and football are in using science as compared to American sports. The 4 big American team-sports (baseball, American football, ice-hockey, basketball) are far ahead of the rest of the world in respect of using statistics and science in general to improve performance. They record an insane amount of stats for each player and the players have to be highly specialized for their position, for e.g. in baseball you can’t just be a good batter, you have to be an expert outfielder and specialize in that fielding position (e.g. 1st baseman, short-stopper etc.) to be able to make the team. Cricket and football can learn a lot from baseball and American football in recording stats that may not seem so obvious but do provide vital info over a period of time. For example, in baseball they record everything from a dropped catch, missed field, missed-throw and what not, and then assess a player’s potential. Cricket on the other hand is not doing it to that extent (at least not in Pakistan, may be Australia/England teams could be doing better). This is all information and knowledge, and statistics/maths provides tools to record and use that information for one’s advantage. This is what the guys with the laptops (analysts) are doing and some may not like it (e.g. old schoolers like Javed Miandad) but these analysts know how to record and use those vital stats. Sport these days is not just an art form where you can find spot geniuses and prodigies like Wasim Akram or Maradona and draft them directly in the team. It’s a science as much as an art where not only stats/maths are used but also bio-mechanics, diet/nutrition, psychology and management techniques are used to enhance performance, and those who do can see the benefits. Examples include Novak Djokovic who attributes his record breaking 2011 season to improved nutrition, Australian cricket and hockey teams (they don’t giveaway their secrets but they do employ analysts and even import baseball fielding coaches and the results are there for everyone to see).
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