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“The Nerds Are Winning”

Posted By Bill Baer On September 22, 2011 @ 2:08 pm In MLB,Philadelphia Phillies,Sabermetrics | 55 Comments

The quote in the title can be found in the latest article from one of FOXSports.com‘s most popular writers, Jason Whitlock. Whitlock’s article deals with the rise in popularity of Sabermetrics and how he thinks baseball’s science is ruining the sport. As expected, a lot of the feedback I saw was negative and Whitlock was roundly mocked as the article made its way around the Internet. I am not going to link to it here, but you can find it easily if you are interested in rewarding him with pageviews and ad revenue.

I am also not going to offer a rebuttal to his article. I imagine most of you who are reading this right now expected me to do a thorough fisking, but I’m not interested in doing that. Instead, I want to get on my soapbox for a bit.

Sabermetrics has made big strides over the past few years. Whitlock’s opinion used to be the majority opinion, but now, you’d be hard-pressed to walk into a press box and not see FanGraphs or Baseball Reference on most laptop screens. Whitlock said “the nerds are winning”, but he should have written that in the past tense. The nerds have already won.

If we have already won, why are we fighting? On Twitter, I saw many a comment calling Whitlock’s credibility into question. Others called him names, others mocked his intellectually-dishonest arguments. It’s the Internet, so that’s par for the course, but I just don’t see a need for it anymore. Saberists used to have to fight back with the bullies just to stay on the playground, but it’s our playground now.

I realize I’m not the best candidate to be offering this revelation, as I have engaged in more than my share of spats with writers over the validity of Sabermetrics. Some of them I felt were valid battles to fight, but in retrospect, there were a lot of pointless ones as well. In fact, even as recently as a year ago, you could invert Whitlock’s article and it would read like something I’d have written. “Traditionalists are ruining baseball. They take all of the critical thinking out of the game.”

Recently, though, I’ve done some thinking. The genesis of my worldview shift came with my other passion, Starcraft. When I’m not nerding it out with Sabermetrics, I’m nerding it out with Starcraft, whether I’m playing myself or following the competitive scenes in Korea and elsewhere. Like Sabermetrics, Starcraft has had to deal with its share of detractors, especially in the U.S. where the common view on video games is that they’re reserved only for loser nerds and that they are a waste of time. The Starcraft community has made strides in making their game palatable to the general population.

One of the biggest strides came when the IGN Pro League signed Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward. This signing was to Starcraft as Moneyball the movie was to Sabermetrics: it was a full-blown legitimization directly in the public eye, too big to be ignored. In both cases it was a validation of everything everyone involved in both parties had worked so hard to achieve. Naturally, though, there were still some detractors. Ben Golliver of CBS Sports wrote a condescending response to the Hayward news:

Well, not to go all Charles Barkley on you, but we have officially reached the point where we know for a 100 percent fact that the NBA is too soft. When a 21-year-old, 207 pound forward doesn’t immediately recoil in horror when asked to compare the stress and rigors of the NBA to a freaking science fiction video game we know that the NBA game has been cleaned up too much.  If a Zerg attack really gets his blood pumping as much as a game-winning shot, that’s a terrible look. We don’t want to live in a world where this can be true, do we?

The reaction within the Starcraft community was swift. Team Liquid, the largest non-Korean Starcraft website and forum, has a thread with over 350 replies and 27,000 views. The Reddit thread had over 350 comments with nearly 2,000 up- and down-votes. The Starcraft community even mobilized, responding to Golliver on Twitter. The overall response was eerily similar to every Sabermetric-to-traditionalist rebuttal. Some people made the effort to make point-by-point rebuttals, others resorted to name-calling and mockery.

Recently, though, I listened to this clip from Sean “Day[9]” Plott, one of the figureheads in the Starcraft community. To make a Sabermetric analogy, he is Starcraft’s Rob Neyer. Plott was asked how he responds to people who view Starcraft negatively. Plott said,

A big thing is to never, never be argumentative… just to be so happy about it.

If someone came up to me and was like “Starcraft is a dumb game. Do you have no friends or something?”

It’s easy to be like “What do you mean, it’s great. I have friends, here look at my Facebook account, I have 600 of them!”

But instead, if someone’s like “Ulgh, you play Starcraft.”

“Dude Starcraft is such a sweet game, do you play?” Like to like literally sidestep whatever terrible intro they did and go straight to the heart of it and be like “This game is awesome, do you play? It’s the greatest thing ever.” And to relentlessly hold that standpoint. [That's] kick ass.

This was a great thing to hear for me, personally. By nature, I’m an argumentative person, so when someone makes flawed arguments like Whitlock did in his article, it is very hard for me to resist the urge to argue with or correct them. But what Plott said resonated with me and it prompted a shift in my worldview.

As this blog became more and more popular, I became a spokesperson for Sabermetrics, at least within the Phillies community. In retrospect, I feel like I have failed in some ways in being a good spokesperson because I am too argumentative and, by nature, negative. In the future, I want to argue less and have conversations more. I want Sabermetrics to be inclusive rather than exclusive. I would like my fellow writers in the Sabermetric community to join me. Instead of calling out Whitlock and telling him how ignorant and close-minded he is, tell him what he’s missing with Sabermetrics. Tell him what you like about it, rather than telling him the reasons he doesn’t like it are invalid. And apply this to any Sabermetric detractors you encounter whether in real life or on the Internet. Support the Saberists doing yeoman’s work (ex. Colin Wyers, Mike Fast, Tom Tango, etc.) by helping to promote their research. Conversely, don’t reward detractors with pageviews and ad revenue by drawing attention to what they’re saying.

The nerds have already won. We no longer need to fight, we just need to maintain possession of the position we have now. Bring more people into the field. Give them reasons to see why Sabermetrics is so great. Run a positive campaign.


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