Bob Ryan penned the latest edition of an article in which a sportswriter complains about all these new-fangled stats everybody’s using nowadays. He writes that back in his day, managers only got stats on little index cards and went with their guts. Ryan says he feels compelled to keep up with the stats junkies lest he be viewed as a Luddite, then asks if the average fan truly cares about the stats.
The answer to that is an easy yes. Many fans are involved in fantasy baseball in some way, shape, or form and fantasy baseball is the most applicable use of Sabermetrics for the average fan. They may not understand the advanced stats themselves, but they visit websites that display and interpret them and they follow the writers on Twitter and participate in those writers’ live chats.
But the practical answer is that while the fans may not desire an intimate knowledge of the stats themselves, they do care if their favorite teams are abreast of the latest trends. As a Phillies fan, I’ve long been reading the criticism of GM Ruben Amaro for the organization’s slowness to adapt to the statistical zeitgeist. Generally speaking, teams that have adopted statistical analysis have experienced more success in recent years and it’s readily apparent. Fans don’t like watching their team lose, and a failure to utilize important, available information is one of several factors that goes into failing to reach the playoffs. Thus, fans like stats if it helps their team win.
Where Ryan really loses the argument is when he, like every other sportswriter to have made the case, says that numbers junkies can’t appreciate a baseball game. Ryan writes that they get angry at every decision a manager makes, be it lineup construction or bullpen usage. Would that every fan cared as much about the game that deeply — baseball might one day close the popularity gap between itself and the National Football League. And, by the way, casual fans are just as guilty of second-guessing. Everybody has that uncle who yells at the TV. If they don’t, it’s their dad.
Ultimately, Major League Baseball should hope that more and more fans care about the game enough to delve deep into the numbers. That kind of engagement creates a long-lasting relationship with the sport. How many kids grew to love and appreciate baseball by gawking at the numbers — even if they were batting average, home runs, and RBI — on the backs of baseball cards even as recently as 20 years ago? Instead of questioning whether fans really care to engage that deeply, we should be encouraging them specifically to engage that deeply.