Sometimes, certain disputes and wrangles can inspire you with an idea. Listening to arguments have a tendency to splash you with your own view on the topic.
Sitting back on a Saturday night, living the peaceful life, something caught my eye. A clash between two terrific writers was in full effect, which included the dilemma of advanced statistics.
In a context that I’m not particularly fond of — Major League Baseball — I found myself stuck between two conflicting stances. Keep in mind, with baseball, advanced statistics have grown into a level none of us truly imagined.
Wins Above Replacement (commonly known as WAR), Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), and Peripheral ERA (PERA) all share the same common ground: Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron would look at their computer like it’s a mass murderer if they came across those figures. In fact, perhaps 90 percent of the league’s player pool would do the same today. But, today you have guys that are more open to the new mathematical ways, curious to see how they stack up with their peers and opponents.
How would this be from a basketball standpoint? More importantly, is it becoming the modern way to write about the sport? Does your every day reader enjoy the drenching of advanced metrics more than the narrative?
The primary issue with this battle inevitably rides on how you define the every day reader … or the “casual fan.”
A personal perspective of the casual fan is the middle-aged dad (or mom) at an NBA game, seeking just to enjoy the on-court action while having family time with their spouse and children, maybe enjoying a beverage.
Then, there’s other connotations of what a casual fan may be. Are the die-hard Twitter nazis, who live tweet a game or two a night from home considered casual? No, you’re now entering the area I like to label the “radical fan.” Those would find the new-age stats intriguing, and especially beneficial to their understanding of the game. Anything that facilitates their knowledge and gives them firepower to use for their own player comparisons will be encouraged.
It’s commonly known that online readers are typically dissecting information at an 8th-10th grade reading level. Now, wait, cool it — it doesn’t necessarily mean millions of people out there reading from afar are “uneducated,” or ineffectual as it pertains to reading. It distinctly doesn’t mean the majority of America should be considered “idiots.”
In some odd transformation, we’ve seemed to jump to the conclusion that if you’re not brilliant and astute, then you automatically belong on the opposite end of the spectrum. What happened to the middle class of intelligence?
Currently attending college and still learning new techniques, I’m not ever going to label myself a first-rate mind. I’ll fall more into the middle of the spectrum, which is perfectly fine and easy to accept. Others shouldn’t take it as such as insult that a 8th-10th grade reading level is the average. After all, isn’t the term average referring to the mathematical mean of a set of data? Thus, there are some extreme highs and extreme lows, but only one number can give an accurate representation.
In basketball — specifically the NBA — advanced stats are growing on us. It’s not going to be controlled, and there’s no slowing it. What we have to do, as writers, is ensure that our content properly approaches it with the right introduction. It’s the explanation that matters, not the general statistic.
When discussing Win Shares through writing, I’m convinced the causal reader does care. They are appealing, because it’s letting them know much players are contributing to their favorite teams, if they’re helping the cause for a playoff push, or if there’s a decline in overall production from season to season.
If you preface your comments on Win Shares with a simplistic introduction on the matter, anyone is capable of understanding it. “Win Shares estimate the amount of wins a single player contributes to his team during a season.” If that’s the case, even your casual fan will care.
However, when you want to explore exactly how a Win Share is calculated, that’s when you’ll lose your casual fan. In order to determine how many Offensive Win Shares should be given to a player, you have to dive into a whole different world. Calculating points produced for a player, offensive possessions for the player, marginal offense for the player, marginal points per win, and then dividing those last two metrics would indicate one’s Win Shares.
If you don’t think you’d lose an audience diving deep into the formulas, you’re crazy.
That’s where the casual fan kicks in, as they aren’t as attracted to the hardcore numbers as the passionate basketball folks.
Take Effective Field Goal percentage as another profound example.
If you’re the casual fan that just wants to read about the ups and downs of your team, what main factors are you going to use in your discussions? When you do happen to talk about basketball — which isn’t all the time if you’re defined as “casual” — you’ll find yourself bringing up points per game, assists, rebounds, turnovers, and the basic shooting percentages. Regular field goal percentages, one’s 3-point percentage, and free throw efficiency are really all you care about.
Are the casuals going to care (or even understand) the principles around Effective Field Goal Percentage?
I happen to believe they will, if introduced correctly and put into context. But, on the surface, I’m positive they’ll never change their attitudes while talking in every day conversations. You won’t hear them at a live sporting event spewing off the advanced numbers.
For a one time reading, though, what’s the harm in giving your average readers something new, something bright, if you explain it correctly? There is none. It brings more to the table.
In a column earlier this offseason, I dove into Effective Field Goal percentages, and how they differ from the general field goal numbers:
“Oliver’s shooting facet involves determining a player or team’s Effective Field Goal Percentage, rather than just a normal mathematical field goal percentage. This allows for analysts to account for 3-pointers being worth more than a regular field goal. It’s become the best way to determine how well a person can score from all areas on the floor.”
In order to help the casual fan grasp how much advanced statistics matter, you have to offer examples. You have to go the extra mile to explain them “in plain English,” or they’ll never become attracted to your writing.
Leaving the reader overly-confused is just as harmful as verbally blasting your readers. Both will have negative effects, and that’s not the goal of writing. Since we know the average reading level is lower than expected, it’s our job to break things down and lessen the confusion. If we don’t, we’re failing.
If you’re the average reader that enjoys today’s modern NBA game, part of me has the feeling you’ll care more about the story, the narrative, more than the hardcore numbers.
The narratives surrounding each player offers something advanced numbers usually don’t; opinions and arguments. With the hardcore evidence used by implementing advanced stats, there’s not a lot of wiggle room to dispute. Sure, a fan/reader can offer their take on why that certain number doesn’t hold a lot of value to their favorite player.
But, in most cases, readers will love bickering about a certain player or team’s story, their journey through the league, and how well they performed without using numbers. Don’t believe it? Take a look at how much people invest in Jeremy Lin opinions the second you say he’s a bottom-tier point guard, or due to have a great season.
People care more about the story aspect of things, but advanced numbers can be helpful in support of the story. More than anything, the point that I think was missed in the feud I watched Saturday evening, was that these two things can complement one another. More than being detrimental to a written piece, the crazier metrics can be used to support your claims.
Writing, similar to everything else on Earth, is all about presentation and engagement.
When interviewing for a job, how do you try to hide your deficiencies? You try to look smart, sound smart, and have the right attitude. Presentation goes a long way, even if you aren’t qualified for something. Using advanced numbers in a narrative works the same way; although the reader may not be too interested or invested, they WILL be if you learn how to present them.
Above all else, isn’t the conflict resting on the fact we keep calling these difficult numbers “advanced?”
It turns people off more than anything, if they know what they’re diving into is “advanced.” Sure, it’s the proper term because it does take advanced calculations to determine them. But, the outcome of the formulas can usually be explained in one given sentence, such as “Usage Rating determines how many of a team’s plays are used by one player.” Is that too “advanced” for the normal reader to comprehend? Even for the lower-tier eyes, I firmly believe not.
Place these growing advanced stats into the general ones, with field goal percentage and the rest of the crew. With more exposure to the casual public, things become easier to understand once folks have experience dealing with them.
The casual fan desperately wants the best writers to pay attention to their squads, and give them the acknowledgement they deserve. Leaping into a world of fancy metrics is something each writer should entertain, regardless if it’s the main style that dominates their pieces.
As this age digs deeper into the 21st century, there’s something we have to keep in mind. Education is increasing, and our typical definition of the “casual” fan will only disappear as time goes by. Fans are smarter than ever before, and that’s not something that tends to move downward through history.
As the world’s average level of intelligence grows, fans will buy more into the analytics.
If there’s one thing we can’t disagree on … it’s that statistics won’t become more basic. They will eventually reach an even wackier side of “advanced.” The fans’ appreciation of them will rise in correlation.