Hunter: Searching for baseball questions

From Matt Hunter at The Hardball Times on March 21, 2013:

Questions. They're important. In fact, they're fundamental to sabermetrics and baseball research. They drive analysis, create discussion, and make for entertaining writing.

I first recall seeing the subject come up in a piece by Dave Cameron last month, in which he claimed that "a good stat is simply the answer to a question that is commonly asked."

A month later, I attended the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix, and there, Bill James spoke about the importance of questions for sabermetrics, saying that "what's critical is to be able to find a question that has an answer, and you don't know what that answer is." Following the conference, I picked up on what I'm sure has always been happening: writers laying out and sometimes answering interesting questions, such as Ben Lindbergh's 15 Questions I've Been Asking Myself Since the SABR Conference and a recent article by Jeff Sullivan in which he led with the assertion that the "core purpose of FanGraphs" is to answer questions.

I love this. I studied philosophy in college. All I did was ask questions. Do we have free will? What is knowledge? Is time continuous? How should we make judgments about moral responsibility? Sure, it's fun to argue about the answers to these questions, but the true genius philosophers are those who asked the questions in the first place. It's impossible to make progress or have rational discussions if you don't even know what you're arguing about.

Ok, back to baseball. With this idea in mind, particularly Cameron's claim that a good stat should answer a common question, I wondered what questions the most common traditional statistics or metrics are trying to answer. We're all quick to dismiss pitcher wins and RBI as flawed and inferior to other stats, but before we can dismiss them, we need to know what question they are trying to answer. Once we have a question, we can figure out whether there is a better answer out there.

But finding a question for the answer that is the statistic is not as easy as it seems. As I see it, there are varying "levels" of questions that we can ask. First, there's the "surface level" question. This is the question that the statistic literally answers, including all contributing factors and exceptions. The surface level question for fWAR, for example, might be, "What is the sum of the player's batting, base-running, fielding, and positional runs above what a replacement level player would provide, adjusted to a win scale?" (or something of the sort).

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This page was last updated March 21, 2013 at 11:58 am MST.