Kang: Why are some new statistics embraced and not others?

From Jay Caspian Kang at the New York Times on August 29, 2017, with mention of SABR member Bill James:

For the casual, uninitiated baseball fan who tunes in every once in a while, this season’s home-run calls must sound as baffling as a Pentecostal sermon to an unbeliever. A baseball broadcast is, as much as anything, a string of synonyms in a familiar, comforting cadence. Words like ‘‘dinger,’’ ‘‘laser’’ and ‘‘punchado’’ take years to embed themselves into the game’s collective vocabulary, and there’s a graveyard full of home-run and strikeout calls that failed to do so or have fallen out of fashion. (My favorite among the dead: the understated yet effective ‘‘tater’’ for a home run.) Statistics have an even harder time gaining mainstream acceptance, so it must be strange for a newbie to tune in to a Yankees game this year and see Aaron Judge, baseball’s largest son, hit a towering shot into the bleachers and hear the commentator say something like, ‘‘Wow, that ball traveled out of here with an exit velocity of 115.3 miles per hour!’’

Judge, who has become a star this season and a major focus of some emerging statistical language, currently boasts the highest percentage of batted balls whose exit velocity exceeds 95 miles an hour. And according to Statcast, a network of cameras and fussy sensors that track nearly every movement on a baseball field, Judge’s home run against the Orioles in June that played on a weeklong loop on social media traveled 495 feet. (A blast hit in July by Whit Merrifield, the Kansas City Royals’ second baseman, was reputed to have gone 561 feet — just four feet shy of Mickey Mantle’s apocryphal 565-footer in 1953! — but was largely dismissed as a Statcast error, because it is pretty much impossible for anyone, especially middle infielders, to hit a baseball that far.)

Judge, a rookie right fielder, is not only one of the top producers in the categories of exit velocity and home-run distance; he leads the American League in home runs too. For a vast majority of baseball fans, the differences between these ways of describing what Judge is doing don’t really matter — at least not yet. Exit velocity and home-run distance can be thought of as ways to quantify how hard a player hits the ball. These calculations — along with another stat, launch angle, which describes the gradient at which a ball leaves a bat — mostly provide a sense of how much influence a batter exerts over the path of a baseball. But the ‘‘HR’’ as a stat roughly captures the same thing, plus it tells you the outcome. Balls smashed with high exit velocities and high launch angles can still turn into outs.

Read the full article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/29/magazine/why-are-some-new-statistics-embraced-and-not-others.html

Originally published: August 29, 2017. Last Updated: August 29, 2017.