A Guide to Sabermetric Research: Benefits

Sabermetrics has a mixed reputation in the outside world. In mainstream sportswriting, it’s sometimes seen as something nerds do from their parents’ basements, something real sportswriters don’t need because they see all the games and know all the players. In academia, it’s not always respected as serious research, because it often doesn’t fit into any specific established discipline (although economists are starting to get involved), because it often doesn’t use enough fancy math, and because it’s “only” about baseball. And it used to be that in baseball itself, sabermetrics was not perceived to be anything that would be of use to the insiders of a major-league team.

But the situation in MLB is changing, perhaps due to Moneyball (Norton, 2004), Michael Lewis’ story of how Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics used sabermetrics to build a winning team on the cheap. In 2003, the Red Sox hired Bill James. Since then, other teams have hired statistical analysts and begun advertising for similar positions.

Still, the serious study of baseball through its statistics isn’t taken all that seriously outside of the Moneyball crowd. Over the past couple of years, there have been several university professors who have had their schools issue a press release when they came up with something sabermetric. Usually, those academic studies aren’t any more worthy of special recognition than many other studies published on the Internet at the same time. But I guess baseball is a subject that many consider less serious, than, say, sociology, so the idea that people study it in earnest becomes a bit of a novelty.

Even if the wider world doesn’t see sabermetrics as completely serious, its practitioners do. In one recent university press release, the professor expresses his interest in someday getting his “dream job” doing sabermetric consulting for a major-league team. That’s something a lot of sabermetricians would be interested in, obviously. Many have already gotten there, in recent years.

But there will probably always be more sabermetricians than employment opportunities. For most of us, the motivation for sabermetrics is not the glamour of having an inside job with a baseball team, but just our interest in baseball. And scientific curiosity is a big factor too. Because of the abundance of cheap data, its relative neglect by the academic community, and the fact that the science is so young, sabermetrics is perhaps the best serious field where part-time researchers can routinely make the most significant discoveries. And there’s a certain thrill in creating new knowledge, discovering something that nobody knew before.

And if the thrill of scientific discovery isn’t enough, the fact that those discoveries are about baseball — for many, our favorite subject on earth — is icing on the cake.


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