Sports Outside the Beltway

Behold the Dinosaur

Murray Chass delights in writing about baseball. But Murray Chass loathes the measures employed by younger analysts of the National Pastime. And he makes no bones about what he thinks about sabermetrics and the statistics that have been introduced into the sports lexicon by sabermetricians. Take it Murray:

I receive a daily e-mail message from Baseball Prospectus, an electronic publication filled with articles and information about statistics, mostly statistics that only stats mongers can love.

To me, VORP epitomized the new-age nonsense. For the longest time, I had no idea what VORP meant and didn’t care enough to go to any great lengths to find out. I asked some colleagues whose work I respect, and they didn’t know what it meant either.

Finally, not long ago, I came across VORP spelled out. It stands for value over replacement player. How thrilling. How absurd. Value over replacement player. Don’t ask what it means. I don’t know.

I suppose that if stats mongers want to sit at their computers and play with these things all day long, that’s their prerogative. But their attempt to introduce these new-age statistics into the game threatens to undermine most fans’ enjoyment of baseball and the human factor therein.

People play baseball. Numbers don’t.

How shockingly obtuse. Quickly a primer on VORP. The value over replacement player is a measure of the true value a baseball player brings to his team. To understand the statistic a fan needs to understand what is meant by a replacement player, as well. A replacement player is essentially a triple A callup or a guy the team can claim off the waiver wire at no cost. By definitional, a replacement player is someone who is not on the major league roster on opening day. He represents the minimal acceptable offensive output for a major league baseball player.

To calculate VORP, Baseball Prospectus uses a series of formulae to determine the theoretical statistical profile of a replacement player. That value is then compared to the actual performance of major league players. The idea of VORP is that it can quantify a players performance.

For example, Joe Mauer has a higher value over replacement player than does his teammate Justin Morneau. Mauer’s value is primarily because a replacement player at the catching position is typically woefully worse than a replacement player at first base. A replacement catcher would be Ken Huckaby, who in 161 career games has a line of .222/.256/.281. Mauer’s sparkling .347/.429/.507 is clearly superior. VORP measure how superior it is, while providing an apples to apples comparison for other players. VORP attempts to answer the question of what player made the biggest difference to his team in a given year.

Continuing the Twin theme, was Mauer, Morneau, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan or Francisco Liriano more valuable to the Twins? The answer according to VORP is Johan Santana, followed by Mauer, Morneau, Liriano and Nathan.

The biggest problem with VORP is that Baseball Prospectus keeps it a proprietary statistic. This is reasonable. Keith Woolner invented it and the information of how to compute it belongs to him. There is a downside. OPS, which is an intuitive statistic, has caught on, whereas VORP remains primarily within the parlance of sabermetricians and their mathematically challenged acolytes. This is changing as more and more writers, enabled by the modern free press of the Internet, comment on the utility of VORP and other modern statistical measures of baseball.

Chass’ complaints and snippiness are not solely because he can’t figure out VORP(either its meaning, utility or its computation), however. He is taking his annual shot at sabermetrics (yes, he snipped about Moneyball last February), because alternative ways of approaching baseball diminish his traditional way of evaluating players skill and talent. He sees the players play and therefore his judgment, like that of the all-seeing, all-knowing oracles of lore is unquestionable. Even if his judgment is patently questionable.

“Stat mongers”, as Chass derisively calls them, are trying to enhance a fan’s appreciation of the game by introducing new perspectives and new voices. The stifling of dissent by baseball writers is common. They preach about their rightness, whether it is that Bert Blyleven doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame or that winning a baseball game is the hardest thing you can do, even though it happens every time a game is played.

Chass’ comments have drawn a lot of fire in the blogosphere. The younger and more open-minded writers who are willing to give new statistics a chance, understand the nature of VORP and what the statistic was created to do. They want clarity and common sense in their discussion of sport. And most of all they cannot stand pompously ridiculous comments from curmudgeons.

Tim Savage, who tipped me to Chass’ column, wrote this:

Come on! As if legions of fans would drop their beers and run screaming for the exits if scoreboards at major league stadiums started flashing a players’ VORP instead of just his batting average, home runs, and RBI.

Chass’s crotchetiness is perhaps understandable. He has, after all, been doing his job for a long time, and it’s not surprising that he would resist the young whippersnappers who are coming in with all their newfangled computer stuff and taking attention away from the old time beat writers like himself.

What is shocking to me is the level of editorial oversight that would allow a column like this to be published, particularly in a paper that presumes to contain “all the news that’s fit to print.” Here a writer attacked an idea which he admitted he didn’t take the time to even try to understand. Now, I realize that Mr. Chass is very busy these days watching Scott Proctor run wind sprints, but surely he could find five minutes to visit the BP website to find out what this statistic actually is that is making him so apoplectic.

As an editor, I would never allow an article that attacks something without bothering to find out what it is, and ends on a sweeping generalization that purports to speak for millions of other people while providing no evidence of what they actually think. Sure, covering baseball isn’t as important as, say, reporting on the White House’s plans to attack Iraq, but doesn’t the New York Times hold its sportswriters to any kind of journalistic standards? Is there anything Murray Chass might write that his editor wouldn’t print?

The firebrands at Fire Joe Morgan chipped in with:

You can feel the sneer curling on his face as he writes “electronic publication” with a quill pen in Olde English, then rolls up the parchment and sends it on its three-day horseback journey to his publisher, Lord Sulzberger, Jr.

He’s kidding about the e-mail of course. He doesn’t have an “e-mail address.” E-mail is for new age wack jobs.


I actually believe that goofy, anthropomorphic numbers with arms and legs and silly oversize white gloves play all of the games we know of in what we call professional baseball. Call me crazy, but that is what I believe.

And of course, Baseball Prospectus answered their critic as well with an open letter to Murray Chass penned by Nate Silver:

Fans today have a lot of choices about how they consume baseball in general, and their baseball media in particular. Baseball Prospectus’ mission is to provide them with an informed and independent perspective that helps to accentuate their enjoyment of the game.

I am not sure whether you have made a habit of clicking on those links in our daily newsletter, but if you do, you will find that we are talking about many of the same things that you are. We’re talking about how the Oakland A’s can win the World Series, how the Veterans’ Committee is doing a poor job of recognizing the contributions of players like Ron Santo, and how recent moves in the baseball industry are shoving baseball’s most devoted fans aside.

Many Baseball writers have become tiresome scolds or anachronistic dinosaurs or both. They alienate future readers at their own risk.

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