In an attempt to more fully understand the nature of covering sports in an accurate and informative way, the BSN Denver Rockies staff has been pouring over all kinds of argumentative pieces over the last few weeks in order to try to highlight some of the gaps that most commonly arise.
There are all kinds of fallacies and biases that exist in these arguments and the point of this list is not to denigrate anyone or to separate ourselves from the criticism herein. The goal here is to make sure we are recognizing the flaws in logic and consistency that occur on all sides of all debates while filtering that through our experiences covering the Colorado Rockies.
Many of the 10 Deadly Biases are well known to most of us. When you use the word "homer" around a sports fan, they don't first think of an ancient Greek poet or an indelible cartoon character. But there are numerous (apparently nine) forms of bias in sports coverage that are just as insidious and just as common.
And we begin with...
Bias Against the Unknown
Here are the facts we have. We should limit our discussion to these facts ignoring one big fact … that there are many other facts we do not have.
The Bias Against the Unknown may be the most prevalent in sports, though aptly, we can't really say that for sure.
Someone in the metric community might dismiss daily health, emotional state, or even things like lineup protection because they cannot (yet) be measured. A general preference is shown for imperfect measurements over guessing about something we know impacts the outcome but can’t be sure how, or by how much.
Analysts for years claimed that Carlos Gonzalez was done being an effective baseball player because the data backed up the claim and because they chose to ignore the very real factors of his lingering health issues and turmoil in his family life. Those troubles don’t fit anywhere on the spreadsheet, but once CarGo had moved on from them, he put together two of his best seasons to date.
Those who prefer to base their opinions on measurable evidence would never have felt comfortable quantifying how much it affected his game that Gonzalez spent the better part of a month sleeping on a hospital floor. But there is no arguing at this point that it affected him, even when it was unmeasured and unknown.
Catcher framing didn’t start impacting the game when we started measuring it. It has always been there and it has always been important, even when it was unmeasured and unknown.
The ultimate irony here is that the premise behind every advanced statistic existed before the statistic itself, proving unequivocally that there is great virtue in studying that which currently seems immeasurable and unknowable.
And something being unknown doesn’t mean that it isn’t a fact. The world was always round even when people believed it to be flat, it didn’t change shape. The facts exist before we measure them. But hold onto that thought, we’ll get back to it.
On the flip side of this coin, someone in the more traditional community might dismiss certain metrics because they do not understand the premise or the often-complicated math.
To this day, the ideas behind WAR and DRS, and many statistics like them, are undermined by television, radio, and print journalists who can’t help but think of the native meaning of the words “win” and “runs” instead of granting the premise that the runs and wins in these cases are theoretical.
If your favorite defensive player makes a diving stop with the bases loaded, saving three runs, he doesn’t get a +3 DRS, and that isn’t a fault with the stat. Similarly, the hometown captain might make the decisive winning play in 20 or 25 games over the course of the season, but he ain’t getting’ 20 WAR for that. That’s not how those stats work and it’s not how they are trying to work.
This misunderstanding about how the math functions and what aims to explain fuels a bias against it based on invalid logic.
In each scenario, the outcome is the same. The analyst or fan is missing an important part of the overall puzzle by focusing solely on the aspects of that puzzle they feel most comfortable identifying.
Another common way in which the Bias Against the Unknown manifests is in attitudes shown toward the intent of players, owners, and front office personnel. Fans will argue that they see no “plan” for the team or a specific player when it would be detrimental to their favorite club to share said plan. And this is done often based not on what is known, but what is not, because it is almost always the case that there is far more about the inner workings of professional sports franchises that are private than are public.
It can be difficult to admit ignorance, but it’s often the quickest path to wisdom. Making a decision later, upon further examination and under the light of additional information, is always an option. But in the age that requires everyone have strong opinions and be the first to share them, this can be difficult. The facts exist before we measure them, but that doesn't stop plenty of certitude from arising in the interim.
This is why so many in the stat community have difficulties when they try to prove a negative, like our example of lineup protection. It’s near impossible to meet the parameters of mathematic logic to prove something doesn’t exist. Which is why (some) metricians would be better served adding metrics and additional information to the conversation without insisting that they must replace any and all (or most) other forms of understanding the game.
Furthermore, numbers are not the only kinds of facts. Therein lies the subtle difference between a bias against the unknown and a bias toward the measurable. It’s fine to want to limit the conversation to the facts, but not to the numbers. Remembering our CarGo example from earlier, it was an immeasurable fact that his life circumstances affected his play. Until very recently, it was an immeasurable fact that catcher framing was a vital element of baseball games. Saying "I don't know that for sure, so I'm disregarding it altogether" can easily lead to overlooking the most important element of the problem in question.
Of course, there is an increasing amount of information that we do have at our fingertips and so the daily conversations and debates are warranted and necessary and should be based on facts rather than feelings, rumors, hopes, or, well, biases. But “I don’t understand this, therefore it doesn’t make sense” is fallacious. In many cases, going with “I don’t know” or “let’s see how that plays out” or perhaps most appropriately “it could be X, but it could also be Y” is more likely to be an accurate representation of the truth.