An Open Letter to Fangraphs


Hey Fangraphs,

Can we talk for a second? No, I'm not breaking up with you. I just need to have a talk about some things. You're still my favorite stat site around. The blend of pitch f/x data with key advanced statistics is presented wonderfully on each player's page. It's easily accessible (even if the cursor doesn't originate in the 'Player Search' bar like it should when I load the page) and surprisingly not overwhelming. And you are even adding new features -- I love that!

But, we need to talk about something. Namely, those blocks of text that appear on your homepage. I don't know if you call them stories or posts or columns but ... listen ... I don't know how to say this any other way so I'm just going to come out and say it. They make you seem really dumb.

They really aren't worthy of the stats that you hold elsewhere on your site. Let's take a look at your recent series on ranking organizations. I started hanging out with you because you were smarter than the other sites. You understood FIP and defensive statistics in a way that other stats sites didn't really. But now, I'm relegated to reading what is wholly subjective, ill-informed drivel. Look at your categories and let's work backwards as we talk about them:

  • Baseball Operations - This illusion that you understand the inner machinations of 30 teams' front offices in a sufficient manner to rule on them is farcical. You're not even very discreet about it. You ranked the Astros, under new GM Jeff Luhnow, as being the 12th best front office. This is a GM who has been on the job for less than 6 months. Now I like Jeff, and I'm pretty familiar with his work, but, and let's be honest here, your cadre of evaluators aren't. They're going on reputation and rumor. The whole adventure of ranking these front offices is folly and only furthers the insufficient caricature that a Baseball Operations or a Front Office is embodied by 1 or 2 people.
  • Financial Resources - I have a dumb question: Why are you not just looking at payroll? Do you have greater insight into a team's financial stability or revenue streams beyond what they spend on a year in year out basis? Could you have predicted that the Phillies would nearly double their payroll in a 5 year span? Look, I get it. You want to be authoritative but just list the payroll and move on.
  • Present Talent/Future Talent - This is the most troubling of all. With an arsenal of statistics behind you, you instead decided to make judgment calls on teams. If you don't trust the thousands of Marcel and ZiPS projections, why should I? I feel like we're having a "do as I say, not as I do" moment. I understand that ZiPS isn't the definitive arbiter of all talent. Here's the punchline though: It is far more definitive than whatever bullpucky you are using to make these guesses. I would happily buy into your rankings if you used a projection system as your baseline and then made (and explained) the reasons you tweaked teams up or down. But this ... this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater and as much as I hate babies, I hate this even more.

It's easy for me to pick on this particular series. I understand that you want everyone to like you and click all your ticklish spots but why is it that smart sites feel the need to do dumb things to be accepted? Embrace the fact that you understand esoteric statistics better than Joe Schmoe. It is not a sin to be smart. Instead, you wrap a concept with potential in the thin veneer of authoritativeness (e.g. the 20-80 scale to rank each category) and serve it luke warm on a platter of pure subjectivity.

But your problems of late are much deeper than the Organizational Rankings. Things are much more fundamentally wrong than that. Here's a post on your page right now about rain. Yes, it is seriously about rain. But maybe that's just an off post. Let me look at this one dissecting Chris Perez's blown save. This one hurts because it's full of conjecture without any real dissection or explanation. Instead, I read lines like this:

If Perez’s poor velocity was a result of not taking enough warmup pitchers, it hardly surfaces in his second batter faced. [...]

Perez just doesn’t seem to have much of an idea where the ball is going. [...]

Perez’s control is mostly gone by this point, and Lind seems to pick up on that fact: his bat leaves his shoulder just once on this at-bat, to check his swing on a well out-of-the-zone full count fastball. [...]

The author, Jack Moore, who is probably a fine chap, serves it up with a warmed over helping of seemingly random numbers. It's an ill-fated attempt to weave a narrative from 23 pitches. Goodness knows I've written some terrible slop over the years, but you're Fangraphs. I expect more from you with your searchable SQL databases and paid writers.

I think I can forgive these things though. I can look past the need to be popular even if it entails acting in an inherently non-sabrmetric way. I can look past sometimes sloppy writing trying to find a story where there isn't one. We can work through those things. So long as you don't misuse your own statistics. That ... that can't be tolerated.

Dissecting the Kyle Lohse Start: Beware FIP

[Lohse's] line from the game:

7.1 IP, 1 ER, 3 K, 0 BB, 8 GB, 10 FB, 2 LD

All told, that comes to a 1.23 ERA, 1.49 FIP, 2.94 xFIP, and… a 4.22 SIERA

Everything but that SIERA number suggests Lohse had a great start. Let’s find out why.

The most important item to remember — and not just with Lohse, but with Josh Johnson, Felix Hernandez, and every pitcher who has pitched in this extra-young season so far — is that the FIP constant here at FanGraphs is not, well, constant. The Dark Overlord [ed note: David Appelman] has some magical algorithm in place to keep the constant (usually around 3.2) variable according to the league’s run environment. Because the regular season has all of three games of data right now, that constant is unusually low — in the ones last I heard.

[...]

Which is all to say: Beware of FIP right now! Just because a number looks intrinsically good, it’s best to reference FIP- or SIERA to ensure the number is not biased by the current run environment.

Please. Please stop. Don't go any further. Surely you aren't suggesting that I be careful because the constant is variable. Surely you aren't saying that FIP, after ONE START, is a statistic I should be looking at with any degree of validity. Or xFIP. Or SIERA. Surely you aren't saying that.

But alas, you are. And this is where I'm worried about us, Fangraphs. I'm worried about our future. If you don't understand sample size, then what happens the next time that I go to Baseball Reference? If it's just once? Are you going to dump me altogether?

In all seriousness, you occupy a unique and important spot in baseball sabrmetrics: You provide incredibly accessible advanced metrics. Baseball Prospectus doesn't do that -- I like their long form writing but their stats pages aren't up to par. Baseball Reference isn't as good at sabrmetrics stats. The Hardball Times isn't what it once was. You have the platform to reach and convert the masses. Not every post has to be Statistics 101 but every post has to adhere to Statistics 101. You simply cannot use FIP after one game in a way that implies it tells us anything of import. Beyond it being a better predictive than descriptive tool (and if you're "dissecting a start" you're looking for the latter not the former), it simply lacks the dataset to be trustworthy after one start.

You miss that fundamental concept though. The reason we should "Beware FIP" is not a variable league modifier. We should beware FIP because of a small sample size. (I won't even get started on your application of BABIP to 20 balls in play.)

I really care about you, Fangraphs. I care a lot. I want you to be better. Better isn't always just about being bigger though. Don't forget your roots. Don't forget the things you taught me before you had writers cross-promoting on ESPN. Don't forget that you aren't MLB Trade Rumors or a breaking news site. You're a site for instructive, illustrative, meaningful analysis based on our better understanding of baseball through statistics.

You can dabble in scouting and whatever it is that Carson Cistulli does -- everyone experiments in their adolescence, right? -- but don't forget the core of what your are.

Because that's the part that I care for the most.

Yours,
azruavatar

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