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Bob Ryan fires up the statheads

I actually thought Bob Ryan's column was reasonably well intentioned for this genre of column: Old columnist doesn't like new stats.

The patronizing part that seemed to go too far was this:

I wonder if the New Breed Stat Guys ever actually enjoy a game, because they are so obsessed with what the manager is or isn’t doing, based on the data in front of them. They’re often upset before the game even starts, because the lineup isn’t sufficiently stat-based.

I don't get upset when somebody writes that kind of stuff. Hey, Ryan is a columnist; his job is to fire up his readers. But: Would he ever accuse Ben Cherington or Theo Epstein or John Farrell of not enjoying baseball? They pore over a lot of statistics as well. Anyway, Ryan's column caught the attention of writers across the Internet. As Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk pointed out, nobody second-guessed managers and lineups before Bill James came along? Here's more Craig:

No, what really mystifies me is how one can truly believe that people who devote all of their mental energy to figuring out baseball stats don’t appreciate or enjoy baseball. Has Ryan ever met a “New Breed Stat Guy?” Ever watched a game with one? I can tell you, there is no one more focused on baseball — aesthetically and intellectually — than one of those dudes. It’s almost as if scores and scores of them loved baseball so much that they ceased working on other things in their lives and devoted all of their energy and free to time to baseball, with some even giving up far more lucrative career tracks in order to pursue jobs working in or writing about the game.

Here's Dave Cameron of FanGraphs:

Ryan is right: the average baseball fan does not care about the numbers found here on FanGraphs. This is a niche industry, a community of enthusiasts whose interest in baseball goes far beyond that of the general sports fan, the type who follows baseball to the same degree that they follow football, basketball, hockey, soccer, tennis, and golf. We are baseball’s equivalent of automotive gearheads, craft beer enthusiasts, or foodies, and the size of our community is dwarfed by the number of casual fans, just as the number of Camry owners, Budwiser drinkers, or diners at Applebees far outnumber people who are passionate about their specific hobby. By definition, enthusiast communities are always a minority of the population, because they self-select based on being hyper-interested in that specific event or activity.

A little story. Last week, my Mariners friend Ted sent an email about Dustin Ackley, writing "Ever notice that anything close to the corners gets called on him? He creates a lot of his own problems, but I swear the umps have a large zone on him. Seems like he starts 0-2 a lot."

Of course, I immediately looked this up because we can now look this kind of stuff up. At the time, 85 percent of the called strikes on Ackley were in the strike zone, according to our data. I checked Robinson Cano: 78 percent of his called strikes were in the zone. I checked Justin Smoak: 82 percent of his called strikes were in the zone.

Those were the only three guys I checked, but Ackley wasn't getting stiffed by the umpires, no matter what Ted thought. In fact, the MLB average on called strikes that are actually in the strike zone is 81.3 percent. The player with a legitimate gripe right now is Colby Rasmus; he's had 97 called strikes, with only 57 percent in the zone, the worst rate of 180 qualified regulars. (The lowest 24 batters are all left-handed or switch-hitters, a result of where umpires stand behind the catcher; Ackley, a lefty, is now at 82 percent, 87th of the 180 batters.)

But you know what? It's not always all that fun to be able to do this. As Ted replied to me, "I like that you can quickly disprove most of 'Ted's crazy theories' with facts. Wish I could do the same with my old man."

I like Ted's crazies theories, however. In many ways, isn't it more fun to debate and argue these things without facts getting in the way? Who's better, LeBron James or Kevin Durant? You can fight that until your voice no longer works (not that we don't have advanced metrics now in basketball). Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera? It's harder to have that debate -- even among more casual fans -- without all these numbers and statistics getting in the middle of it. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The good thing, as Dave Cameron wrote, is the numbers can help us to get to the truth of the story. Ackley isn't bad because the umps are screwing him; he's bad because he's not that good.

But don't misunderstand: We love the numbers because we love baseball. And when I go to a game as a fan, I'm not going all sabermetric while watching it. I'm having a cold one and bad ballpark food and appreciating a nicely turned double play. Like this one. Or this one. Or this one.