Let's not call the whole (BABiP) thing off

October, 22, 2010
10/22/10
1:27
PM ET
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From the mailbag at Bill James' subscriber-only site:
    Hey, Bill: You wrote "Please stop saying 'BABIP'; it's just laziness." Is saying "ERA," RBI," "WAR," and so on any different? If so, why?

    Bill: "WAR" is laziness, yes. ERA and RBI are so long-established that they are understood as words and they function as words.

    The difference is between saying things that everybody understands, and saying things that exclude people from the conversation because they don't know what you're talking about.

    The essence of this dispute has to do with the responsibility of experts to speak in plain language that can be understood by a wider audience. It modern America it is the accepted practice for experts in each field to develop their own language, their own expressions and reference points, and to write to one another in professional jargon almost indecipherable to the public.

    I feel very strongly that this is a mistake. I have felt this way for 40 years; I have argued against this for 40 years, and I've never made any headway, but that's still what I think and that's still what I argue. People complain about anti-intellectuatlism in American life. I live in an academic community; many of my friends are academics. They complain frequently about the lack of respect for intellectuals in the mainstream debate, about the difficulty in getting the public to accept science and to accept the knowledge that experts in the field generate -- yet they insist on speaking and writing in ways that the public cannot understand. Well, duh. If you write in a way that excludes the general public from reading what you are saying, the general public will not accept your conclusions.

    To use academic jargon is rude, lazy, elitist, and counter-productive. It diminishes the influence of the academic world; it diminishes the influence of thinking people on the general debate. If you want people to accept your ideas, you have to speak in language that others can understand. This is common sense, and it is common courtesy.

There's a feeling out there, in the hinterlands but also the other lands, that there's a cozy little club of baseball analysts, most of them working for little or no money, who are perfectly content to tell each other tales and have little or no interest in reaching a larger audience.

I don't actually know any of these people.

Or maybe I do. But I don't know them, you know? People who have no interest in the wider audience probably aren't that interested in knowing me, either.

I'm talking about objective analysis here. I have noted, in the field of subjective analysis, a certain tendency toward jargon that I find off-putting. I don't want to name any names because I don't want to offend. Let's just say that certain writers throw around certain terms that are needlessly opaque, and I find the tendency both annoying and frustrating.

The objective analysts, though? Everyone I know is interested gaining a larger audience and making some sort of impression.

Also, there's this really cool thing called Google. There was a time, not so long ago, when if you were reading a book or a magazine and you came across some obscure technical term and couldn't figure out what it meant, you were basically stuck.

You're not stuck anymore.

Which isn't to say we want people to have to go search for something every time. But I think Bill's point about BABiP is a little misplaced. Here's how the whole thing started:
    Hey Bill: Are there some pitchers like Garland, Beurhle, and Blanton to an extent that get by 'mentally' more than on stuff? There is a braves pitcher, Jurrjens, that all my friends says has the same ability to 'pitch' that they have and that i shouldn't worry about his stats. I disagreed with them. Sometimes there are exceptions and players can maintain things like a high BABIP.

    Bill: Well, a) Please stop saying "BABIP"; it's just laziness, and b) there are individual variations in batting averages on balls in play, but these are dwarfed by the random variations in batting average on balls in play. You can't really infer anything from a short-term advantage in this area, because a short-term variation is most likely to be just a random abberation.

Bill knows what BABiP means. The great majority of Bill's readers -- all of whom are interested enough to spend actual money to read his missives on the Internet -- know what BABiP means. BABiP's been around for 10 years, and is well-established among the people who pay to read Bill James. In that particular space, spelling out Batting Average on Balls in Play would be almost as pointless as spelling out Earned Run Average.

I think Bill just doesn't like BABiP because he didn't grow up with it. When I worked for him, he didn't like it when I wrote that a player slugged .472 (or whatever).

When I started using OPS in my columns for this site, in the late 1990s, I had editors who insisted on spelling it out. This made sense for the first, oh, two or three months. But it went on for years (or what seemed like years). Today, when I write that a player's got a .283/.352/.471 batting line, there's always somebody who wants to explain I'm referring to batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

But you already know that. Most of you, anyway. Because I spelled everything out many times before.

It's all about conditioning and knowing your audience. We don't have to spell out Earned Run Average. We don't have to explain that Babe Ruth was a big guy who hit a bunch of home runs. We don't have to spell out Batting Average on Balls in Play, every time. Not to this audience. Any more than someone writing to Bill James should have to spell out something (BABiP) that Bill's been studying for 10 years.

You wanna put me on TV, before the great unwashed masses? Then I'll spell out anything you like. Until then, I'm going to reserve my right to use acronyms and abbreviations that I believe you can handle.

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