Etymology Usage

Analyzing sabermetrics

Q: Should the term “sabermetrics” be reserved for baseball? Although it has “baseball” in its title, the term has been used in basketball for some time and is now entering the world of football.

A: As you say, the word “baseball” is built right into “sabermetrics,” which includes the initial letters of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

The word was coined 30 years ago by the baseball historian and statistician Bill James to mean the use of statistics to judge the performance of a player or a team.

Since then, sports like football and basketball have followed baseball’s lead and are starting to use statistics in advanced ways. So is it legit to say they’re using “sabermetrics” too?

Despite the etymology of “sabermetrics,” we say yes. We think the term has outgrown its roots, so it can apply to statistical analysis in other sports. In fact, sportswriters and bloggers are already using “sabermetrics” in this broader way.

Lexicographers haven’t caught up to this newer usage, though. That’s no surprise, since “sabermetrics” has only recently made it into dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language didn’t include the word until the new fifth edition was published in the fall of 2011. The new edition describes the word as a baseball term and defines it this way:

“The analysis of quantitative categories to evaluate the requirements for overall team success and the specific effectiveness of individual players in meeting those requirements. Sabermetrics often employs more complex statistical categories than those used in traditional baseball statistics.”

The word appeared earlier with a less long-winded definition (“the statistical analysis of baseball data”) in both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and in the Merriam-Webster company’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.

The Oxford English Dictionary also limits its definition to baseball: “The application of statistical analysis to baseball records, esp. in order to evaluate and compare the performance of individual players.”

In outlining the word’s etymology, Oxford says it includes the letters SABR and is modeled after the word “saber” (sword), with “metrics” added.

The OED’s earliest citation is dated 1982, from the Bill James Baseball Abstract of that year: “Sabermetrics is the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records.”

A more recent citation is from the Calgary Herald (2003): “The Oakland A’s pioneered the use of sabermetrics to recruit players.”

We should note that in the broad sense, “sabermetrics” is used with a singular verb (as in “sabermetrics is a valuable tool”). But it’s used with a plural verb when it means the statistics themselves (“his sabermetrics are promising”).

The word played a big role in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball (2003), which was about the Oakland Athletics’ use of sabermetrics. A film of the same name, as you probably know, was released last year.

No doubt “sabermetrics” will always be strongly identified with baseball. But while we don’t have any statistical analysis to back us up, we’ll bet that dictionary definitions will someday reflect a wider usage that includes other sports.

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