So I’ve had something weighing on my chest for a while, and I’ve spent the past three hours straight writing this. I’ll ask for your indulgence as I tackle a topic that, frankly, is probably too ambitious for me and too serious for this blog.
WARNING: This is not so much a blog post as it is an essay of cultural criticism. It will be long, it will assume you know very little about baseball, and there will be few links and no photos. And it’s really only tangentially related to the Phillies, and to baseball in general. If you already think you have a decent grip on the history of sabermetrics, you can skip part 1 and go straight to part 2. I would, because it’s about 1,000 words.
So clear some time if you’re going ahead.
Here we go.
If I became president, my first phone call would be to Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria to ask him if he would be my secretary of state. He’s brilliant, pragmatic, good at expressing himself, and other positive qualities. He’s my favorite journalist and I wouldn’t have anyone else.
Some years ago, Zakaria wrote a Newsweek cover story called “Why Do They Hate Us?” with “They” being Islamic terrorists and “Us” being Western liberal democracies in general, the United States in particular.
I’ve been reading all day the Fire Joe Morgan reunion on Deadspin. Most of you know who Ken Tremendous & Co. are, but they’re essentially a bunch of screenwriters and avid baseball fans who picked out the worst in baseball journalism and ridiculed it, picked holes in it using advanced statistics and pointed out where the writing was unimaginative. They did this for a few years before abandoning the site last fall. I loved it. It was hilarious. It was snarky. It taught me a ton about sabermetrics.
But in an extremely postmodern sense, it was the front line of baseball’s Civil War. I’d like to reexamine Zakaria’s premise with, what I think, is the biggest paradigm shift in baseball ideology (certainly) since the advent of free agency in 1975 and possibly (I would argue) since the color line was broken in 1947.
Part 1: Background–The Civil War
“They” in this case is the established baseball intelligentsia. Its most outspoken advocates within the game include Reds manager Dusty Baker, and media personalities like the aforementioned Morgan, LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke, former Philadelphia Inquirer writer H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger, former New York Times writer Murray Chass, and most of the other Baseball writers with Hall of Fame votes.
“Us” is, broadly construed, anyone who understands the game of baseball primarily through statistics. Among its members are Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, former Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta, ESPN’s Rob Neyer, Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski, and pretty much the entire blogosphere, primarily such sites as FanGraphs and Fire Joe Morgan.
Sabermetrics were pioneered by, essentially, a bunch of nerds in the 1980s. To those of you who follow such things, the names Bill James, Voros McCracken, Posnanski and Neyer need no introduction.
My first introduction to sabermetrics came in 2001, when Baseball Weekly ran a review of James’ New Historical Baseball Abstract, which included a listing of the 100 greatest players at every position. As a 13-year-old, the single part of the review that stuck out at me was James’ assertion, based on a new sabermetric stat of his (Win Shares), that Craig Biggio was the 35th-best player in baseball history, an assertion that, at first blush, struck me as ridiculous. Even after joining the statnerd camp in the Civil War, I still think it’s ridiculous (James admits that he may have been overzealous in rating Biggio). But I do now concede that Biggio was a far more valuable player than I had previously realized.
Sabermetrics didn’t enter the mainstream until 2002, with the publication of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. Lewis investigated how the Oakland Athletics of that era were able to win 90 games like clockwork with a small payroll and a seemingly unimpressive lineup. They were able to do so by essentially tossing asunder 130 years of established baseball tradition. ESPN’s Morgan opined on the air that it was an attempt at self-aggrandization by A’s GM Billy Beane. Morgan’s invective, plus his insistence that Beane himself wrote the book (he didn’t) made him the perfect catalyst for the previously underground statheads to go global.
Two quick notes on Moneyball before we move on:
- Moneyball was not a paean to sabermetrics. That it extolled advanced statistics was incidental–the main argument was for Beane’s spotting an undervalued commodity and exploiting it. His approach in that sense has been unchanged, but now, the A’s pursue the exact opposite kind of player that they did seven years ago, because now, athletic players who don’t walk and are good defensively are undervalued, instead of the kind of player that James once said “swing for the fences and walk.”
- My favorite part of the Civil War is this little ironic tidbit: Joe Morgan is probably the player whose legacy benefits most from sabermetric revision. He had a relatively low batting average, but he was an extremely smart player who walked a ton and stole bases at an extremely high rate of success (two of the biggest adjustments for offensive players, simply put, are placing a higher value on walks and considering stolen bases as a more percentage-driven statistic, rather than one that can be viewed as raw data, like home runs).
Once Morgan 1) acknowledged the sabermetric revolution and 2) did it in so ignorant and ill-expressed a manner, lines were drawn, feelings were hurt, and what started as just a way for a few nerds to better understand the game turned into a discussion every bit as contentious as anything in contemporary politics. Yes, including abortion, gay marriage, and the Iraq War. Maybe not as widespread, but among baseball diehards, the introduction of sabermetric analysis is every bit as important a debate as the right to life.
A crude understanding of the two competing arguments is as follows: The old guard claims that the nerds are sucking the enjoyment value out of the game by reducing it to numbers, and that a large part of baseball in general, and player development in particular, is based in intangibles, and anyone who didn’t go to journalism school or doesn’t sit in the press box just simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. The counterargument is that the most enjoyable way to evaluate players (which is an enormous part of the art of following a sport) is the most accurate way, and anyone who disagrees is a reactionary and out of touch.
It was really a perfect storm: the advent of user-generated content on the internet and blogs gave the underdogs an international voice for the first time. Computers made advanced statistical analysis quick, easy and accurate for anyone with a laptop and a newspaper box scores to calculate the stats that we rely on today. The death of newspapers has taken many of the truly talented baseball writers (Posnanski, Jayson Stark, and others) out of print and onto the web, and left those who remain in a cloud of insecurity. Baseball’s drug undercurrent coming to life has left the sports poets scrambling for some sort of moral foundation to cling to. It couldn’t be any more perfect.
Part 2: Where I Stand, For those of you who care
Forced to pick a side, I’d side with the statnerds. However, in my own writing, I try never to use statistics that I don’t understand. Therefore, I don’t personally deal in WARP and EqA. I don’t get much more complicated than BABIP and OPS+ because those are the most complicated stats that I can do the math for myself. I agree that wins are overvalued and all stats need to be compared to the replacement level and league averages for context’s sake. However, I’m not as much of a sabermetric nerd as the FJM guys, or even as much as Paul is.
On the other hand, I do think the old guard has a point. One of the reasons that baseball is my favorite sport is its folklore and rich history. The superstitions, the legends, the sense of grandeur that you get when, for instance, you watch the Boston Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years. I think that the guys on my “side” are often too quick to dismiss this as the misty-eyed recollections of sad old men.
I love reading about baseball when it’s done well. When someone like Rick Reilly or Plaschke mails in a column, I’m right there with the FJM guys to complain. However, my three favorite baseball books are all anti-sabermetric. Men at Work by George Will is about as statistically advanced as a flint arrowhead. David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 is not only backward-looking nostalgia, it’s about the Yankees and Red Sox. And Three Nights in August was written by Buzz Bissinger, for crying out loud. I just think the old geezers got most of the good writers.
And in the interest of full disclosure, my favorite active player, Jimmy Rollins, is one of the players most overrated by the old guard. He won his 2007 MVP award not because he was better than Matt Holliday, but because he was quotable, entertaining, and dramatic. But that’s why I like him.
Part 3: Why They Hate Us
They hate us because we threaten the way of life that they love and have grown accustomed to. Most of all politically-driven violence comes as the result of an impending transfer of power. Well the power is being transferred. The Red Sox have set out these past six years to deliberately use sabermetrics to gain an advantage, and it’s worked. Look at the turn-of-the-century A’s. This year’s Phillies and Yankees have shaken conventional wisdom. Maybe not intentionally, but both are fielding sabermetric dream teams and reaping the benefits. Meanwhile, teams that continue to “play small ball” and “win with pitching and defense” continue to struggle (the Royals, the Pirates).
The fundamental paradigm of how we understand the game is changing. Imagine that your job has been done a certain way for as long as you can remember. Now a bunch of guys who have never done your job are telling you that you’ve been doing it wrong. More than that, they’re ridiculing the way you do your job and attacking you personally in print.
How would you react? With resistance. Anger. Bitterness. I think those are reasonable reactions. But many of the writers who are vilified by the statnerds are old, out of touch, reactionary, or, as James once said of Morgan, “self-important little prig[s].”
Where we go wrong is when we dismiss completely the idea of narrative in sport. Baseball is a game best understood by numbers in conjunction with the idea of drama, of the moment, of folklore. To choose folklore to the exclusion of statistics is ignorant. To choose statistics to the exclusion of folklore is narrow-minded and foolish.
Think about it–what do we remember about our favorite players? We remember Clay Zavada’s mustache, not his FIP. We remember David Ortiz’s clutch hitting, not his VORP. The fact of the matter is that while the old guard gets it wrong when they say that David Eckstein’s grittiness outweighs his lack of hitting, fielding, or baserunning ability or when they say that Derek Jeter’s classiness is worth 50 points of batting average in the MVP debate against Joe Mauer, we watch the game to see Eckstein get dirty or Jeter look smooth in the field. It’s part of the DNA of the game and it’s a part that I happen to like.
That we so often dismiss folklore with a glib attitute gets under their skin. That’s why they hate us.
Part 4: The Broader Cultural Implications
This is why those of you who might not know a whole lot about baseball would want to tune in. What I’ve realized about statnerds of late as that, as we become emboldened by our success, we become much pushier, mush preachier, and much more vitriolic. There were times with FJM was just vicious to a writer because they interpreted the article in the least charitable way possible.
I’ve noticed a general air of superiority among those who know how to interpret defense independent fielding statistics vis-a-vis those who don’t. And I’m part of the problem sometimes. But we must take care not to become as pigheaded as the people whose pigheadedness we decried for years on the internet.
When the American Revolution took the crown off the head of the British Empire and took the yoke off the American tradesman, the American tradesman took the crown and placed the yoke on the head of blacks and American indians. Statnerds can’t allow themselves to fall into the same trap. Otherwise we’d be no better than the out-of-touch relics that we’re replacing.
Another thing that I’ve noticed is that with one exception, almost every backlash to an oppressive social force in my lifetime has turned out to be worse than the one that it replaced. That one exception is bigotry. That African-American social policy and Israeli foreign policy are guided by victim complexes can be tiresome, but I’ll take that over Jim Crow laws and the Holocaust.
But we’ve seen secular liberals throw off the yoke of religious homogeneity and attempt to impose its own brand of antireligious homogeneity. Evangelical atheists are now every bit as shrill and self-righteous as the evangelical Christians were at their height. I’d much rather live in a world where it’s ok if you express your religion publicly, but it’s also fine if you don’t. Or if you don’t have a religion and want to express that publicly. I don’t care. What I don’t want is agnosticism to replace Christianity as the official state religion.
For years, I’ve come close to physical violence against people who have said, “George Bush is the worst president ever.” or “He’s evil.” or “he’s a moron.” A legion of self-styled liberal intellectuals continued to bitch and moan about all of his wrongdoings, showing no respect even to the office or the government that, for better or worse, has continued to operate their schools and provide for the police that kept them safe at night.
But now that the Republicans are in the minority, things are even worse. I didn’t think that a minority party could be any more annoying or devoid of constructive ideas than the Democrats of 2002-06, but in a matter of months, the Republicans have surpassed them by miles. We’ve rallied around demagogues who’d rather tear the country apart than let someone else run it. We’re forgetting that while we stage town hall meetings and throw rhetoric around and interrupt the president on the floor of Congress, people are losing their jobs and soldiers are dying overseas. We’re treating these policy debates like a game and not only are the Democrats not getting anything done, the country is getting nothing done.
I’ll say it again: What good is a backlash when it’s worse than the oppressor it replaces?
So let’s not get carried away with our self-righteousness, statheads. We may be winning the Civil War, but that doesn’t give us the right to be petulant and disrespectful in our rhetoric.
I guess if there’s a takeaway lesson from Baseball’s Civil War, it’s this: public discourse is not a zero-sum game. Our debates need to be characterized by good manners, if we can’t manage mutual respect. We’re living that out in our national religious and political debates, and our country is appreciably worse off as a result. Let’s not do the same with our sport.