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May 4, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Game Stories

by Tommy Bennett

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HOME TOWN--Game stories are the primary way we consume written narratives of individual baseball games.

Beat writers type them furiously once games are over, individual feats are highlighted, and editors put a final stamp on the copy before they hit your doorstep in the morning newspaper. In addition to box scores, game stories give context to the games we couldn't catch the night before.

Game stories are the meat and potatoes of baseball journalism but they aren't always identical, and they give a false sense of certainty about the arc of a game's narrative. Ask a beat writer what the easiest kind of game to write about is, and you can bet dollars to donuts he will tell you it's the kind that is decided early.

Take, for example, the Cubs' 10-5 victory over the Diamondbacks on Sunday. The Cubs jumped out to a 7-0 lead by the third inning, Alfonso Soriano hit his fifth and sixth home runs of the season, and the Diamondbacks dropped their third straight game in a row.

A Tale of Two Cities

Not every game story told the same narrative. Here is how The Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro framed his game recap:

CHICAGOHe had trouble at the beginning of innings. He had trouble getting out of innings. His fastball location wasn't good. He was falling behind. He wasn't missing bats.

Break down the start by Diamondbacks right-hander Edwin Jackson any way you want, but in the end, it comes down to this: Jackson was pounded—again—this time by the Chicago Cubs in a 10-5 loss at Wrigley Field on Sunday afternoon.

It's a clear narrative. There is a tragic figure—Jackson—who is struggling with all aspects of the game. There is a sense of continuity, created by a pattern: Jackson wasn't just pounded, he was pounded again. If all you read was the lede from Piecoro's story, you'd think this guy Jackson was a bum and the Cubs were just lucky to show up to hit against him.

On the other hand, here's how The Associated Press game story, which was written by a Chicago-based freelancer, framed the same game:

CHICAGO­—Alfonso Soriano hit a pair of two-run homers and the Chicago Cubs finally gave Tom Gorzelanny some run support in their 10-5 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday.

Marlon Byrd also hit a two-run shot for the Cubs, who won the last three games of the series following a loss in the opener. After managing only three runs in two losses to Washington, the Cubs scored 33 times against Arizona.

As you can see, this was the same game but this game story focused on an entirely different set of events. In fact, in the opening two paragraphs of each story, the only facts in common are the teams, the score, and the day of the week. The Arizona version is about how Jackson (the bum!) stinks, and can't get anybody out. The Chicago version is about how Gorzelanny finally got the help he deserved from an offense that came to life after struggling previously.

Of course, it can be tricky to apportion credit and blame, and without question attempting to do so on the basis of one game can lead to mixed results. But might it not be an artifact of imposing narrative structure on an individual game in the first place that creates these separate realities?

Abbreviated History

Some of you, no doubt, already understand this point. That's why, when you spread out the sports section on the kitchen table (or some digital analog thereof), you go straight to the box score. You jack your eyes into the data hose and turn on the spigot. It's a festival of compressed information and accumulated data, a way to peruse yesterday's games through creative reconstruction. You can learn the time of day, temperature, umpiring crew, and in many cases, which player had the game-winning RBI (if that's your sort of thing).

While box scores lack play-by-play data, they apparently encompass the definitive record of the game. Looking at the box from Sunday's game in Chicago, we could have learned both about Soriano's batting feats (a nifty 4-2-3-4 with 2 HR and a 2B) and Jackson's lack of command (how does 4-11-8-8-1-0 strike you?).

Nevertheless, box scores can be deceiving. Stephen Strasburg's final Double-A start, for example, yielded a disappointing line of 4 2/3-6-4-3-3-4, as he was saddled with his first professional loss. But as Kevin Goldstein reminds us, numbers can be deceiving. Strasburg's stuff was there, as was his command (largely). The difference in outcomes between Sunday's start and his previous outings was a smaller strike zone and some bad luck on balls in play.

What Ever Can We Do

There is some evidence that the limited number of stories we are able to tell ourselves can limit freedom of thought. But stories are filtering information for us all the time. New statistics, designed to tell numerical stories, preserve some important information while excluding other data.

Baseball analysts spend a lot of time thinking about what data is most relevant. But can you imagine what DIPS-friendly, process-not-results-style game story ledes would look like?

Stephen Strasburg hit his pitch count prematurely as the number of ground balls he induced led to an unexpectedly high number of hits, and the 22-year-old righty struck out fewer batters than he pitched innings for the first time all season.

It just doesn't get the blood flowing, does it?

What is lost in the transformation of data into a story is objectivity and perspective. Stories aggressively discard information (information often critical for making good baseball decisions) in the pursuit of climax and denouement. But just the reverse happens when stories are stripped down to their objective facts. Narrative structure, and with it a sort of on-ramp to understanding, is completely lost.

This is in part why quantitative analysis has enjoyed relatively slow acceptance. It is too easy to discard the long-term performance history in the early going, when a nearly limitless set of stories fit the small amounts of data. By the end of the season, when statistics start to become significant, is when the grand narratives of pennant races kick in. Nobody likes the spoilsport with the properly regressed in-season projections.

Question of the Day

How much are the narratives of teams and seasons influenced by game stories, limited data, and the up-and-down arcs that are left over by a limited field of vision?

Related Content:  Chicago Cubs,  Freedom Of The Press

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