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June 17, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Man Who Knew Too Much (About Baseball)

by Will Leitch

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, film critic for Yahoo, and the founding editor of Deadspin. He is also the author of four books, including God Save the Fan (2008) and Are We Winning? (2010). He grew up in Mattoon, Illinois.

A few years back, I spent a weekend at spring training with my father, as all sons should. Like most fathers, my dad is behind the times when it comes to technology, which is to say he was fortunate enough to live most of his life before The Machines took over our souls and enslaved us. He is on Twitter, somewhat insanely, which I find upsetting, somehow: the Internet has made communication easier, but it’s not supposed to be easy to communicate with your father. I don’t know much in this crazy world, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to retweet your father, and he is not supposed to retweet you. Even in West Virginia and Utah.

He’s not particularly skilled at Twitter, though; sample Tweets include: “That should do something for this waiting for something to happen team?,” “Don't you you just the dog days of Aug?,” “I would probably sick right now,” and my personal favorite, “@jstrauss [blank message].” He’s getting there, and I love that he’s trying, but he’s 61 years old and sometimes attempts to turn off the computer with the garage door opener. It’s a challenge.

He also doesn’t spend his entire day reading about baseball on the Internet like I do. He has a real job. So even though I can’t imagine a human being loving baseball more than my father does, he knows nothing about what goes on outside the lines. He is, essentially, a blank slate. He doesn’t know anything about the sabermetric revolution; I could barely get him to read my book, so Moneyball as a Father’s Day gift wasn’t really an option. He never knows what the players’ home lives are like, or where they went to college, or what country they are from. (My attempts to differentiate for him Venezuela and the Dominican Republic has, so far, fallen on deaf ears.) And he’s clueless as to how long the contracts of any of our beloved Cardinals last, or how much any of these players are making, save for “too much.”

The fundamentals of roster construction are a mystery to him. He absolutely cannot understand how Oliver Perez will make 20 times what Colby Rasmus will take home this year. And it's a mystery to him because he does not care. The team on the field wearing the Birds on the Bat, that's the one he's watching, and that's the one he's rooting for. He doesn't know any of the prospects, he doesn't know when everyone's contracts expire, he doesn't know what incentives are. My father is not stupid: he legitimately does not care. That's just not a factor in how he watches baseball.

I really wish I could do that.  Like most sons, I really wish I were like my dad. I know how the sausage is made now, and I cannot force that out of my brain. I understand Win Expectancy, and BABIP, and how everyone fights about who has the correct WAR calculation. This has made me a smarter, more knowledgeable baseball fan. I have a better understanding of the game of baseball than I’ve ever had before, and if there’s something I’m confused about, I have instant access to a bottomless pit of information that will enlighten me. If you want to learn more about baseball, like everyone who has ever loved baseball wants to do, this is the best time in human history to be a baseball fan.

And I sort of hate it.

I'm fully aware that the genie is out of the bottle, and it's impossible to put it back.  I can’t cheer Ryan Theriot for bunting the runner over to second with no outs in the ninth because I know it’s statistically inefficient. I can’t get excited by a hit-and-run, even when it works, because I know that in a macro sense, it’s bad strategy. I can’t even trade for a closer in my fantasy league anymore without feeling guilty, knowing that saves are just managing to the stat and that today’s managers are frighteningly inefficient in their bullpen usage. I mean, how do you make someone feel guilty for a fantasy baseball transaction? That’s nuts. But the more I learn, the sillier I feel, sometimes, watching one individual baseball game. After all, one game is a small sample size. And there I go doing it again.

Dad doesn’t care about any of this. He likes the Cardinals to score more runs than the team they are playing, and when something happens that makes that more likely, he cheers. When it doesn’t, he yells. I tried to explain sabermetrics and all the rest of it to him once, and he looked at me the same way he looked at me when I played Nirvana for him and tried to explain that this was my generation’s John Lennon. I didn’t try again.

And I don’t want to. I sometimes wonder if he’s having more fun at the games than I am. I’m smarter. I’m more educated. I’m still obsessed by the thirst for more knowledge. But the search for enlightenment, as it has for countless philosophers before me, has made me sadder than it has made me happy.

It just, again, makes me long to be like my father, blissfully unaware and uncaring about advanced statistics, average annual value, and no-trade clauses. There is a game on the field, and he is watching it and cheering for his team. I can't ever do that again. I don't know how he does it, but dammit, he does.

Wait, I know how he does it: avoiding articles like this one. Sorry, but I’m probably not going to get him a Baseball Prospectus subscription for Christmas this year. Let him be happy, while he can.

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

kddean

Can BP hire Will?

Jun 17, 2011 06:30 AM
rating: 7
 
meanwhoogean

I understand your ignorance is bliss stance, but I would always rather have insight and knowledge rather than blissful ignorance. Personally, I obsess over things and I crave information to feed my obsessions.

Nice article, I think we all as baseball dorks have had a moment with our father where we realized we are watching the same game differently. Mine was trying to justfify drafting Hanley Ramirez, a player he vaguely knew of, first in fantasy. "Dad," I said, "he's like a late 90s Derek Jeter." And then we were on the same page again.

Jun 17, 2011 08:08 AM
rating: 3
 
rdcramer3

Father & Son

Two generational gaps!

My father, also a scientist who loved the Pirates, found it a great pity back in the '70's that his scientist-son (then with calculator) wasted the time (between pitches!) by calculating what we now call OPS's!

Although my stepson (to my continuing joy) belatedly discovered SABRmetrics, he has no interest in my earlier (pre-Web) publications!

Dick Cramer (clutch hitting, STATS founder, etc.)

Jun 17, 2011 09:03 AM
rating: 3
 
pctec100

Good story Dr. Cramer. My brother and I were discussing clutch hitting a few years back and I referenced your work on the subject. It just so happened that he knew you. He works as a computer technician at Tripos. Small world. Thank you for the contributions you've made to baseball and our world overall.

Jun 20, 2011 14:29 PM
rating: 0
 
BrianGunn
(439)

Great to see you hear, Will. I frequently wrestle with the same things you write about, but in the end I'm happy to be eating from the tree of knowledge. This video here frames it pretty nicely:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZNsIFID28

Jun 17, 2011 10:51 AM
rating: 2
 
MWSchneider

This is a good article. I'm pretty close to your father's age (6 years younger). I don't necessarily agree that ignorance is bliss; while I don't obsess over sabermetrics, I do understand most of them in at least a general way and appreciate what they add to the understanding of strategy.

Yet, I also get tired of it. In many ways, sabermetrics is making baseball less fun and making it more of a job than a hobby. I think the obsession with understanding can get in the way of enjoyment. Sabermetrics oftendisparages the "little things" that baseball people enjoy, yet these are often the things that make the game fun. For example, most sabermetricians grow livid at the notion that David Eckstein is revered because he is "scrappy" and brings "intangibles." Yet, it's the human element of watching someone like him succeed that makes sports fun. The fact is, no one likes to think their life is out of their control. Yet, we know that much of life, like much of baseball (e.g. BABIP)is essentially random. But who wants to live their life that way? We want to think that anyone, such as David Eckstein, can succeed with hard work and dedication. No one really wants to hear that Eckstein is overrated and has no business being in the lineup.

I respect sabermetrics and will continue to look to them for insights into the game. I despair at baseball announcers that seemingly take pride in their ignorance of statistical analysis. At the same time, it is a game, it's entertainment. I will still enjoy talking about pitchers' wins or hitters' RBIs even though I know they are, to a large extent, meaningless because it's fun. I will accept that FIPs and WAR tell us something significant about how the game works, but I don't have the time or inclination to delve into the intricacies and worry about the difference between replacement level and league average performance.

Jun 17, 2011 13:01 PM
rating: 2
 
kmitchell

Thanks for an enjoyable read right before Father's Day.

To me it comes down to this. The more time I spend staring at spreadsheets delving into these wonderful ways to assess effort and potential the less time I spend actually watching the players I'm studying so closely.

Go figure.

Jun 17, 2011 13:58 PM
rating: 0
 
bumphadley

It seems like this and some of the comments are just thumb-sucking ways to create a fake problem. Who knows if those who take the simple-minded approach to the game really enjoy it more? Subjective pleasure is a mystery.

And, even if I know the hit-and-run play or the sacrifice bunt are not optimal strategies, I still enjoy those plays if they work and help my team win. Denying oneself the simple pleasures of being a team's fan -- both the sabrmetric and non-sabrmetric types -- is not about sabrmetrics, but much more about the neurotic personality.

Jun 17, 2011 18:23 PM
rating: 6
 
Kyle E.

Here, here. There's a smile to be had when a ground ball rolls through the hole created by a middle infielder moving to cover second. I don't see why the expected runs matrix has to rob one of enjoying watching the successful execution of a hit and run. It's a text based table, not an evil spell.

Mr. Leitch's problem isn't exposure to quantitative analysis.

Jun 18, 2011 11:54 AM
rating: 1
 
Matt Kory

To me, Will hit it on the head when he said "small sample size." To me that's the key to enjoying baseball without over-dorking on the stats side of it. Usually when I watch one game I'm not stat nerd. I can separate the overall (X team is good) from the right now (X team is not good right now). But honestly, sometimes its fun to watch a game and know that the one team is winning because they're getting lucky hits. That doesn't have to ruin the game.

In any case, I enjoyed the article. Great read, Will.

Jun 19, 2011 19:37 PM
rating: 0
 
Brian24

I don't relate to this problem at all. My discovery of sabermetrics in the late '90s augmented my interest in macro ideas around baseball, e.g., how do teams win, what strategies are advisable in what situations, etc. But it hasn't changed the way I root for the Yankees, or how much I enjoy doing so. Put another way, my understanding that Derek Jeter is not much of a defender doesn't change the fact that every time a ball is hit on the ground up the middle, I root hard for him to overcome his leaden feet and throw out the runner.

An imperfect comparison: I understand enough about math and odds to know that there's no such thing as a "hot table" in craps, and that in the long run I am very likely to lose more money than I win. That knowledge doesn't stop me from putting down my money and hoping to come away a winner on a particular night.

Jun 20, 2011 12:41 PM
rating: 0
 
marshaja

I like this article. I definitely watch baseball now at 30 differently than I did when I was 7, but I still think I enjoy it the same. It's just hard to be as optimistic as then knowing what I know.

I loved watching Shawon Dunston fly around the bases even though I didn't understand at the time the woeful percentage he was actually on the basepaths. I loved watching Dawson and Grace hit even if the former never drew walks and the latter was underpowered for a first basemen. Sometimes I miss that childlike naivity.

Jun 21, 2011 09:26 AM
rating: 0
 
MWSchneider

Sometimes, I think there is a false dichotomy between sabermetrics and "observational" baseball. For example, every time I go to a game in person, it's obvious that there are a lot of lucky hits; balls that aren't hit hard that find holes. And, of course, conversely, balls hit hard right at a fielder. Anyone that watches the game should realize that pitchers that don't strike out a lot of guys are susceptible to balls getting through. Same thing with RBIs; it should be obvious that RBIs are heavily team oriented and that anyone decent hitter should get a lot of RBIs if his team is getting guys on base. (One thing I have never understood is why no one ever talks about "cheap" RBIs, such as when a guy comes up with a runner on third when the team is well behind, hits a weak ground ball and gets a meaningless RBI.) Yet, the "baseball insiders" often refuse to accept the logic of what they really should know.

A lot of it is because people are uncomfortable with the idea of luck deciding a game. So, they want to pretend that there is such a thing as clutch hitting because they don't want to accept that hits in these situations are largely random occurances. Or saying a pitcher "knows how to win" gives an illusion of control. Guys aren't losing because of bad luck--they just don't know how to win.

Jun 21, 2011 10:26 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

I think the big dichotomous split has to do with the sample size of one. Much of sabermetrics is in quantifying trends over large samples. That's how we get to the nth decimal point. Yet, in a single game, literally anything can, and sometimes will, happen. We can't learn anything from watching one game, other than gleaning how given players can use their tools. This also helps explain why the scouts vs. stats split can be so wide at times. Scouts also make stats, but they don't watch the stats - they watch the tools. The tools may or may not show up in the stats (depends on level and other factors) but they can help explain the stats and work towards building a model that will explain the likelihood (not the certainty) of the tools and the numbers converging over time.

Jun 21, 2011 11:38 AM
rating: 0
 
Brady Childs

Even before I was big into sabermetrics, I tried to explain to my dad why the closer can't just come into the game in the 7th in modern times and be expected to throw 50 pitches. Of course, this can still be done and there's no reason why an organization can't develop a super reliever, but asking Jonathan Papelbon in 2007 during the playoffs to all of a suddenly be expected to throw 50+ pitches is absurd. Part of me knows he was just yanking my chain, but there's that small part of me that just wants to prove him wrong and me right so I can show him the right way.

I miss him.

Mar 02, 2013 15:15 PM
rating: 0
 
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Beat: The Movi... (06/17)
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Baseball ProGUESTus: I... (06/10)
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Baseball ProGUESTus: A... (06/24)
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