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February 5, 2016

Life at the Margins

What Comes After Sabermetrics?

by Rian Watt

Over the past few weeks—partly, I think, as a consequence of our continued shared home in the baseball purgatory known as the offseason—I’ve read a number of takes that run something like this:

“Nothing I read about baseball is original any more. I don’t want to read a million pieces about defensive shifts and catcher framing, or over-written political pieces, or hot takes trying to be original; I’d just like to read something like I used to in the good old days of BP/the sabermetric community/baseball writing.”

I get that. Nobody wants to be bored or offended or have their intelligence insulted by the writing that they’ve chosen to make a part of their day, and that they once were inspired by. And most of us who were inspired, at one point or another, by the early sabermetric writers remember the dawning joy we felt when our minds first came into contact with DIPS, or contextualized offensive statistics, or even—if we’re really going back to it—with the merits of on-base percentage relative to batting average, or the general importance of looking out for the next great competitive advantage. It’s easy to chase the feeling of excitement and intellectual challenge that we felt then, and equally easy to feel that it’s hard to find these days.

So there’s a lot of hand-wringing about this period in the baseball writing community— the period we’re in now—being something lesser than what came before it. “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor,” said Tony Soprano, speaking about something else entirely. “But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

What people are missing, I think, is the sense that they’re either witnessing or a part of a paradigm shift. That term is a complicated one, so it’s probably worth explaining for a few moments: In 1962, a man named Thomas Kuhn wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he argued that science is, for the most part, conducted within what he called “paradigms.” A paradigm is a set of (often-unstated) assumptions about the methods and values that should guide scientific inquiry in a particular field. In the paradigm of Newtonian physics, for example, one such assumption is that time is an absolute. In the paradigm of sabermetrics, one such assumption is that player performance is contextual.

Within the framework of a paradigm, something Kuhn called “normal science” takes place. Normal science is problem solving within a paradigm. How much gravity does Jupiter exert upon the earth? How can catcher performance be best measured given the multifarious variables at play? These are problems—worthy ones—that can be solved entirely within the framework of an existing paradigm (Newtonian physics and sabermetrics, respectively). But they don’t change the game. They don’t shift the paradigm.

A paradigm shift happens when someone, maybe Albert Einstein, maybe Bill James, comes along and notices something that niggles. In Einstein’s case, it was that light behaves very strangely when passing by very large objects. In James’ case, it was that the game was valuing players for actions, like driving in runs, that they had severely limited control over. These anomalies run up against fundamental assumptions of their paradigms: contra Newtonian physics, they suggest that time is relative; contra pre-sabermetric baseball thinking, they suggest that player performance is contextual. These anomalies require discipline-wide rethinking of how science should be conducted. They shift the paradigm.

So, in one sense, the best is over. None of the writers of my generation is going to discover that defense and pitching are inextricably linked, or that RBIs are a terrible way to measure a player’s overall offensive value. Those discoveries have already been made, and what’s left for us to do in sabermetrics—worthy work, like better catching statistics or mining Statcast’s data—is tinkering around the edges of an existing paradigm. It’s all problem-solving normal science that’s firmly within the sabermetric school of baseball thought, and that school is now firmly established as the dominant paradigm in baseball thinking.

This has led to some discomfort among the baseball writing community. Some fear that sabermetric analysis has become stale, and unoriginal, and that it at times reaches too close to controversy for controversy’s sake. In some cases, that’s absolutely true. Those are the unfortunate symptoms of operating within a mature scientific paradigm, which sabermetrics now absolutely is. The Jamesian work of shifting the paradigm away from context-free analysis is over. Only the problem-solving normal science remains, and that, yes, can be boring at times.

I do not think, however, that baseball writing and analysis is doomed to stagnation. In fact, I think that a second major paradigm shift is already well underway. It’s being missed, however, and taken for something other than it is, because it’s not about sabermetrics, and it’s not about statistics at all. (How could it be, if those things form the bedrock of the existing paradigm?) It is, instead, about sports within the context of the broader society, and about the renewed humanity of the game.

The best baseball writing I’ve read this year has been about more than baseball. It’s been about politics, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and money, and power, and how they all come together in this game we love. It’s placed the game in its social context, and used it as a lens to talk about ideas that are bigger than the nuts and bolts of a box score or a daily recap. It’s engaged with difficult questions about how to be a fan when players you love are disappointingly flawed and human, and how to be a human being living in an often unjust world.

That is exciting stuff. That is new stuff. That is stuff that sabermetrics does not have language to speak about, though of course the new writing is informed and lives within the context of that which came before it. Indeed, the new writing is not a rejection of sabermetrics, but rather it accepts as givens the tenets of sabermetrics, and moves beyond those givens to speak of worlds and ideas that sabermetrics, by its nature, cannot describe.

Some of the pushback I’ve seen recently has been valid criticism of and frustration with a sabermetric community whose most exciting days are behind it. But, pulling the lens back a little bit, and considering not just sabermetrics but baseball writing in general, some of the pushback is from people who got on board with baseball writing when it required only acceptance of the assumptions of the sabermetrics paradigm, people who were excited by that paradigm’s possibilities, and people who are now finding that same paradigm challenged by writing that moves beyond the subjects those assumptions governed.

These are the people, in short, who write in response to a new-paradigm piece: “Stick to baseball.”

This makes sense. They got on board with baseball writing because the baseball writing they were excited about—sabermetrics—was a new and intellectually stimulating way of thinking about the game. And it didn’t stray from baseball, narrowly understood. But the new writers, who I’ll take the liberty of calling the Intersectionalists, are operating in a different and wider paradigm, and that’s not something folks are used to engaging with.

I wrote, near the top of this piece, that it’s easy to feel that dawning joy and intellectual challenge are hard to find these days in baseball writing. I don’t think that’s true. I think those things exist, in spades, in the work that Intersectionalists are putting out. I think those things are often missing in the sabermetrics community.* And I think a lot of people have a problem with that.

That makes sense. Paradigm shifts are always hard, and always contested. Those who, unlike me, were around and writing when sabermetrics was the new kid on the block, will no doubt remember the battles they waged then. But if you feel baseball writing is getting stale, don’t feel you have to traffic in old war stories—there are battles being fought today around Intersectional writing, and that’s where the blood and the guts and the glory are.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that Intersectional writing isn’t baseball writing at all, and that it is instead culture writing with a focus on baseball. To which I’d say this: all baseball writing is culture writing. Writing of a sabermetric bent is, yes, mostly focused on the way we think about player evaluation within the game, but its foundational ideas are hardly limited to what happens on the field, and have not been kept there: Think of what Nate Silver, a BP alum, has done with political and policy writing at FiveThirtyEight.

And, moreover, baseball writing as a tradition has a broader, decades-long legacy of writing about parents and children, about America’s pre-industrial past, about adolescence growing into adulthood, and about the game as a metaphor for the country and for life. That, too, is culture writing. It just isn’t contested any more, for the most part. The stuff the Intersectionalists are writing about today is.

If you’re a reader who’s uncomfortable with that, that’s okay. New ideas take time and effort to take hold, and I’d challenge you to engage with the ideas that trouble you with as much curiosity and empathy and humanity as you can. And for those Intersectionalists who are already writing pieces at the vanguard, I’d challenge you to do exactly the same with your readers, because they, too, are human. Find them in their humanity, and you’ll have a conversation worth remembering.

*Of course, worthy problem-solving work in the normal science of sabermetrics continues across the landscape, including here at BP, and in agenda-setting pieces like this.

Rian Watt is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rian's other articles. You can contact Rian by clicking here

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