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September 9, 2004

Lies, Damned Lies

Look, a Navel!

by Nate Silver

Perhaps because the presidential campaign is now in full swing--Zell Miller, incidentally, is a good comparable for Larry Bowa--I've been thinking a lot lately about the politics of what we do. If you place hard-core sabermetric orthodoxy on the left and reactionary traditionalism on the right (perhaps this reveals too much about my political leanings), I'd like to think that Baseball Prospectus belongs somewhere in the area of Bill Clinton or maybe John Edwards; a centrist Democrat, so to speak.

It wasn't long ago that we were Ralph Nader. Two things have happened: we have moved to the right and the center has moved to the left. Most of the chapters in our annual book are improved by discussions with scouts and other team officials. Most of the articles that appear on our site fall into the category of hard-hitting but even-handed baseball analysis, using our statistical methods and metrics for support, but not drowning in them. Baseball Prospectus writers have been known to share beers with Baseball America writers.

Meanwhile, The New York Times is running a column every Sunday on baseball analysis (a very good one, I might add), and shock jocks like Max Kellerman are as likely to belt out the phrase "OPS" as they are "clubhouse chemistry". There are analytically friendly administrations in Boston and Los Angeles--two of the flagship franchises in the game--as well in the other places that you folks are familiar with. Perhaps an even more important indication of the progress of the movement is that, in the darker corners of the world, decision-makers are often making "analytically correct" decisions without even realizing it. We might gripe about pitch counts now and then, for example, but they are down radically across the league from where they were even ten years ago.

Does that mean that the battle has been won? Hardly; it is likely to take a while, perhaps a whole generation, before analysis crosses the chasm between the early adopters and the mainstream. Baseball executives, with some notable exceptions, are older men with backgrounds in scouting and player development. Beat writers, by and large, are a worn lot and neither particularly well-versed in analysis nor particularly interested in learning about it. While the Internet and other forms of new media provide fans with greater discretion in just how they take their baseball, there is also an increasing tendency within the media (this means you, ESPN) to take a Paparazzi-like approach toward their sports coverage, with a focus on personalities and storylines rather than numbers and nuance. It will be a quiet revolution, and those tend to be slower than the bloody ones.

In the meantime, I think we are likely to see the emergence of what might be called analytical post-modernism. Sabermetrics, from the very start, has been a remarkably positivist movement: the answers are out there, it is within our capacity to discover them, and their application will provide us with a better world, or at least a better baseball team. There are two things that I think will characterize this post-modern period.

The first of these will be a greater willingness to accept and discuss openly the limitations of analysis. Many of the Hilbert Problems that Keith Woolner describes are likely to be resolved in some way, shape or form. In fact, substantial progress has been made on many fronts, such as the separation of run prevention into pitching and fielding since Keith's essay first ran four years ago. Others, like quantifying the impact of the field manager, are likely never to be solved. PECOTA, I'd like to think, is a post-modern forecasting engine. It uses all of the information available to come up with the best forecast, but also admits freely that a certain amount of uncertainty is intrinsic to the process of forecasting human performance.

This first tendency, by and large, should be helpful to the analytical movement. Being willing to admit when you are wrong, or at least when your knowledge is limited, tends to help one's credibility when pressing the really important points. This is a little piece of psychology that all good politicians (and all good poker players) recognize. There is, in fact, a sort of feedback mechanism at work here: as sabermetrics moves more comfortably toward the orthodoxy, it can acknowledge more freely those places where it performs imperfectly, just as a standing president with a high popularity rating can withstand a scandal that would kill the careers of a thousand lesser-knowns in the party primaries. That admission, in turn, should help to increase the sympathy that traditionalists have for analysis, enhancing dialogue and pushing both sides toward the center.

The other thing that tends to characterize post-modern thinking, however, is a sort of navel-gazing that is useless at best and outright destructive at worst. By that I mean analysts fighting with one another for territory, usually over issues that are ultimately trivial to the movement as a whole. I would like to think, for example, that much of the discourse on the competing methods to evaluate offensive performance boil down to a lot of hot air; the difference between a very good metric and a pretty good one might boil down to a couple of runs over the course of a whole season.

Movements, whether social, political or intellectual, tend to be unified when they have a lot of work to do and when there is a lot to accomplish, and fractionalized when there is not. If sabermetric thinkers come to believe prematurely that their mission has been accomplished, the infighting is likely to increase, and the movement could set its progress back. It is also probably true that the pace of discovery within sabermetric circles will slow as more and more data is analyzed and more and more conclusions have been proclaimed. Baseball, while a wonderfully complex game, is nevertheless a closed system, and the returns on further research efforts are likely to diminish.

I am not going to try and boil all of this down into some nice, meaty conclusion; think of this week's column as an Etch-A-Sketch rather than rather than a painting hanging on the wall of the Louvre. I am not even certain that the characterization of sabermetrics as political movement is correct; it may be more proper to think of it as technology, and technology has a way of marching along, ignorant of the desires of its inventors.

I will now go back to doing something useful, like watching Chris Matthews.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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