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August 10, 2012

In A Pickle

Why We Want to Be Smart

by Jason Wojciechowski

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For 95 percent of you reading this, baseball is a hobby. You have jobs and kids, cats and lives. You have a lot of things occupying your attention, including things that provide better remuneration than baseball does, yet you, I'm willing to bet, spend quite a lot of time watching baseball, Tweeting about it, blogging, talking with your friends online and off. Most importantly, here's what I think you do: You spend a lot of time thinking about baseball, about teams and players, who is good and who isn't, the best ways to measure these things most accurately, and how on earth Bartolo Colon is still a going concern.

That interest in thinking about the game is what draws us, writers, readers, commenters, editors, database wizards, the whole motley lot of us, together as a committed group of (mostly) amateurs on Baseball Prospectus. What's fascinating, though, about this ever-growing group of amateurs is not so much the amount of dedication, the time and money we spend on the game that won't give us anything tangible back, but the way in which we dedicate ourselves.

So: the way. I think that in part because of the advance of communication technologies that have allowed us both unprecedented access to data and also unprecedented access to a world of people who care about things the way we do, many of us like things in a participatory fashion that I'm not sure we did in decades past. And it's not just baseball, of course, or even just sports. People who love movies or books or comics or TV, or subsets of those (action movies, steampunk romance novels, graphic memoirs, prestige cable dramas), can get together the same way. Baseball nerds have salary and injury data, performance records and PITCHf/x stats. Fans of other entertainment have similar access to news about who has signed as a lead in which television pilot, which author got a three-book deal, and why a studio switched directors late in the development process for a film. And, most importantly in both fandoms, we have places to go on the internet to analyze trades, to second-guess casting choices, to bitch and moan about decisions we'd have made differently.

That is, we don't just watch TV and baseball and like or dislike it, get happy or sad because Bodie died, or because the Indians lost a heartbreaking 13-inning game. We criticize and analyze, we break down the story structure of the TV show, the cinematography, how the episode fits into the arc of the season. We obsess over a pitcher's release point and a catcher's framing and a manager's bunt calls and a GM's propensity to sign decent relievers to multi-year deals. We do this on our own with our blogs and we do this in big groups with comment sections and Twitter.

But here's the problem: I used the word "participatory," and that's not quite right. Really, it's pseudo-participatory. We are participating with each other, certainly, not merely being passive receivers of entertainment, but we are not actually participating in the events with which we are so obsessed. Most of us don't have jobs in baseball or TV or wherever our passions lie, and most of us never will. We toil away in the dark, having no effect at all on our beloved.

To touch on something that repeats my first piece on this very site, there's something absurd about this way we go about our fandom. We sit around in our underpants and complain about the J.A. Happ trade or the Brandon Belt situation without knowing anything about the health status, emotional state, budget, set of feasible alternatives, or anything else important about our favorite team. More and more people, at least in baseball, are understanding what they don't know, but all that's done is refocus our analysis into areas where we can be confident that we have more or less the same data the teams have, like PITCHf/x. It hasn't, in my view, actually reduced our propensity to lean forward while we watch, to think rather than feel.

But what are we getting out of all this obsession? Do we actually enjoy the game more than the people who just show up and cheer? It's clear that we enjoy it differently than those people, but I'm hard-pressed to say that we enjoy it more. If we're engaging with baseball in order to escape from the other parts of our lives for a while, to give us something to do when we're not working, to keep us from thinking about death and deadlines, are we more successfully doing all this than the person who has an uncomplicated relationship with their team, the person who gets elated at wins and sad about losses but doesn't do much deeper analysis than "gosh, Kurt Suzuki sure pops out a lot." While we're worried about a player's trade value and his proper deployment and whether his swing plane has changed since his rookie year, other fans just want him to get a hit. On what scale of value does our method rate higher than theirs?

Now, sure, some of us actually harbor dreams of working in baseball, of having an actual effect on the game, so all this writing on the Internet and thinking deeply about baseball problems is essentially an audition. What those people are getting out of this deep analytical approach to baseball is the possibility of a job or even a career, of being the next Keith Woolner or Mike Fast or Keith Law or Russell Carleton or Sky Andrecheck or Tom Tango. Some of us, though, just like pondering the game and its players without any real desire to join a front office.

But again: why? Why is our energy channeled intellectually instead of emotionally? Not to project my own stuff on all of you, but do we just like feeling smart? I fear that might be part of it, that we get a feeling of superiority over the less analytical fans who cheer sacrifice bunts and intentional walks and think closers are just the cat's meow. This is a natural feeling, one that lots of us share in lots of facets of our lives, but it's one many of us are taught to be ashamed of. It's one, in fact, that I do feel ashamed of, and that I think I should be ashamed of. I don't want to suspect that I'm a smarter person (or, god forbid, a better person) than someone else in general, much less because we approach our mutual interest in baseball from different angles and for different reasons. But I have to confront the possibility that this is what's driving me to be this kind of fan, to put in the kind of time and effort and money it requires to engage with the game this way, because I don't have much else to lean on, as far as reasons go. I mean, was I just born liking math so much that I couldn't bear to be apart from it even while watching a baseball game? That doesn't seem plausible.

Moving from the personal to the societal, I don't have any ready explanations for what's different today about our culture that might have created this type of fandom. The Internet, as I mentioned, has certainly facilitated it, has allowed it to flourish and be more visible and prevalent than in the past, has allowed people with the inclinations toward analysis and criticism to indulge them, but none of that is the same thing as creating the inclinations. I think we still have to look in ourselves.

If we can accept the possibility that we're just bad people who like feeling superior to others, then maybe we can dig a little deeper and also accept the possibility that we're actually missing something as fans, that our deep belief in the power of luck and regression has sapped us of some measure of the ability to live in the moment, to experience the game in the same way that a committed but non-analytical fan does. I'm not a pure spreadsheets guy, of course, and I doubt any of you are either. I like the aesthetic aspects of baseball, the green of the grass and the pretty left-handed swing and the manifestations of #want. I like goofy things, too, like Aroldis Chapman doing somersaults and Jack Cust in the outfield and the Astros making six errors on one play like my age-11 team at its best. But as I've aged and come to really understand how simultaneously predictable (in large samples) and unpredictable (in small) baseball is, I think I've disengaged from the emotional experience of watching a game and following my team. My insistence on getting into arguments about the proper role for Coco Crisp given the relative glut of Oakland outfielders puts up a barrier between me and the visceral experience of baseball that needn't necessarily be there. I see Crisp bat in a tight spot and I think about his contract and the dubious decision to sign him in the first place and how weird the decision looked in light of Yoenis Cespedes falling into the A's lap and how his on-base percentage is never what you'd like from a leadoff hitter and how his arm undermines his range. And almost none of that is relevant in the moment, this edge-of-your-couch moment with the tying run on second and one out in the ninth inning, but it all comes as a package with the name and the face and the weird finger-wiggle thing he does while he's batting and the neck tattoo. I can't pull apart the package. I don't get to pick and choose which elements of the Coco Crisp Experience I permit to come through the TV screen and into my brain. I didn't sign up for the a la carte plan.

Even if that's true, though, even if some of us have, through our obsession with pretending we're general managers, lost some portion of our emotional connection to the game and our team, do we really want to change? I don't. I don't want to close my blog or to only tweet hashtags: "@jlwoj 1-0! #LetsGoOakland." What I really want, and what I obviously cannot have, is a switch. I want to flip on the animal brain, the one where I join the herd of yelling, chanting fans and leave behind the projections and The Sabermetrician's Cookbook. Then I want to flip it off again and go back to scoffing at Ryan Cook being an All-Star. I don't know how to do this. I probably can't do this. But sometimes I want to.

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

Related Content:  Coco Crisp

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