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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

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

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BurrRutledge

Nice thoughts, Jason. Good article.

But don't be ashamed of being smart. Don't be ashamed of being smarter than somebody else. I'd suggest, while I struggle with this myself on occasion, is that you should try not to judge yourself or others based on these facts.

You write about being detached from the emotions you used to have for the sport or a particular team based upon your understanding of the deeper statistical forces at work. I gained that detachment from the '94 strike, when I concluded that I cared more about my team than either the owners or the players. That conclusion may have been incorrect, but I've never regained that same emotional attachment. I don't judge it, it's just the way it is. I don't think I could go back, either. But I have friends who still have that attachment, and I'm sure you do, too.

Go Red Sox!

Aug 10, 2012 05:54 AM
rating: 0
 
Schere

"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. "

BEER.

Aug 10, 2012 06:40 AM
rating: 9
 
Eric C. Johnson

For some of us, it is very hard to simply enjoy something for the sake of itself(though it is a very admirable trait). Much appreciated Jason.

Aug 10, 2012 08:00 AM
rating: 0
 
juniusworth

Fantastic, thanks jason. I'm struggling with this now.

Aug 10, 2012 08:58 AM
rating: 0
 
Bob Stocking

In my professional life I teach a workshop that helps people think more deeply about their work. My company believes that the better you can get at analyzing your work, the better you'll perform at it. And while I do think one reason why people like the workshop is that they feel smarter when they return to their work, the deeper satisfaction our tools offer is the sense of understanding and competence they feel more often as they do their jobs.

I think my interest in a developing a sabermetric understanding of baseball offers a similar feeling of satisfaction. It might be enough for some to watch baseball at a yeah-we-win/boo-we-lose level, but that level is not deep and does not last. I think many BP readers are here not just to look smarter than other fans, but because we really want to understand this game we love at a deeper level. For me, reading BP *sustains* my satisfaction at watching baseball. Sure, I'm still irrational in my responses to how my beloved Red Sox are playing, but I have no trouble meshing those reactions with wanting to understand their travails at a deeper level.

As Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Aug 10, 2012 09:28 AM
rating: 5
 
adamlcox

Excellent article. There is a balance, I think, which is easier for some than others. For my part, having to explain baseball to my kids makes me break it down into animal brain terms, which helps me keep it simple. But when they're teenagers, I'm sure our conversations will all revolve around them explaining advanced statistics to me again, the little braniacs.

Aug 10, 2012 09:49 AM
rating: 0
 
steve.k

Nice article. I've often wondered about my baseball obsession - it's been around since I was about 11 and I became AARP eligible several years ago.

You hinted at something I've kinda realized over the years. We baseball fans relate to baseball in many different ways. Said differently, baseball is the proverbial big tent, that acomodates fans whose interest can be in all sorts of directions. I tend toward the historical, the numbers, the trivial. But I can relate to the guy who wants to talk about a swing or a windup, or uniform colors, whatever.

BP feeds me on various levels. Keep up the good work.

Aug 10, 2012 09:51 AM
rating: 0
 
smitty

Indeed. I am also in my 50s. I love Sabermetrics having started to read Bill James' Abstracts starting in 1982. But I also love that someone like Eric Bruntlett can be a World Series hero. I enjoy getting into discussions about WAR and UZR and PECOTA and all that stuff. I hate math but I like to talk about regression to the mean. I even understand some of the BP articles with charts and lots of numbers and complicated formulae. I enjoy talking baseball with friends who don't know much about Saber stuff and care even less. Baseball is the greatest game ever. People can enjoy it at all sorts of levels. My wife, who doesn't know a PECTOTA projection from Bill PECOTA himself likes going to games. I may have an advantage because I'm older and not all that smart anyways. But I really enjoy everything about the game.

Aug 10, 2012 12:06 PM
rating: 2
 
RedsManRick

Good article. However, while I agree that we like "being smart", I would argue a nuance. It's not necessarily that we like being judged as "being smart" by our peers (though we do). Rather, it's that we enjoy the act of "being smart". The process of exchanging ideas, learning and teaching, is enjoyable.

Sure, I LOVE it when somebody recognizes my brilliance (faux arrogance intended). But the reality is that I just like thinking about stuff.

Aug 10, 2012 10:04 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

God I love this site. A wonderfully thoughtful article followed by a whole bunch of thoughtful, intelligent comments. Where else online can you find this? (I realize I work here now and this comment could be seen as advertising, but please take me at my word that I just find it refreshing as heck to read all of the above.)

As to the meat of it, I often wonder about that dichotomy, the head versus the heart, as it were. I find that even as I've grown more into a sabermetric understanding of baseball, I'm still able to get upset when the Red Sox lose. I'm not sure that's desirable or not, but that's the way it is. It still bothers me. Sometimes it bothers me because I know that they were the better team on the field that day and the luck of the baseball gods just was not with them.

As to personal experience (and then I promise I'll shut up), I find that when I watch games at home I often watch them with more of a sabermetric slant, so to speak. But when I'm lucky enough to attend a game, the MUST WIN fan in me comes out. I yell, drink a few beers and have a good time.

Thanks for the thought provoking article, Jason, and for some great comments. Made my afternoon.

Aug 10, 2012 14:38 PM
 
David Jackson

I was beginning to think I was approaching baseball like a scientist (or more realistically, a blackjack player). Cold, analytical, looking for perfect play and deriding strategic mistakes.

Then I was at Johan's no hitter. Yep. Still a screaming eight-year-old fan.

Aug 10, 2012 15:43 PM
rating: 1
 
cmellinger

Excellent article. I started to write a long response but discovered that I would need to think about this a lot more to say anything coherent. (Probably because I am even older than any of other responders have admitted.) I enjoyed it and it will probably inspire me to write down my thoughts somewhere. Maybe the grandchildren will read it sometime.

Aug 11, 2012 06:57 AM
rating: 0
 
Dodger300

What I like best about the Jack Cust Experience is remembering this:

Cust represented the tying run, uncontested on his way to an uncovered home plate, and fell down to get tagged out, thus ending the game.

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

Aug 12, 2012 03:46 AM
rating: 0
 
lmarighi

I would agree with a couple of previous posters that it's necessarily "being smarter than others" that we like, as just feeling knowledgeable, of feeling confident that when we answer a question asked to us by someone (a friend, a spouse, a child), we are telling them things that are closer to fact than to figments of pop psychology.
For myself, I don't find it interfering as much these days with my enjoyment as a fan. I'm able to watch Brandon Hicks hit the walk-off home run and just cheer and be happy. Sure, a few minutes later I'm on the Internet trying to figure out if Billy Beane can pull of a trade for a real shortstop, but that glorious moment of irrational happiness is still there for me, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
All that said, I really enjoyed the article, Jason, and appreciate the thoughtful comments already made here.

Aug 12, 2012 07:57 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Andrew Koo
BP staff

Terrific piece, Jason.

I want to say all of us began as emotional fans. Most baseball watchers didn't simply dive into the sport perceiving it as say, an academic problem that we want to solve or write a proof for.

Thinking back to when I was a kid (like 11 years old), I would label myself as that superiority chaser, to feel smarter about sports than all the other kids in my class. I'd study boxscores and watch tons of games and blab off to anyone who'd listen. I passed that emotional phase really quickly.

Perhaps that's where it all began, but now, that feeling has worn off and been replaced by indulging in the internet sabermetric community, and instead of chasing for superiority, it's for curiosity and knowing that the knowledge ceiling will always be pushed higher and higher. I think many of us are in that pursuit, and it perhaps surpasses the emotional value of baseball. We problem-solve every day in our lives at home and work; what's better than putting one's problem solving skills or intellectual thoughts in a sport we love?

But we still remember the time we were in the emotional phase, and there are memories of what that felt like, and I agree, sometimes I'd want that switch too. But it's great that sometimes, we see leaping human beings like Mike Trout rob home runs, or filthy sliders, or perfect swings that transcend metrics and analysis and bring that emotional side back.

Aug 12, 2012 16:01 PM
 
R.A.Wagman

One advantage of having the emotional switch (usually) turned off, is that it hurts much less when your team's play isn't really conducive to emotional outbursts. Allows for the game to be enjoyed in another way.

Aug 13, 2012 11:51 AM
rating: 0
 
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