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November 21, 2012
Why We Need Sabermetrics
The Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Hirshhorn in Washington isn’t about baseball, but it is indirectly about ways of seeing baseball differently. Well, really it’s about ways of seeing everything differently. So perhaps it’s appropriate here to revive the old saw that when your only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. I left thinking about baseball—or rather, thinking about thinking about baseball. A dancer would probably leave thinking about choreography, a banker about the economy.
Ai Weiwei’s gift is in the way he makes you rethink your own tools, your own subject. The Hirshhorn retrospective is called According to What?, a title borrowed from a 1964 Jasper Johns painting. Ai situates himself in Johns’ pop-art tradition, which is perhaps why thoughts of baseball seem near to hand: it may be a national pastime, but the game is also a pop icon as much as Mao is. Its solemnities are ripe for sentimentality and sentimentality’s (more) evil twin, kitsch, and ripe too for sheer, soulless moneymaking.
Ai’s title adds a question mark to the original Johns title, According to What. This is key. The whole nature and purpose of Ai’s art, which is defiant and confrontational even when it is also plainly beautiful (which it is often not), is to interrogate everything: China and its authoritarian rule, the assumed use and meaning of materials and objects, the number of dead children in a devastating earthquake, the point of art itself.
Ai is less like an “artist” than what we usually think the word means. He is not a gifted painter, sculptor, photographer, draughtsman, or maker of objects. He is, rather, a mastermind, a conceptualist who is part sage, part jester, part provocateur, part showman. He himself appears in much of his work. As he puts it, “the so-called contemporary art is not a form but a philosophy of society.” The work on display at the Hirshhorn—highly political, historically charged, nakedly self-promoting, at times merely prankish, often deeply troubling—backs up his words.
It is appropriate that SABR starts with Society. Sabermetrics is a philosophy of the society of baseball: a contemporary art form. Like conceptual art, sabermetrics has helped complicate and confound its subject, baseball, and that is what baseball needed: the sport was always more complex, more deliciously vexing, than almost any way of approaching it had previously managed to convey. The field is controversial. It is called unbeautiful, even offensive. It edges into the mainstream, where it hangs awkwardly among the established, comfortable, unthreatening, essentially indistinguishable landscapes and still-lifes that still dominate the museum of baseball. The old ways hold sway.
Sabermetrics is a resistance movement. The censorious, authoritarian, fearful voice insists on Miguel Cabrera as MVP. It prevails, and perhaps it should. There is much to be said for accomplishing a season-long feat not seen since 1967. But Mike Trout’s apologists, essentially the sabermetric community (and, sure, Angels fans), throw doubt into the old reactionary voice, make it sound at times creaky, shrill, peremptory. We still got to Miguel Cabrera, but we got there differently.
The old voice has old eyes. It wants to hide the numbers. One of the best pieces in According to What? is a war memorial-like list of all the names and birthdates, verified by Ai and his team of researchers, of the children who died in the 2008 Sichuan province earthquake. Disembodied voices recite the names in order. Most of the birthdates are from the 1990s. The Chinese government, for its part, has literally buried some of the evidence.
So let’s step back. No one has died under baseball’s negligent designs or rule, as they have in China. This remains nothing more than a pastime: a heavily symbolic one, a morally freighted one (Black Sox, Jackie Robinson, PEDs), but still a pastime. We are not dealing in lives here, only in who controls values. Still, values—and baseball—are at the heart of American cultural existence. Baseball is an essential material of our national cultural life. Mom, apple pie, Chevrolet. You walk out of the Hirshhorn and onto the Smithsonian Mall and you can see the Washington Monument, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial. These are the historical materials. Who is to occupy (or even #occupy) them? After Ai, you stand there, very small in that grand-scale place, and think about the presidential election we just had. The buildings around you signify differently.
And if you’re a baseball writer, you think about another election we just had: the post-season awards. You think about the ideological war going on there, or rather the WAR, or even the WARP if you prefer. “Warp” comes from a word that means to turn, to bend. Sabermetrics, a youth movement of sorts, is the bend baseball needed. WARP “shows” (or argues, anyway) that Trout was not only the more valuable player than Cabrera but that he was more valuable by a wide margin, and in 22 fewer games at that. According to what?
This year, David Price, to Justin Verlander’s chagrin, won the Cy Young with the benefit of old-school numbers: he had the magical 20 wins to go with a league-best 2.56 ERA, just 0.08 better than Verlander’s. Felix Hernandez, in 2010, had the ERA but not the wins, so you can see how Price’s case would be even more appealing in light of Hernandez’s 2010 win. Price’s pitcher WARP in 2012 was sixth-best in the AL. Felix Hernandez’s was fourth. It’s not that sabermetrics is now carrying the day; rather, sabermetrics is helping to complicate it. That is to be desired. What we see with our own eyes is not enough. What we see with WARP, in fact, is likewise not enough.
Do I misunderstand WARP? Yes, of course, to some extent. We all misunderstand WARP, and our own publication virtually announces that fact. Hold your mouse over the WARP header on the BP stats page. Up pops a dialogue box whose text begins: “Perhaps no sabermetric theory is more abstract than that of the replacement-level player.” Last year’s Annual included this cautionary word: “Replacement level is a moving target.”
But let’s not retreat from WARP. The stat works quite well, overall, and it shows us new value in new ways. It champions utility, for example, to a degree we never fully appreciated previously, and I use WARP a lot—never more so than while recently writing player comments for the Annual, in fact. (I presume Ben Zobrist’s agent uses it, too.) Still, the measure of replacement level, which is the currency of sabermetric thought, is built on an abstraction, and that is as dangerous (and exciting) as building a country on a document, which is to say that constant amendment, trial, and even quarrel are necessary. It is better, as Yeats reminds us, to quarrel with ourselves—to examine our own relationship to and use of WARP—than to quarrel with others, as Bruce Jenkins has recently cajoled us into doing.
So I recently asked my BP colleagues about replacement level: What is it, exactly? How is it derived?
I got three replies. One mock-congratulated me for asking “the stat-nerd version of ‘What is the meaning of life?’” and offered a partial answer. Another asked me to pass along whatever wisdom might come to me in other responses to my question. The third was a joke involving Hideki Matsui and 50 feet of what for the sake of this article I will call dirt. So I ordered Baseball Between the Numbers for Keith Woolner’s chapter on the subject of the replacement player. I cover Triple-A baseball. I need to know what replacement level is, because Triple-A is the level where most of the replacements play. I am determined to get to the bottom of this.
But can I? What comes to mind is this, from another philosopher of society, Henry David Thoreau:
Men are making speeches… all over the country, but each expresses only the thought, or the want of thought, of the multitude. No man stands on truth. They are merely banded together as usual, one leaning on another and all together on nothing; as the Hindoos made the world rest on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise, and had nothing to put under the tortoise.
Another version, written by Stephen Hawking, is more fun and perhaps closer to the present problem:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
The replacement level player is the tortoise of sabermetrics. And because he goes up and down, fleetingly, constantly, between the majors and minors, because at any given time his exact production is hard to measure, because today’s replacement-level player is tomorrow’s breakout up-and-comer, and because he is not a single tortoise but actually an amalgamation of them all “leaning on [one] another and all together on nothing,” he is turtles all the way down. There is no ur-Replacement Player, no Mario Mendoza and his firm and unchanging .200 to hang as a portrait of mediocrity. Our sabermetric tortoise is conceptual art—he is the recondite meaning of life, sequestered in his uncrackable shell, and there is about him a reticent, ineffable mystique. Yet he is also, like Ai Weiwei, a persecuted and endangered species, carrying on his back a massive world of philosophical thought about baseball.
Fortunately, he moves slowly, and if we can’t quite grasp him, at least we can keep up with his plodding steps. But because we can never guess where they will lead, sabermetrics will always be a resistance movement—and that is as it should be. It thrives on militating against all complacencies and vagueness, including its own. If it should ever take power, its rightful move should be to abdicate. Long live the resistance. But let it never win. Wins are, after all, overrated.
That is one way of ending: with rhetoric, the quarrel with others. But let me leave you instead with this little piece of art-poetry that forced the viewer to quarrel with himself.
Yes, when your only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. But if you keep using the tool, and use it well, you’ll find nails. To wit: After my wife and I had taken in the Ai Weiwei retrospective, we went down to the basement level of the Hirshhorn, where the gift shop is. We have a little couple-tradition of buying a postcard from every museum we visit. Oddly, this gift shop had no individual postcards for sale, only books of them, and I quickly lost interest.
I wandered down the corridor and found another installation half-hidden down there, almost like an afterthought, called The Opening Day. You walked into a black-box room. On the left wall was a video projection of a pitcher wearing a uniform emblazoned with the word Fortitudo. Every few seconds, against a black backdrop, he reached off-screen for a baseball. He’d wind up and deliver in the direction of the opposite wall, 60 feet and six inches away, where there was another screen. On this screen were arrangements on a table of what appeared to be cheap knockoffs of painted porcelain dishes and objets d’art, the sort you find in Chinatown shops and chintzy “art” galleries.
The pitcher—Italian Baseball Leaguer Fabio Betto, as I later learned, of a club called Fortitudo Bologna—shattered a large number of these sculptural still-lifes: sometimes on the first pitch, sometimes deeper in the count, after missing with a few tosses or breaking off just a fragment of china. Between Betto on one screen and the pottery on the other, there was nothing but black, empty space. You, the viewer, stood by the path where the arc of the ball should have been. So the effect was: Set, deal—lacuna—smash. Set, deal—cognitive gap—thud. (Here is Rovaldi’s computer-adjusted version of the installation.)
The 60-foot, six-inch flight is the narrative logic that connects the pitch to its result. That linear continuity is so comforting, so regular that we seldom even have to think about the ball’s flight. It’s fast enough that, most of the time, I’m not even aware of watching a pitched baseball travel from pitcher to plate. I just trust that it does. But when the reasoning you have always trusted is simply not there, you become riveted to cause and effect, to phenomenon and explanation. Standing in the empty place where your assumptions were, you have only your wits as a replacement.