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March 12, 2013
The Tyranny of Acronyms
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In the late 1930s, MIT-trained economist Stuart Chase left his post as one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers (the so-called “brain trust”) and published a book that built upon Alfred Korzybski’s pioneering work in a field that the Polish-American philosopher/scientist referred to as “general semantics.” Korzybski believed that that the human brain reacts to language in a manner similar to the way Pavlov’s dogs reacted to the ringing of a bell, processing words as their own self-contained reality rather than symbols that express underlying facts. Man sees words “Olivia Wilde,” man salivates.
One can see how a social scientist in the age of Hitler and Stalin and the New Deal would find himself intrigued by a theory that assigns language a severity similar to that of electric shocks and psychotropic drugs. Korzbyski’s work is particularly fascinating when you consider it through the lens of the current political world, where the realities of our society sometimes feel like they have been replaced by the realities created by our two dominant political groups and the various mediums through which they deliver their messages. If the reality created by the term “food stamp” differs from brain to brain, then it is logical to suggest that when that term is attached to the first African-American president of the United States, it has the ability to create a reality for one group of like-minded people that is quite different from the reality created for another group of like minds. Looking down the road a few years, it is fair to wonder whether somebody who identifies himself by the name “Bush” would be able to overcome the reality of that word as it exists in the minds of a certain segment of voters when they consider a candidate for the presidency.
None of us is immune from what Chase referred to as a “Tyranny of Words,” which he picked as the title of his book on the subject. In order to convince you to read the rest of this column, I might have to overcome one of the various realities that I may have created by citing a scholarly work from a left-leaning economist in my first piece for Baseball Prospectus.
Reality A: This guy thinks he’s smart.
Hopefully you will accept the reality that exists in my mind: After reading about Chase’s “Tyranny of Words” in another (far less scholarly) book, I hit up the Google, read a few excerpts, and found that they jibed with a belief that I have developed during my five-plus years of reporting on and writing about the sport of baseball. Call it the “Tyranny of Acronyms.”
One of the difficulties in writing about baseball for a newspaper readership lies in selecting words that will effectively convey a message to an audience that can include anyone from a 24-year-old statistics major at Penn to a 75-year-old resident of Northeast Philly who is still pissed that the bunny ears on top of his black-and-white television no longer work. One of the few commonalities between the two demographics is that they both include a faction of people who react with extreme disgust when you attempt to analyze or report performance using metrics that they deem to be hogwash (although the 75-year-olds are more likely to use words like “hogwash” when communicating their disgust to you; also, those words are more likely to be delivered via landline voicemail or the United States Postal Service). The ability to write for different platforms helps to mitigate the problem, but a newspaper story will still generate a few derisive emails if it refers to a player’s batting average (thankfully, these are usually under 140 characters), and a blog entry will still generate plenty of angry comments if it cites WPA or SIERA (both of which could be featured in the forthcoming Sporcle challenge, “Baseball metric or New Deal agency?”).
The irony in these reactions—other than the similar levels of vitriol employed by both sets of people—is that when you, the writer, counter with an explanation of the rationale you employed when you chose a specific method of quantifying performance, the once-outraged reader often ends up agreeing with the choice. Most times, the reader is reacting to the acronym itself instead of the fact that it represents.
Take the two common reactions to the term, “FIP.”
Because we are readers of Baseball Prospectus, most of us are prone to Reaction A. But that does not mean that we are operating with brains that have evolved to the point where they are immune from Reaction B. For example, how would your brain have reacted if I had started this column off by telling you that, since 2006, no player in the major leagues has more RBIs than Ryan Howard? And what if I told you that I was going to use part of my allotted space to defend the RBI as a legitimate part of a player’s record? If I read those words from another writer, my internal siren would have started flashing, “Fraudulent! Fraudulent! Fraudulent!”
The context is that I have come to accept celebrating a person’s RBIs the same way I accept celebrating a person’s birthday. While I do not judge a person’s success as a human being on their ability to maintain their vital signs for an entire calendar year, I will partake in the societal custom that says he or she should be honored for doing so. Besides, I like cake.
We don’t hear about a person’s turning 100 and scoff that it should not be news because the ability to live a long life is so dependent on variables outside an individual’s control that it is not an accurate barometer of his or her survival skills. We might request that they provide us with more relevant data before hiring them as a nutritionist or personal trainer, but we would not hesitate to offer congratulations for, or perhaps even marvel at, their continued existence above the ground.
When Charlie Manuel gets agitated with reporters, he will sometimes refer to us as “stat guys.” As in, “You guys are stat guys, go look it up.” His use of “stat guy” as a term of derision does not stem from a hatred of numbers or the underlying events that the numbers represent (in fact, if you listen to him talk, you will often hear him describing a principle that is an acronym away from being a metric). Rather, it is the product of the perception that “stat guys” think that everything can be explained, or evaluated, or predicted based on numbers. Indeed, one of the chief goals of many of our advanced analytics is to eliminate, or at least account for, context. But to many athletes, coaches and fans, the elimination of context means the elimination of the point of sports. They do not react negatively to the metric Wins Above Replacement because they undervalue a player’s ability to reach base, hit for power, or play defense. They react negatively because the word WAR (or WARP) is often used by people whom they believe undervalue other important variables.
With the Phillies in 2012, Hunter Pence had a 92 OPS+ with runners in scoring position relative to his overall OPS+ and a 91 OPS+ relative to the league’s split level. In Jayson Werth’s contract year in 2010, he had a 50 OPS+ with RISP relative to his total OPS+. Both years, the conventional wisdom among the coaching staff was that the players were putting too much pressure on themselves, Werth in advance of his free agency, Pence in light of injuries to Howard and Chase Utley.
In every year since 2007, Howard has posted an OPS+ of greater than 105 with RISP relative to his overall OPS+, and he has posted an OPS+ of greater than 131 relative to the league split level with RISP, including 181 last season, when his overall OPS+ was a career-low 91. While RBIs might not be a good measure of total offensive production, and while they most definitely are not a good justification for tacking on five years and $125 million to an existing contract, you can understand why a manager believes them to be significant.
What we might be talking about here is the difference between microanalytics and macroanalytics. A seven-game series in late October might not be the best tool for declaring one of 30 teams the champion of a 162-game baseball season, but try telling that to the team that loses. Two championship trophies may not validate a general manager’s plan for building success, but I’m not sure that Brian Sabean will offer to switch careers with Billy Beane or John Schuerholz anytime soon. The World Series is a small sample size, but that does not make its results any less real.
In “Tyranny of Words,” Chase derides classical economists who shout down the existence of “technological employment,” citing the net rise in living standards that an industrial society enjoys as it becomes more efficient. He tells the story of a mechanic named Roy Thompson, who loses his job and his marketability thanks to advances in technology. Roy owns a house in a town where is raising a family and cannot relocate. He does not have savings to invest in training for a new job. Writes Chase, “It is two very different things to talk about 'technological unemployment' as a net statistical effect and to observe Roy in his perplexity and discouragement.”
Perhaps it is also two very different things to talk about Wins Above Replacement as a net statistical effect and to watch Howard drive home the winning runs in a late-May baseball game, or to talk about a player’s likely performance with runners in scoring position over the course of his career and to watch him struggle through an 0-for-14 slump in the here and now. Maybe the war is about WAR the word and not WAR the concept. Maybe the schism is not a theological divide. Maybe it is little more than a case study in the power of semantics, in the tyranny of words. Or acronyms.