On Sunday afternoon, a column appeared on the Cincinnati Enquirer's website. It was written by Paul Daugherty, their long-time sports columnist, who's not a monstrous person. He's often guilty of tiresome provocation (see his column from a year ago, suggesting that Joey Votto should have forced his way back into the lineup despite lingering injuries), but he's also an advocate for people with disabilities. I'm telling you this because, although we're about to have a complicated and uncomplimentary conversation about what Daugherty wrote this weekend, it's important that the whole thing not devolve into an exchange of personal jabs. (I've had that version of the same conversation recently enough; it's not productive.)
No, I bring up the Daugherty column because I think we should discuss, in a bit more depth than is typical of these things, what exactly causes friction between those of us who use statistics to analyze baseball and those who decry them. To do that, let's start by establishing what, exactly, Daugherty was saying. The article's thesis statement:
The new numbers sap at the game's soul, because they don't recognize the game's soul. They see xFIP, BABIP and wOBA. I think Babip was a character in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy: "Make haste, Babip! The Orcs are storming the transoms!"
And a bullet point rundown of his premise and main points, to save some time and effort:
Marlon Byrd, in Daugherty's estimation, gets short shrift from advanced baseball metrics. Daugherty mentions a key walk, scoring from first on a double, and an infield hit as things Byrd did "that don't appear on a spreadsheet." (We'll leave aside the fact that, yes, they actually do appear on spreadsheets, if you cull the right data. All of those events are on-field actions well-measured by fairly simple stats.)
From the injustice the numbers inflict upon Byrd, Daugherty draws some indignation, and broadens his target to analytics in general: "Nouveau numbers are taking over the major leagues. Which is fine, as long as they're caged in the conference rooms with the Reds logo-ed swivel chairs. Metrics are an accepted, effective way of doing advanced business in baseball now. Scoff at them at your peril. [¶] But numbers-driven hyper-analysis should have its limits."
Having widened his scope and scanned the landscape, Daugherty finds two more specific targets worth sniping: Statcast's batted-ball data, and our own Deserved Run Average. He does some line-for-line taking-down of a Sports on Earth article espousing the virtues of those Statcast stats (most notably, average exit velocity), specifically targeting the fact that Pedro Alvarez appears on the leaderboard thereof: "Pedro Alvarez is not a good hitter. He's not even average. I don't care if the next ball he hits leaves his bat at the speed of sound. He's marginal. Being a Pirates fan, I have the misfortune of watching Alvarez. The notion that he ranks very high in Average Exit Velocity means less than nothing to any Buccos fan with eyeballs."
As for DRA: "Baseball Prospectus needed a mere 3,700 words to explain how it devised DRA, several of which I actually understood. [¶] After all the calculator calisthenics, BP decided that Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson were really good. [¶] Some unsolicited advice for you people: [¶] Get out in the daylight and go for a walk."
Daugherty closes with a refrain we've heard many times before: "To worship the numbers doesn't require you to watch the games. You might not see Marlon Byrd's hustle, or know how many hits Brandon Phillips obliterates with his range and athleticism. Anyone who decided Darwin Barney was a better defensive second baseman than Phillips in 2012 very likely relied solely on numbers. [¶] Numbers add to his enjoyment of baseball. Always have. [¶] An overabundance of numbers leaves me grateful for my eyesight."
I've done Fire Joe Morgan–style column-bashing enough times for one lifetime. It's a worthwhile fight, but since it hasn't changed the hearts or minds of people like Daugherty, I want to run at this from a different angle.
I get where people like Daugherty are coming from. Their generation was raised to believe that sports are a theater, like any other, in which character is to be celebrated and rewarded. Their parents idolized Jesse Owens, then Lou Gehrig, then Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, then Jackie Robinson. These were heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and of World War II, men who overcame real and meaningful obstacles, and who were treated as symbols of various virtues (not undeservedly, of course).
The natural extension of this mentality is that the players who work hardest, focus most intently, want it worst and conduct themselves most professionally will find the most success. You get out what you put in. Everything gotten is earned, and everything earned is gotten. That's not only the way people of that generation conceptualize sports, but the ideal toward which they have spent their lives aspiring. Many of them even believe that it's really how the world works.
It isn't so, of course. That's why, despite Marlon Byrd's remarkable good faith, despite his hustle (at the risk of his 37-year-old hamstrings), his newfound plate discipline (he's walked in 9 percent of his plate appearances this year, his best rate since 2008), and his very good power (his .230 ISO—don't glaze over yet, Paul!—is a career best), he's hitting .212/.286/.442 as an aging left fielder. His failure to produce positive value for the Reds to this point in the season is real; that doesn't mean it's really reflective of Byrd's talent right now. Byrd has a .324 career BABIP, and it was .347 over the last two seasons, but this year, it's .225. That affects value delivered, but it's just bad luck. Marlon Byrd is working hard to stay on top of his game at an advanced age, doing everything right, but getting nothing but bad breaks for his labor. Which, of course, is how the world really works, even though people of Daugherty's disposition are reticent to believe it.
Many of the people who sparked and (subsequently) led the sabermetric revolution rebutted the notion that baseball is any kind of morality play. In doing so, they aimed to take away some of the ammunition commentators too often used to attack players, or to artificially raise them up. Clutch hitting is rarely, if ever, a reflection of poise under pressure. Runs batted in are not a proxy for unselfishness or intellect or manfulness. Errors don't necessarily signify faltering focus, jittery nerves, or poor preparation. It was important and worthwhile to make these points, so that we could begin to appreciate players more and spend less of our time engaged in cynical, overly personal criticism.
Along the way, though, we did lose something. What Daugherty and his ilk want desperately to remind people is that baseball should mean something, beyond simple diversion and beyond the ups and downs of fandom. When Daugherty says numbers "sap at the game's soul," what he's really observing is that the outcome of the game seems to matter more than ever, yet less significance is assigned to that outcome than ever. He isn't wrong.
As a society, we give a great deal of our time, our passion, and our money to sports. That shouldn't be an investment purely in self-indulgence. Baseball does have important lessons to teach us, like that bad luck can mask good decisions and good processes, and that the former shouldn't chase us away from the latter. It can teach us the value of thorough, critical thinking, and of hearing one another out: If Daugherty had read but a little farther in that Sports on Earth piece, he would have seen that A.J. Cassavell, who wrote it, agrees that Alvarez isn't a good hitter. As Cassavell pointed out, Alvarez swings and misses far, far too often, trying to hit the daylights out of the ball, and that leads to both impressive average exit velocity and unimpressive OPS. We should be better at recognizing the half-truths in data, and stop calling those half-truths lies. Baseball can help us there.
Baseball also can (and should) teach us about discourse. One thing we can learn from all of the numbers and all of the analyses and all of the talk shows and all of the podcasts is that there are hundreds of ways to deconstruct a baseball game, and that painting one or two of those segments with too broad a brush will tend to mischaracterize another segment or two. That mischaracterization begets defensiveness, and that defensiveness begets side-choosing, and that side-choosing begets entrenchment. That's how we've come to this place where some baseball fans feel fundamentally alienated from others, even though they share a joyous common interest. We have fans who agree on many things about baseball, but barely even know it, because they're so uncomfortable with disagreement that they ignore the common ground. (If you can't see other areas of American life in which the same problems have cropped up, look harder.)
We have tools of nuance our parents and grandparents could only dream of: technology that allows single conversations to carry on over a day, or a week, or a month, in infinite space, regardless of the proximity of the participants; computers and cameras and reference mechanisms that make information unbelievably easy to attain and to process; and such specialization that there is an expert in nearly every remote slice of life. We ought to use those tools better, the way Jonathan Judge and Harry Pavlidis and Dan Turkenkopf did when they meticulously built the best stat yet for measuring pitching value. Sharing their process afforded the new statistic credibility, by making it transparent, and we had the luxury of doing that because we are in no danger of running out of digital pages to fill with information about that process. Daugherty was within his rights not to read the introductory piece, and I'm glad that he tried, but he shouldn't have taken the authors to task for embracing the complexity of the issue and laying it out for readers. That's what makes DRA the best, after all: it embraces complexity. It uses the remarkable specificity of our data about everything that happens on a baseball diamond to isolate one actor's role in the action. That's not a simple process, but it's still worthwhile.
One last thing: the world needs creative problem solvers. It needs people who think more about what could and should happen, and less about what might or what will. It needs people who can identify measurable factors that affect the way a larger system operates, and who can build tools to perform those measurements. It needs people who are comfortable with data (even upsetting or counterintuitive data), who don't fear intellectualism or objectivity, and who can use those things to attack complicated, multi-factor problems with equal parts logic and imagination. Baseball can help us with these things, and it should. We should gleefully accept that no number perfectly measures anything in baseball, but that the measurements we do have are worthwhile ways to describe the game, and to deepen our understanding of it. We should learn to identify genuine expertise in some area of baseball analysis, and we should trust (though not blindly trust) what the experts say about that area, even if it means subjugating our own opinion or insight on the issue to theirs.
These probably all sound like monumentally difficult things to ask humans to do. They are. That's why we can't start by asking them to do them with regard to politics or economics or social norms or cataclysmic climatological events. For schoolchildren, games are often instruction in disguise, exercises in applied problem-solving. Baseball can be that, without our enjoyment of it diminishing one iota. Daugherty wants baseball to get its soul back; so do I. I just don't think he is going to find it by sprinting headlong into the past, reaching back for something he'll never get. We live in an age of information and realism, and the way that baseball can get its soul back is by becoming what the United States has always asked it to be: an exemplar for the society we want, and a reflection of the society we have. We live in a world so well-informed it's become severely pessimistic. We need one with a brighter outlook, but the same level of dogged focus on getting the truth. If we can start by talking about baseball factually and scientifically, but still leave room for enthusiasm, even joy, we'll be getting somewhere.
Thank you for reading
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