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Over the past few weeks—partly, I think, as a consequence of our continued shared home in the baseball purgatory known as the offseason—I’ve read a number of takes that run something like this:

“Nothing I read about baseball is original any more. I don’t want to read a million pieces about defensive shifts and catcher framing, or over-written political pieces, or hot takes trying to be original; I’d just like to read something like I used to in the good old days of BP/the sabermetric community/baseball writing.”

I get that. Nobody wants to be bored or offended or have their intelligence insulted by the writing that they’ve chosen to make a part of their day, and that they once were inspired by. And most of us who were inspired, at one point or another, by the early sabermetric writers remember the dawning joy we felt when our minds first came into contact with DIPS, or contextualized offensive statistics, or even—if we’re really going back to it—with the merits of on-base percentage relative to batting average, or the general importance of looking out for the next great competitive advantage. It’s easy to chase the feeling of excitement and intellectual challenge that we felt then, and equally easy to feel that it’s hard to find these days.

So there’s a lot of hand-wringing about this period in the baseball writing community— the period we’re in now—being something lesser than what came before it. “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor,” said Tony Soprano, speaking about something else entirely. “But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

What people are missing, I think, is the sense that they’re either witnessing or a part of a paradigm shift. That term is a complicated one, so it’s probably worth explaining for a few moments: In 1962, a man named Thomas Kuhn wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he argued that science is, for the most part, conducted within what he called “paradigms.” A paradigm is a set of (often-unstated) assumptions about the methods and values that should guide scientific inquiry in a particular field. In the paradigm of Newtonian physics, for example, one such assumption is that time is an absolute. In the paradigm of sabermetrics, one such assumption is that player performance is contextual.

Within the framework of a paradigm, something Kuhn called “normal science” takes place. Normal science is problem solving within a paradigm. How much gravity does Jupiter exert upon the earth? How can catcher performance be best measured given the multifarious variables at play? These are problems—worthy ones—that can be solved entirely within the framework of an existing paradigm (Newtonian physics and sabermetrics, respectively). But they don’t change the game. They don’t shift the paradigm.

A paradigm shift happens when someone, maybe Albert Einstein, maybe Bill James, comes along and notices something that niggles. In Einstein’s case, it was that light behaves very strangely when passing by very large objects. In James’ case, it was that the game was valuing players for actions, like driving in runs, that they had severely limited control over. These anomalies run up against fundamental assumptions of their paradigms: contra Newtonian physics, they suggest that time is relative; contra pre-sabermetric baseball thinking, they suggest that player performance is contextual. These anomalies require discipline-wide rethinking of how science should be conducted. They shift the paradigm.

So, in one sense, the best is over. None of the writers of my generation is going to discover that defense and pitching are inextricably linked, or that RBIs are a terrible way to measure a player’s overall offensive value. Those discoveries have already been made, and what’s left for us to do in sabermetrics—worthy work, like better catching statistics or mining Statcast’s data—is tinkering around the edges of an existing paradigm. It’s all problem-solving normal science that’s firmly within the sabermetric school of baseball thought, and that school is now firmly established as the dominant paradigm in baseball thinking.

This has led to some discomfort among the baseball writing community. Some fear that sabermetric analysis has become stale, and unoriginal, and that it at times reaches too close to controversy for controversy’s sake. In some cases, that’s absolutely true. Those are the unfortunate symptoms of operating within a mature scientific paradigm, which sabermetrics now absolutely is. The Jamesian work of shifting the paradigm away from context-free analysis is over. Only the problem-solving normal science remains, and that, yes, can be boring at times.

I do not think, however, that baseball writing and analysis is doomed to stagnation. In fact, I think that a second major paradigm shift is already well underway. It’s being missed, however, and taken for something other than it is, because it’s not about sabermetrics, and it’s not about statistics at all. (How could it be, if those things form the bedrock of the existing paradigm?) It is, instead, about sports within the context of the broader society, and about the renewed humanity of the game.

The best baseball writing I’ve read this year has been about more than baseball. It’s been about politics, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and money, and power, and how they all come together in this game we love. It’s placed the game in its social context, and used it as a lens to talk about ideas that are bigger than the nuts and bolts of a box score or a daily recap. It’s engaged with difficult questions about how to be a fan when players you love are disappointingly flawed and human, and how to be a human being living in an often unjust world.

That is exciting stuff. That is new stuff. That is stuff that sabermetrics does not have language to speak about, though of course the new writing is informed and lives within the context of that which came before it. Indeed, the new writing is not a rejection of sabermetrics, but rather it accepts as givens the tenets of sabermetrics, and moves beyond those givens to speak of worlds and ideas that sabermetrics, by its nature, cannot describe.

Some of the pushback I’ve seen recently has been valid criticism of and frustration with a sabermetric community whose most exciting days are behind it. But, pulling the lens back a little bit, and considering not just sabermetrics but baseball writing in general, some of the pushback is from people who got on board with baseball writing when it required only acceptance of the assumptions of the sabermetrics paradigm, people who were excited by that paradigm’s possibilities, and people who are now finding that same paradigm challenged by writing that moves beyond the subjects those assumptions governed.

These are the people, in short, who write in response to a new-paradigm piece: “Stick to baseball.”

This makes sense. They got on board with baseball writing because the baseball writing they were excited about—sabermetrics—was a new and intellectually stimulating way of thinking about the game. And it didn’t stray from baseball, narrowly understood. But the new writers, who I’ll take the liberty of calling the Intersectionalists, are operating in a different and wider paradigm, and that’s not something folks are used to engaging with.

I wrote, near the top of this piece, that it’s easy to feel that dawning joy and intellectual challenge are hard to find these days in baseball writing. I don’t think that’s true. I think those things exist, in spades, in the work that Intersectionalists are putting out. I think those things are often missing in the sabermetrics community.* And I think a lot of people have a problem with that.

That makes sense. Paradigm shifts are always hard, and always contested. Those who, unlike me, were around and writing when sabermetrics was the new kid on the block, will no doubt remember the battles they waged then. But if you feel baseball writing is getting stale, don’t feel you have to traffic in old war stories—there are battles being fought today around Intersectional writing, and that’s where the blood and the guts and the glory are.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that Intersectional writing isn’t baseball writing at all, and that it is instead culture writing with a focus on baseball. To which I’d say this: all baseball writing is culture writing. Writing of a sabermetric bent is, yes, mostly focused on the way we think about player evaluation within the game, but its foundational ideas are hardly limited to what happens on the field, and have not been kept there: Think of what Nate Silver, a BP alum, has done with political and policy writing at FiveThirtyEight.

And, moreover, baseball writing as a tradition has a broader, decades-long legacy of writing about parents and children, about America’s pre-industrial past, about adolescence growing into adulthood, and about the game as a metaphor for the country and for life. That, too, is culture writing. It just isn’t contested any more, for the most part. The stuff the Intersectionalists are writing about today is.

If you’re a reader who’s uncomfortable with that, that’s okay. New ideas take time and effort to take hold, and I’d challenge you to engage with the ideas that trouble you with as much curiosity and empathy and humanity as you can. And for those Intersectionalists who are already writing pieces at the vanguard, I’d challenge you to do exactly the same with your readers, because they, too, are human. Find them in their humanity, and you’ll have a conversation worth remembering.

*Of course, worthy problem-solving work in the normal science of sabermetrics continues across the landscape, including here at BP, and in agenda-setting pieces like this.

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alexknapik
2/05
Fabulous, thanks for this. I think a problem - the problem? - with acceptance of "The Intersectionalists" from many sabermetric fans is that it doesn't jibe with their concrete math-centered interests - sports and baseball in particular and sabermetrics in extra-particular are their respite from the ambiguity and complexity of personal relationships and culture. I just wrote what you wrote but worse. Anyway, good point that we will vociferously disliked by many in "sabermetric baseball."
rianwatt
2/06
Thanks for reading and engaging! Much appreciated.
MikeGianella
2/05
This is a really thought provoking and entertaining read, Rian. One idea I would like to add to the conversation is another idea: the possibility that whatever is going to "replace" sabermetrics is somewhere out there on the horizon but we simply cannot see it. In his book Beyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn spoke to the idea that people in the late 20th Century could not describe what life would be like 100-200 years in the future any more than someone in the Middle Ages could have predicted the Renaissance. Even if you asked the smartest, most brilliant person in 1350 to describe what came after the Middle Ages, his mind simply wouldn't have been able to come up with it based on the information he had at his disposal. Some of the incremental work that is being done now isn't "new" but it will lead to further innovations and further inventions that will either move us away from sabermetrics or into some kind of Sabermetrics 2.0 (or 3.0) that we can't quite see from where we are standing at this given moment in time.
morro089
2/05
I agree. If we assume a certain paradigm shift is coming, can it truly be paradigm shifting? Isn't the idea of an idea being radical and shifting our entire basis of assumptions supposed to surprise us? Isn't this why we have the assumptions? As far as scale, I'm not old enough to remember the true "paradigm shift" in baseball, but "a walk is as good as a hit" and "take one for the team" has been around my entire life (or at least since dads have been telling me on my local youth baseball teams). Is it really a "paradigm shift" that OBP is an important statistic? As for pitching, I've heard for years that, for example, Petco Park is a pitchers park and any ERA a pitcher has there you have to take it with a grain of salt. You heard this from non-saber friendly persons with no comment of "FIP" or HR/FB%, but they acknowledged the existence. You heard managers saying, in the most dramatic instance Effectively Wild could find, that a particular center fielder could save 50 runs. Are those managers assuming those 50 runs are in a vacuum and the pitcher does not benefit? I say this because I think people (or possibly just this article) are underplaying very recent sabermetric conclusions such as catcher defense. 4 years ago I thought, with almost no uncertainty, that a catcher's defense was almost completely dependent upon pitch calling and throwing to second base. 4 years ago the internet told me catcher framing (catcher framing?!?!?!) was worth 30 runs per year. Last year Baseball Prospectus told me basically all the responsibility of base-stealing falls on a pitcher. This was amazing, even though I had heard "Ah, the catcher shouldn't feel too bad, the runner stole that one on the pitcher." So my hypothesis on this subject is just that expectations have changed. People *expect* to be wow'd. People *expect* to have their entire point of view of a baseball operation to change. The bar is higher now. Is having access to batted ball speeds and trajectories not ground-breaking news that will shift how we view luck induced hitting? A player had a high BABIP over two years. What did that tell you prior to last year? Was he lucky? Is this player really good or really lucky? He had a spike in HR/FB%, was that luck or skill? Pitching stats has dabbled with "big data" but I think (hope) both pitching and hitting data will be embraced by the next wave of sabermetrics and highlight how archaic some of our current statistics are. AND DEFENSE. RELIABLE N=1 INFO. So much to learn. So much. So excited.
rianwatt
2/06
I mean, I agree in general. There's a ton to learn within sabermetrics. My fundamental assertion is that the "shift" from whatever was around before saber to whatever we have now is the insight that player performance is contextual. Everything else flows from that. But the next shift might be totally unknown to us now. And I totally agree that expectations have changed. Anyway, thanks for reading.
rianwatt
2/06
Thanks for reading, Mike. A totally fair point, and one that we won't be able to engage with until we look back in 15 years and wonder what happened.
gpurcell
2/05
Kuhn's structure of scientific revolutions involves improvements in science. For example, plate tectonics was a revolution in geology and overturned the dominant paradigm of uniformitarianism replacing it with some acknowledgment of changing conditions on the planet over time. This was further tweaked by Alvarez bringing back into the discussion explicit catastrophism as an explanation for some rare phenomena (such as dinosaur extinction). These revolutions occurred because a growing set of data--from geology, from astronomy, from biology--made the previous paradigm untenable. Whatever the virtues of "intersectionality" it is essentially a literary form of analysis and certainly isn't something that a Kuhnian-type scientific revolution would lead to. It's simply not "science." To the extent that Sabermetrics as an approach is primed for a Kuhnian revolution it would involve improving predictions of outcomes/dealing with edge cases like the KC Royals. Perhaps, like in geology, this will involve creative ways to measure or account for "old school" baseball information such as scouting reports and character evaluations.
rianwatt
2/06
I don't think you're wrong. You've clearly engaged with Kuhn for a while. But I'm also not sure you're right. Because Kuhn was writing about hard sciences (physics, mostly), but I don't think the argument is limited to that. I think it can be extended to all fields of knowledge and discipline, including, yes, baseball writing. Perhaps that's taking liberties with his work, but then, I'm a writer. Anyway. I appreciate you reading, and engaging on this. And I agree there's advances to come in the ability of saber to pull together "old school" data in a way that's comparable and translatable.
gpurcell
2/08
It can't, not really. Because Kuhn's insight is that the existing paradigm is objectively failing, becoming ever more baroque to address new and conflicting empirical observations. It doesn't make sense to invoke Kuhn outside of a situation where something like objective reality is being measured. This doesn't mean that it is restricted to "hard science"--Keynes, for example, can be seen as a paradigm shift in economics--but it does require acceptance of that objective and measurable reality. It's not like, by the way, there aren't huge hints in Sabermetrics proper that something major is being missed. I'd argue that one key element of the projections Sabermetric paradigm--brute forcing of player predictions using regression to the mean--is almost certainly a mistake.
Dobbina16
2/05
If or I suppose when the paradigm shifts will we even know? In a world of scientific endeavour sharing discoveries is inherent in the process of shifting the paradigm. Newton and Einstein shared their finding with the world and in some ways that is encouraged (first to publish wins). The case of Bill James as far as I understand it is not dissimilar. He wrote about his findings and made them available both for profit but also for dissemination (given his limited sales at least at the start). Can we expect the same sharing when a paradigm would have significant value to that organization. Presumably no patent would need to be filed or credit outside the organization sought. I am not thinking "Moneyball" but what if one of the organizations actually employing people to think more broadly about baseball discovers the paradigm? Per gpurcell's comments, I agree. I was thinking perhaps it would be the re-contextualizing of data along the lines of "club house chemistry".
morro089
2/05
Isn't the idea of a paradigm shift that we radically change the basis of our logic? I feel like we would notice this. We may not notice the birth, but the implementation of a paradigm shift would be noticed.
gpurcell
2/08
Yes. Indeed, this is exactly what drove the Sabermetrics paradigm shift in the first place--Beane and others were making moves that conflicted with the previous paradigm and those moves were resulting in unexpected success. Now, perhaps that advantage could have been sustained a bit had Moneyball never been written...but eventually the secret sauce would have become less secret as people moved into other organizations on their career trajectories.
rianwatt
2/06
Definitely something worth exploring. I know too little of what's inside organizations to really be able to engage with it. But I love the idea and will think on it a little.
abwinkel
2/06
The next big thing: mining genetic data to predict/prevent arm injuries, to draft better, to know how many years to give (or not give) to that 31-year-old free agent, etc.
mbrown
2/06
I'll keep this short: I love everything about this article. Love, Maury Brown (BP alum from "The Good Old Days")
rianwatt
2/06
Man, Maury, that's really incredibly nice. Read your stuff for years.
JPinPhilly
2/06
"Nothing I read about baseball is original any more." I only ever rarely feel this way. Good read.
beta461
2/06
Hi Rian, This took me a bit off guard. I find baseball nuances endlessly fascinating. I learn new things from the Saber community every year. But I was drawn to this community because it was fact based and not politicized opinions. If that's the new frontier, this is where I get off. I've loved this little spot of calm in all the madness of the Internet for probably close to 15 years but it sounds like this will be changing. I'd like to thank you and all the BP staff throughout the years for quality content and I will miss a lot but i will not be renewing.
sam19041
2/06
That seems a shame. Rian isn't saying this Intersectional writing will entirely replace traditional sabermetric analysis that you know so well. And BP has always featured a mix of "math" and creative writing. Otherwise it would be incredibly dull!
ezrawise
2/07
From the SABR website: As originally defined by Bill James in 1980, Sabermetrics is "the search for objective knowledge about baseball". If we define Sabermetrics as broadly as James does, it becomes awfully difficult to imagine a true "Post-Sabermetric" future coming to fruition.
ezrawise
2/07
That said, I acknowledge that a "Perceived Post-Sabermetric Era," based on a much narrower definition of the field, is entirely possible.
oldbopper
2/07
As a young man I was fascinated by the writings of a man named Earnshaw Cook. He wrote a book, in 1964, called Percentage Baseball. Baseball was not ready for his ideas and the response from the old school baseball hierarchy, think Pinky Higgins, was ridicule. Some of his ideas had merit, for example, he was the first to recognize that the sacrifice bunt is a terrible play, even though Terry Collins still doesn't know that. When we think of the paradigm shift that has swept through the game it began there. Bill James picked up the ball in 1981 and even now, the intricacies of the game are being shown the light of day. The latest being Pitch Framing and Catcher Defense. I think the Post-Sabermetric is quite a way in the future.
bhalpern
2/08
Not everyone in the hierarchy was opposed to modern ways of thinking. Earl Weaver was a huge proponent of statistical analysis and not sacrificing outs.
jonvanderlugt
2/11
Late to the party, but this is a wonderful article. As somebody who did cultural studies work in undergrad, this really hits home because I've found my enjoyment of sports and how I perceive them to be fluid in much the same way described here. It's uncomfortable at times to think that the way I think about a game I love is changing, but it's also very stimulating intellectually and I'm interested to see where this notion of intersectional baseball/sports writing goes.