Part 1 of Scott Orgera’s interview with actress Ellen Adair can be found here, and is on growing up a baseball fan, pace of play, and empathy for players.
Ellen Adair’s fandom goes well beyond cheering for her favorite players, as a passion for advanced analytics and how they’ve shaped the modern game have caused her to delve even further into how the Alex Bregmans and Bryce Harpers of the world are actually valued by front offices. She’s even been a co-host or guest on noted saber-centric podcasts including Fangraphs’ Effectively Wild and The Poscast with Joe Posnanski.
“I really enjoy diving in and learning what I can about the game. I am a total dweeb, but it’s fun to be like, huh, a month into the season Maikel Franco had the best ISO of his career. Why was that? High home run to fly ball? Nope, that’s consistent. Less soft contact? No, that’s about the same. Oh, I see, his fly ball rate is way up and his ground ball rate is down, he’s lifting the ball more!,” Adair exclaimed. “Now, granted, I’m just a layperson and so if I weren’t maybe I wouldn’t have gotten cautiously excited, but I didn’t see why Franco couldn’t legitimately get in on the fly ball revolution. Anyway. That’s fun. To root around and discover something for yourself, or at least to feel like you are.”
She’s also dabbled in fantasy baseball in recent years, even going to-to-toe with some of that industry’s heavy hitters.
“I was already an insane slavering fan, and an actor that I did a production of The Importance of Being Earnest with asked me to join his league, and I’ve joined more leagues every year since then. I really enjoy fantasy, but I mostly enjoy it as a means to get to know baseball better and become deeply familiar with more players. It’s more of a fun lens for the season, and for trends, and storylines, than it is an end unto itself,” Adair said. “That said, I am generally not bad. I’ve never finished worse than fourth in a league, but I’ve only been playing for five years, so everyone can cry small sample. Right now I’m tied for second in a 24-team dynasty league organized by THE Scott White of CBS. I thought I was going to totally embarrass myself, so it’s a relief so far not to have been booted from the league. But there is plenty of season left for either eventuality.”
The sabermetric movement has changed the game to a point where some believe it’s become too compartmentalized and robotic due to the heavy reliance on analytics. While it makes complete sense to use information to your advantage and put yourself in the best possible position to succeed as an individual and as a club, many feel that the game has lost its personal touch in many areas as a result.
“Here’s the thing. Numbers are the game. I mean that in two ways. First of all, analytics are the game now. So if you’re interested in the game now, in my opinion, getting into analytics and sabermetrics, even just a little bit, means that you can understand the most interesting conversations about baseball that are happening right now,” Adair said. “Analytics are just more information about the game. If you love baseball, why wouldn’t you love more information about the game? Or, if you love baseball, don’t you want to know the way that the game is being played now?”
In a sport that’s traditionally looked to the back of a baseball card as a performance indicator, Adair feels that the modern figures are just a beefed-up version of those tried-and-true cardboard ledgers.
“Baseball has always been numbers. That’s part of the glory of the game, that we shine a light on a player’s offensive contribution whenever he comes to the plate, and we can compare him to his past performance, and performance around the league, and historical performance. It’s always been numbers. Now it’s just more and/or different numbers. I think some people who grouse about advanced stats are just very attached to the old kinds of numbers,” she said. “But batting average is not an inherently more deserving stat than wOBA, and ERA is not inherently more deserving than FIP, and in many cases the advanced stat numbers can actually tell you more about the value of a player on your team than the old one. What’s so terrible about that?”
Not a math whiz by her own admission, Adair believes that fans reluctant to embrace the new wave of numbers are actually missing out on a better baseball experience.
“I never particularly liked math. 300 as a number is nothing to me. Are we talking 300 jelly beans or 300 mosquitos? But baseball numbers are stories! 300 means something different if it’s a batting average, OBP, BABIP, or heaven forfend, an OPS. But no matter what the case, I know what it means. And knowing what it means is satisfying. And my point is, if I can do it, anyone can,” she said. “I suppose I’m proposing the radical idea that to know something better is to love it better, and to love something is to want to know it better, which I grant is not always the case for human beings. I understand that this is ultimately resistance to change — baseball is very much about tradition — and it’s resistance to change in the form of the numbers, but also the way they impact the game.”
Not everything about the analytics-driven game is a positive in Adair’s eyes, though.
“All this said, there is one thing I sometimes lament, and that’s the emphasis on the long ball, and the rise in strikeouts from players trying to hit the long ball. Look, I agree that homers are good, and useful, and even exciting, and I want the Phillies to hit as many home runs as possible. And I’m not advocating for more bunting, there is plenty enough bunting for anyone who is desperate to see it and to truly delight broadcasters when someone lays one down against the shift,” Adair said. “But the baseball I actually enjoy the most is a chain of my team’s guys getting on base, knocking the runs in. It is infinitely more exciting than a home run. And that’s because of the alternating relaxation and tension of a ballgame, part of what makes it so satisfying. Something — that is, a home run — could happen at any time, but a lot of different things could happen if you’ve got runners at second and third. This said, ballplayers are still hitting singles and doubles, people are still stealing bases, sometimes even people other than Trea Turner are stealing bases. Do I wish there were maybe a little more? Yes. But do I lament the launch angle revolution? Can’t.”
Even with spreadsheets overruling scouting more with each passing year, baseball is still about the people on the field, something not lost on Adair amidst all of the metrics.
“The game is always going to have a human element because it’s played by humans. And I do think there’s a happy medium, although I think it’s actually like a happy 80/20, of letting the numbers inform us without expecting the players to obey the numbers. An example that springs to mind is how over the past offseason, it felt like the baseball community as a whole decided that Nick Pivetta was going to be great, because all the numbers said he had been tremendously unlucky given the quality of contact he gave up, and he had such a nice strikeout rate, and ground-ball rate, and decent walk rate,” she said about the Phillies right-hander. “But what the numbers didn’t exactly show is that he is, how can I say this, the opposite of a bulldog on the mound. Look, I sympathize. It’s wholly understandable as a human response to struggle mentally when you get rocked in front of thousands of fans and a TV audience. But it’s an exceptional person who can have that happen and stay calm, or get fired up and not riled up. And so we see Jerad Eickhoff, whose peripherals are not terrible but not as beautiful as Pivetta’s, go out there and be pretty good so far this year, because he’s always been so steadfast, even fierce, mentally.”
She added: “But the baseballs don’t always obey the numbers just because we think they will. That said, it’s still the best information that we have, and it’s getting better every year, so why shouldn’t we use it? And I don’t just mean managers, I mean as fans. Use it to understand and enjoy the game.”
A published author of works that include Curtain Speech, a recently-released poetry book about an actor’s life in the theater, Adair has also tried her hand at sportswriting.
“Writing about baseball has always been my alternate universe dream-job, but I’ve always been under the impression that there’s no way it could be anyone’s side piece. (Am I allowed to say “side piece”?) I imagine that it’s very much like acting in that it takes up every single waking moment that you can possibly give it, and even all of those moments are not enough,” Adair said. “An acting career is like a plant that is still thirsty no matter how many hours you spend watering it, which sounds like a pretty terrible plant if it were not just the most beautiful plant you had ever seen with, like, blossoms in every color of the rainbow. But my work as an actor is never, never done. I feel like I’m always drowning in my career’s to-do list, whether those are artistic projects or marketing/business projects or practice or research.”
Some of her baseball prose is light in nature, like the Complex Flow Chart of Baseball Allegiances and Ellen Adair’s Rules for Cheering. Adair has also tackled more serious subjects in her writing, most recently a piece for Turf Sports on Phillies’ center fielder Odubell Herrera and domestic violence in Major League Baseball. “I didn’t want to write about this. But not writing about it, after years of exultation and frustration at Odubel’s life on the field, felt like turning the proverbial blind eye,” the diehard Phillies fan wrote. “And we all need to look, unflinchingly, at this problem, especially the knottier the ramifications become.”
Acting on shows where the characters are intricately developed and the dialogue is key may have helped to refine Adair’s writing chops, perhaps subconsciously.
“It is such a blessing to be on well-written TV, where you know you can trust the writers that they’ve chosen those words for your character specifically, not just for the content or advancing the story. It means you can take so much more as a clue to who your character is not just by what they say, but by the words they chose and the way they say it,” Adair said. “The line I got in the first episode of Homeland that I was on — “Is the spy shit really necessary?” — I was just like, amazing. That’s who this person is. I know exactly what to do. That’s such a gift to an actor, to have a character come off the page immediately because of the language.”
An English major in college, Adair is a proponent of deep and careful text analysis, understanding that most answers to her questions about a character can be found by carefully considering what the writers have already provided.
“Being a writer is also like being an endlessly thirsty plant, this odd metaphor I never used before today that I really think I won’t use ever again; it’s weird. But everything influences us as writers,” she said. “I say that the author I’m most impacted by in terms of poetry is Shakespeare. That’s partly because I did, I don’t know, twenty Shakespearean productions earlier in my career, but it’s as much about the fact that Shakespeare varies the complexity of his language to the complexity of his thought. Sometimes Shakespeare wrote complicated language, sometimes he wrote “I tell you what,” and that’s what I aim to do in poetry, have the language do the same thing that it’s talking about. Think of it as tension/relaxation.”
Script writing is a different animal, though, one where Adair’s experiences in front of the camera have a direct influence.
“When I’m writing a script, I’m influenced structurally by constantly, almost unconsciously, analyzing the structure of TV episodes as I watch them. Or by the structure of scenes that I either audition with, or film. Looking at the way that writers make a story progress, when I’m dissecting it in order to be the person in the scene, absolutely has an influence on how I try to build structure myself,” she said. “And in terms of dialogue, I’m influenced by some combination of all those shows that have dialogue and rhythm that I like and then actually hearing people talk every day. Although I never mindfully think about trying to emulate someone else’s dialogue. It’s just the way I hear the character saying it in my head.“
Adair has been busy shooting several movies over the past year and a half, as well as a webseries called Roommating that was just released. At the moment she’s working on her ideal project, though, the culmination of a life spent on stage, at stadiums and on TV screens.
“I’m working on writing and developing a TV series about baseball writers with my friend Chris Carfizzi from Billions. It’s a comedy about a female baseball writer, dealing with being a woman in a pretty male-dominated field, but doing so with her male-ally best friend,” Adair said. “It’s so much fun writing with Chris, exploring the way that the story is impacted by the way media is changing, and the pitfalls of trying to be an ally. And I get to write a character who has as much of an unhealthy love of baseball as I do.”
What’s next after that? Well, it’s complicated…
“If anyone else wants me to play a fast-talky sports reporter, I would also consider that ideal. I’d also love to get to do a period piece film or television series, which I haven’t done in quite a while. When I was doing more theater, 90 percent of what I did was either Shakespeare or period pieces, so it’s another thing that I consider to be right in my wheelhouse, but the right on-camera opportunity hasn’t come up recently. But I miss time traveling. I also enjoy gender-swapping,” Adair said. “So I think my dream would be to be in a period piece where my character disguises herself as a man at some point — Rosalind in As You Like It is my spirit animal. But I also enjoy any project where traditional gender dynamics are flipped. I think I’d also deeply enjoy being a sci-fi or fantasy queen, that’s another thing that I think doing twenty Shakespeare plays can help equip you for. And the last movie I did was part action, and I found that I really, really enjoyed that, so doing more action stuff would also be great. Or, to bring it all together, a sci-fi action queen who disguises herself as a man! Don’t think I can figure out how to fit baseball writer in there, too, though.”
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