Sports

Opening Day: The Messy Love Triangle Of Baseball, Truth And Beauty

Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees tags first base to get an out against the Minnesota Twins in last year's American League Division Series. i

Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees tags first base to get an out against the Minnesota Twins in last year's American League Division Series. Elsa/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Elsa/Getty Images
Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees tags first base to get an out against the Minnesota Twins in last year's American League Division Series.

Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees tags first base to get an out against the Minnesota Twins in last year's American League Division Series.

Elsa/Getty Images

On March 26, Michael Schur, the co-creator of Parks And Recreation and a former writer on The Office, as well as a longtime sports-journalism critic on the now sadly defunct blog Fire Joe Morgan, tweeted this: "If you print an article this terrible, you should apologize to your readers and fold your newspaper forever."

And what was he talking about? He was talking about this New York Times column called "To Create a Winner, You Have To Find the Winners." Written by baseball writer/blogger Mike Tully, the piece essentially suggests that baseball teams can look at how how many games they win when they do and don't have a particular player, and if they win more when they have that player, it might be valid to conclude that that player has some sort of "X Factor" — this is often what's called an "intangible" in this kind of writing — that makes the team win, even if you can't find any statistical evidence in the player's actual performance to suggest that he has anything to do with the team winning.

Outside of baseball, this is a pretty easily identifiable logical fallacy. It's a version of post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning "after this, therefore because of this." It's the problem of arguing that because you win more with that player on the roster, you are winning because of that player, even if it doesn't seem like you can be, because he doesn't seem to be hitting (or pitching or fielding or what have you) in such a way that it can be making a difference.

But in baseball, as a matter of tradition, you can do it. You can draw the game as magical, ethereal, not subject to normal rules of logic, because it exists in a world that is separate from, and generally assumed to be superior to, the world that contains — in particular — math. It is made up of intangibles. You cannot argue about them! You cannot see them with your naked little eye! They are intaaaaangible!

Schur, and the fellas at Fire Joe Morgan in general back when they were writing, absolutely loathe this "intangibles" stuff, along with the entire output of what might be called The Church Of The Holy David Eckstein, who is the player who probably comes up in these discussions of "intangibles" more than anyone else — as he did in the NYT piece. (Here's a whole FJM post from Schur in which he dissects a different article — it's excerpted in bold, he rebuts line-by-line in plain text — that spends a lot of time on Eckstein specifically.) (Caution: contains very funny swearing.)

In short, there is, at this point in history, an entirely unnecessary conflict between people who supposedly appreciate the art/ballet/magic/wizardry/magic-8-ball qualities of baseball and people who supposedly only like the boring/nerdy/soulless/drained-of-life qualities of baseball.

Much of this dates back to the growth of sabermetrics, which is essentially the application of advanced statistical analysis to baseball. Sabermetrics is famous for having had a huge influence on everything from the management of the Oakland A's (as chronicled in Michael Lewis' Moneyball) to fantasy sports, which essentially couldn't exist in their current form without it.

After Moneyball, there's been plenty of back and forth about whether A's general manager Billy Beane is as smart as he's portrayed to be in the book, and there have been other entire books devoted to breaking down exactly which statistics to measure performance are important and which are not. These debates, as to their finest points, would fill this post and two more years of posts just like it, so it is fortunate that I can tell you they are not the point.

This is the point: Studying something beautiful to locate patterns and predictability within it is not inherently reductive.

Alan Hirsch, the author of one anti-Moneyball book that was published in February of this year, wrote a piece about his book and its aims in which he says this:

More importantly, the saber-obsession with numbers occludes a major aspect of baseball's beauty – its narrative richness and relentless capacity to surprise. Baseball, thank goodness, transcends and often defies quantitative analysis. Games are decided by bad hops and bad calls, broken bats, sun and wind, pigeons in the outfield, and fans who obstruct players, among other unforeseeable contingencies That may seem obvious (apart from the pigeons), but not to the folks who increasingly run the show. Rather than celebrating baseball's delightfully spontaneous quality, sabermetricians deny it or rebel against it.

This makes me want to spit, it's so wrong.

It is slap-your-head crazy to suggest that numbers and beauty are natural enemies. It's equally wrongheaded to set up the presence of unexpected events as evidence that quantitative analysis has been "transcended." Narrative richness has nothing to do with defying quantitative analysis! Sorry for the exclamation point, but it's true! And now I can't stop! And really, how did pigeons get into it!

Pigeons can also fly into airplane engines, but that doesn't mean airplanes aren't subject to the laws of physics, and it certainly doesn't mean that they fly because aviation has a "delightfully spontaneous quality." It also doesn't mean that pilots who know the science of how to fly the plane don't also (1) know that they can be caught in unpredictable lightning storms and (2) love the majesty of flight.

Bad hops don't defy science. They are not the result of poltergeists; they are entirely the result of physics, and so is a curve ball. Are we really to believe that sun and wind defy quantitative analysis? The effects of wind are immeasurable? Do you suppose those pigeons are precisely as common in every park in every part of the country at every time of year, or is it possible that if your science were robust enough, you would actually know a lot about sun and wind and pigeons, and certainly about bad hops? Can we start with the verifiable scientific fact that pigeons are less common in domed stadiums?

I love box scores. I love statistics, and I especially love it when somebody points out a new way to look at numbers that seems to unlock something about player performance that nothing else does. I love things that don't always make intuitive sense, like the way one particular batter can't hit one particular pitcher, even if he can hit pitchers who are statistically "better."

But I also have a baseball on my shelf at home that was a foul ball from a real Twins game, and I'm so weirdly attached to it that I could write a poem about it. (Fortunately for you, I won't.) I believe in intangibles, in the sense that I do think there are guys who help teams in ways that are difficult to find on a traditional stat sheet, just like there are guys who seem to be poison wherever they go. But none of that has anything to do with statistics removing the romance from baseball.

So today, on opening day, all the standings and stats are blank. Lotta zeroes. They're going to gradually fill up with numbers, some of which will be surprising. Some of which won't serve as particularly good predictors of what's going to happen. But they'll all be real, and they'll all be perfectly reconcilable with maintaining a love affair with the crack of the bat. I grew up watching the Phillies, so I have a soft spot for guys with tobacco juice on their shirts who look like they haven't had a bath in weeks. I will generally root for guys with bad, scraggly hair over guys with neat, clean-cut hair. I hated Chipper Jones because he was named "Chipper." I have plenty of superstitions.

But I also have an app to track statistics on my phone, and I promise that it won't keep me from appreciating baseball's "narrative richness."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.