Saturday, March 17, 2012

Intellectual Rigor

So much is written about baseball on a daily basis that it is sometimes difficult to keep up with the impressive variety of idiocy and brilliance that is produced. From the perspective of the increasingly shrinking bastion of Joe Morgan-style Old School Baseball, the parade of statistics and the objective approach to baseball that they require and reinforce is classified as idiocy. All too often the language used by these “experts” is so manifestly illogical and poorly thought out that it is easy to dismiss their claims that stats created by the crouched denizens of mother’s basements everywhere detract from the majesty and mystery that is baseball.

            Yet not all of the rhetoric employed by the self-appointed keepers of the keys of baseball knowledge is so readily dismissed. Quite often their arguments contain some semblance of truth, and the fracturing of sabermetrics orthodoxy in recent years has given these arguments credence. When Moneyball first emerged the sense throughout the sabermetrics community was that there were several immutable laws of baseball optimization: stats trumped scouts, BABIP was luck and there was nothing anyone could do with defense. As all of these assumptions were modified, weakened and eventually entirely reshaped through experience and research, the cry of the old guard that the judgments of scouts and old baseball men were valuable came to seem more credible.

            Quite simply, the fact that Sabermetrics has come to embrace certain elements of Old School Baseball is not a sign of the weakness of the Sabermetrics approach, but of its strength. Like any intellectual discipline: biology, genetics, economics, but obviously far more important than those examples, the search for objective baseball knowledge has progressed and evolved over time. Researchers have delved deeply into the numbers that have been accumulated over the last few decades and improved their analyses. From VORP to WARP to WAR the metrics used by the community have grown more precise, all encompassing and challenging. Where new evidence flew in the face of principles of Sabermetrics orthodoxy, the evidence was decried, tested, tweaked and accepted. And so, slowly, Sabermetrics has grown to consider scouting useful, high school prospects interesting and UZR, DRS and TZL to be partial solutions to the eternal problem of defense. Thus, some aspects of the discipline have come to agree with Old School Baseball. Sabermetricians have tested their theories and now advanced statistics are more broadly accepted within baseball than ever before.

            You will not, no matter how hard you search, find such rigorous self-scrutiny on the part of Old School Baseball adherents. They will not test their theories of grit and hustle and intangibles against facts and data. This reluctance is not caused, as it would at first seem, because they are well aware that the facts and data will not agree with them, but because such an analysis simply would never occur to them. This is because Old School Baseball, as a method of analysis and an overall worldview is not an intellectual discipline. It contains none of the best attributes of Sabermetrics: objectivity, intellectual curiosity, and openness.

Old School Baseball has heart, and as Tim Kurkjian has said, “Baseball is a game of intangibles,” so perhaps that is enough. It certainly is for them; for many in Old School Baseball Marty Noble is right in saying that “computers have contributed to a current glut of statistics that, to a degree, distort the picture. We have so many now that we lose focus on what is most important.” Yet to many in the baseball community the statistics are what are important. Not important in and of themselves, but important when they acquire the power of language, and speak articulately about the character of baseball.


  1. You speak of the "majesty and mystery that is baseball" as if it were a silly thing. However, have you ever considered that, if baseball is not at its core just that, then you are investing a good deal of you life into the statistical analysis of who can hit a ball with a stick better than who? I am trying to get beyond the question of who is right about the evaluation of a player, to the essential idea of baseball.

    Or rather, consider: why was baseball created in the first place? It's ascendency can be traced to an era in which Scientific Management had turned workers into cogs with little human identity. Baseball became America's pastime, I think, in part because of its humanization of the players, many of them immigrants like those who watched their games.

    The only reason I am able to feel less guilty for investing so much mental energy into baseball when I know that, for example, there was a terrible drought in Somalia last year that killed many innocents, a lot of whom could have been saved if more effort from the West was made to do so, is this quality of mystery or romance. If that is not the essential feature of it, there is really no justification for taking a strong interest in something as unserious as a silly game when the world is full of so many problems.

    1. Rigorously analyzing a silly game is fun. Excoriating biased commentators in all walks of life is fun. The mystery and romance of baseball is fun too, but I enjoy baseball more because I understand it better.