Students of the Game

Does Bob experience the Grand Canyon or his expectations of the Grand Canyon? (via GCNP)

Does Bob experience the Grand Canyon or his expectations of the Grand Canyon? (via GCNP)

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I still like to imagine what it would be like to travel back in time. Not in the “head back a week with a sheet full of lotto numbers” way, but in a survivalist way. I can picture myself showing up on the outskirts of London in some indeterminate century, one of those ages with chickens running across muddy roads and alchemists, and I wonder how I’d make out. How would I wield my immense knowledge of the future? Twain’s Connecticut Yankee got himself promoted to wizard by memorizing the date and time of an eclipse, but astronomy was never my thing.

So how am I going to impress these hypothetical people and scratch out a living? I have just enough skill with manual labor and tools to keep from severing my own limbs. I could sneak into Oxford by claiming the parts of Wealth of Nations I faintly remember. Otherwise, I’d be out of luck. My knowledge of the future would get bottled up or send me to prison, and I’d have to hack it out as a scribe in some remote monastery. The combustion engine, in this alternative timeline, must remain a mystery.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. For a lot of people, much of the science of our everyday lives essentially has become akin to magic. We know how to use the tools we work with, but we don’t know how to make those tools or necessarily exactly how they work. The world we live in still operates by a set of perceptible and predictable rules, but the technology that dictates why these rules exist has passed out of the hands of the layman.

This is not a matter of weakness. I admire those who can work with their hands and still create something out of nothing with basic elements, just as I admire those who understand and manipulate the intricacies of today’s technologies. But we can’t all be masters of everything, and there always will need to be a class of people who live a step back from the brink of discovery, if only to worry about society’s other demands. A hundred years after Einstein, many of us still live in a Newtonian world: not out of ignorance, but out of pragmatism. After all, Newton’s principles don’t demand much from us, and they allow our cars to get us to work on time.

A while back, a colleague of mine asked me to read a short essay by Walker Percy entitled, “The Loss of the Creature.” Percy wrote his essay about teaching in the way that this essay is written about baseball: he devotes the first half of his essay to talking about vacations. The first person to discover a place, he says, sees it for what it really is, but any followers receive only an incomplete picture, one they must fight to recover. Secondhand knowledge is always an inferior copy.

The situation: Bob goes and sees the Grand Canyon. He takes a tour bus, walks up the edge, looks in, feels appropriately awed, has lunch at a sandwich place, and heads back to Vegas. Bob is pleased by what he experiences, but he does not actually experience the Grand Canyon. Instead, he’s experiencing his own expectations of the Grand Canyon fulfilled, expectations created by movies, television, stories, Wikipedia entries. Not only is he pleased by the view because of how it compares to the postcards, he can’t imagine it without the postcards. They have, through their years of tenancy within Bob’s brain, come to define reality; the actual trip either meets this standard or fails it.

This is what we all encounter when we travel; we want our experience to be authentic, just as we want our lives to be authentic. We stray from the beaten path as far as we can while feeling safe. But we’re constantly shackled by the context with which we define authenticity; as the physicists lament, we change reality by observing it. Since we can’t gain objectivity on our own, we turn to the travel writers, the television hosts, and the experts to define reality for us. We have lost sovereignty over what we consider real; the standard is left to the experts to create and for us merely to interpret.

Percy takes this depressing concept and applies it to the field of teaching. The metaphor of exploration translates well to the classroom, but now it’s the teachers who are the experts, and the students who must tread the familiar paths. The allure of expertise was no small factor in my original desire to become a teacher; I imagined myself passing my infinite wisdom down on eager acolytes, Socrates and Lao Tzu mixed into one. Of course, not only is that stupid, it doesn’t even work. Handing a student wisdom is no better than describing the Grand Canyon; it may provide facts, but in order for it to spark passion and drive learning, they have to discover it on their own, with teacher as guide rather than lead.

So, finally, to baseball. And in baseball, it isn’t the science but the numbers that have become, to some degree, magic. I do my best to stay on top of the formulas; I know, for example, what wRC+ represents, even if I had to look up what the w stood for as a refresher. There’s an inevitable conflict between statistics that grow increasingly intricate in their measure of a player’s performance and how accessible that statistic is to the layman.

The unending AL MVP debate has crystallized this disconnect and made Wins Above Replacement a central point for debate. Oddly, WAR often was used by proponents of Cabrera, not to validate their own candidate, but to tinge the accomplishments of Trout as something unreal, a fabrication of bilious accountants. Cabrera, essentially, better matched the postcard. There are fans who dismiss the RBI as a statistic but feel the romance of the Triple Crown despite it using those same RBI. This isn’t because these fans are logically impaired; it’s because the Triple Crown holds a place of reverence in baseball history, a tie to the greats of yore. The Triple Crown feels great. WAR, despite its sophistication, does not.

The numbers that go into the one are no more real than the other. RBI and WAR are nothing more than digits; only the narrative differs. And this is where modern baseball statistics have come short: they are not ours.

I’ve read a lot of books dealing with baseball and statistics, and the ones I always seem to come back to are the Bill James Baseball Abstracts of the eighties. This isn’t just because James was a damn fine writer, but also because the concept was so new then, and the thrill of exploration is soaked into the pages. James and his colleagues had ideas, some of which turned out to be ridiculously wrong, but they were thinking out loud, and you could follow the process. The thinkers had not yet become experts.

Now, they have. But this is not to say that experts aren’t valuable or necessary, any more than teachers. It’s that we need to recognize how difficult and careful a process that teaching, in baseball as in any format, has to be. A teacher who hands a student a copy of Huckleberry Finn and says “read this, because it’s good,” will find herself a blank test at the end of the unit. Instead, she has to bring the material to life, to find the aspects of the knowledge that resonate with the students’ real lives, provide them the opportunity to make their own sense out of it, find themselves in it.

To say that traditional or statistical sportswriting always acts in one way or another is obviously to paint with too broad a brush; both genres are multifaceted and multipurpose and cross over from time to time. The majority of statistically-oriented articles are not written as gospel. But they tend to demand more of the reader. Numbers do not evoke imagery by themselves, but require a kind of internal translation. The comparison from teaching to sports is troubled, too, by a small distinction: sports have a finite condition for winning, unlike Bob’s road trip.

Teaching, to the dismay of the lawmaker, is not so cut and dry. It requires more than knowledge. In order to teach, to provide value, a teacher must know how to translate his wisdom for his audience. Baseball has undergone the painful experience of learning its math, as the following examples illustrate.

We’re approaching the thirtieth anniversary of the firing of Steve Boros as manager of the Oakland Athletics. Boros, who spent thirty years after his playing career as a coach and scout, is most fondly remembered for his Apple IIe. That machine, with its whopping 64 kilobytes of memory, supplied the coach with reams of statistical data, all plugged in by a single statistician and perhaps the next day’s starter. Boros then used that data to help set his lineups and spot habits in his opponents.

Mainstream baseball was displeased and threatened by the computer revolution that Boros and Tony LaRussa seemed to symbolize. The protests grew louder for Boros as the Athletics faltered, its pitching crushed under the weight of years of Billy Martin’s four-man rotations. The definition of a successful manager is always nebulous, but where Boros failed spectacularly was not in his ability to manage but his ability to look like he was managing. He never kicked dirt, never screamed, never spouted clichés. The idea that was he was too nice to be effective took hold and ultimately caused his dismissal, two-and-a-half games out of first, at the end of April in 1984.

Whether Boros was actually good at his job in 1983 is by no means clear: examples of his hard-earned statistical knowledge in an SI piece that year include turf/grass and day/night splits. There was little evidence that the players felt strongly about the data one way or another. Star Rickey Henderson did complain that Boros was trying to “turn him into a power hitter,” which the Hall of Famer went and did anyway in short order. With the fans, the media, and–most importantly for our hero–his bosses, the value of statistics didn’t sell.

Boros received one more shot at managing, with a broken Padres team, and never got another. He stayed in baseball for another twenty years, but it was obvious (to the people who make such decisions) that he didn’t fit the managerial mold.

A year ago, most fans who considered Clint Hurdle at all probably would consider him emblematic of the coaching retread. A week ago, Hurdle received a five-year extension and stood as reigning Manager of the Year.

Because this alternative story to Boros is more recent, it requires less detail: a coach and a general manager, both seen as operating on borrowed time, decide that drastic measures are necessary. The team had hired Baseball Prospectus writer Dan Fox in 2008, who had urged the team to employ more shifts, but his work was met with resistance. The Pirates continued to play Pirates baseball, in all the senses that the phrase entails, while Fox’s sphere of influence was centered on the minor leagues. As the losing continued in the bigs, the results of the new defensive alignment were becoming noticeable. Soon, they were impossible to ignore.

Where Boros failed, Hurdle succeeded beyond all hopes. He had a few advantages. The culture of 2013 was, of course, a generation beyond that of 1983. Hurdle also had ten years of “traditional” experience to bolster his reputation and fend off conservative critics. Certainly, he received far more time and resources from his supervisors to work with. But in the end, it was his ability to adapt to the new climate of baseball, and to sell that image of what a manager should look like and do, that earned his credibility. The occasional grouching of an A.J. Burnett notwithstanding, the players believed in Hurdle’s new ideas.  And, fortunately, the team won enough to reinforce them.

The pace with which the establishment has dipped its toes into sabermetrics can feel painful at times. The majority of baseball announcers still seem to treat the subject like a political debate, though the new statistics do creep onto the screen from time to time. And while still the minority, an increasing number of voices in the booth, like David Cone and Len Kasper, have provided an alternative viewpoint on how baseball works. Given the five hundred-plus hours of game time to fill each year, often a sizable portion of it outside of playoff contention, one would think there’d be time to chat a little about what run expectancy is.

The concept of sabermetrics as a political, rather than a mathematical, movement is one that has clung to it since Boros and through Moneyball. Though Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver have become mere memories, the glee with which a Hawk Harrelson skewers WAR reflects some greater purpose than simply truth-seeking. Instead, it’s a major source of reinforcement theory: that when someone learns of a fact that challenges the truth as he sees it, he becomes more, rather than less, entrenched in his previous position. The idea of teaching is to build an optimal worldview, one most representative of truth and best equipped to handle the future. With reinforcement theory, teaching seems to perform the exact opposite of its purpose.

This is where the old guard feels threatened: not because the statistics are right or wrong, but that they threaten to erode the aesthetics of the game and offer nothing to replace it. More than a century of culture, of music and poetry and mythology, have built a sense of beauty around the game, of what baseball should feel like. It’s easy to understand the resistance to the statistic, given the general audience of television and radio broadcasts and the perspective of the average fan. The format, according to the logic, doesn’t allow for that level of analysis and can only interfere with that invisible excitement in the game.

The general argument is that average fans do not want advanced statistics in their baseball broadcast, and, therefore, they do not get them. But this leads us back to Walker Percy and the most troubling conflict of both his and my essay: if we are set in this natural state, how do we change it? If teaching a fact inherently devalues, to some degree, that fact, how do we teach? And if people reject statistics because they don’t understand them, how is that cycle broken?

For fans, it is a difficult task, because the experience of baseball always will be compared with those early impressions that founded their love for it. For Hurdle, the task becomes easier when there are economic incentives attached. Even so, history has proven that most managers tend to go down with their philosophical ships, spitting and kicking the waves as they sink.

The modern education system has set up a series of incentives for its students not dissimilar to Hurdle’s. Learn this, the idea goes, and get good grades, or it’ll hit your wallet later. Attaining those grades and the benefits attached have long since superseded the skills and wisdom those grades were meant to reflect. The outcome is that students are trained rather than educated, outsiders to their own learning. We tell them what to do and what to learn and wonder why they grow disillusioned and drop out.

Instead, the best source of inspiration, for both students and baseball figures, is inquiry. Rather than espousing facts and portioning out truths that often are mistrusted or rejected, the best way to get someone to learn something is to get her to want to find out for herself. Rather than quoting WAR to defend Mike Trout, a better avenue for conversation is to pose a question, “How much harder is it to play center field than third base? Should defense matter at all when comparing two players? Does Cabrera actually hit better with runners in scoring position, or are there just more guys on base during his at-bats compared to other people?”

The answers to these questions require a significant amount of number crunching, but the questions themselves don’t. In fact, they’re ideas that have intuitively floated around the brains of everyone from time to time. Like high school math, everyone has to work through the problems themselves to really understand. Even better, they make for great discussion in the sixth inning of ten-run, September ballgames.

In the end, that learning process isn’t impossible. We all want to know the truth. We just have to struggle balancing that truth against the rules we live by. Statistics like wRC+ tend to relate to the relativistic physics we accept but don’t necessarily understand, while the RBI is that old familiar apple dropping out of the tree, the one without the subatomic particles that also makes a decent snack. We live with these contradictions in our apples every day, contradictions in ourselves. It’s easier for anyone to accept the limitations in his own knowledge, the existence of other possibilities, when it’s he himself who has discovered them.

References and Resources

  • Kennedy, Ray. “It’s the Apple of His Eye.” Sports Illustrated 6 June 1983.
  • Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle. New York: Picador, 1975.
  • Sawchik, Travis. “Aggressive defensive plan has led to Pirates’ turnaround.” TribLive.com 14 Sept 2013.

 

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Comments

  1. Matthew Murphy said...

    This was a lot of fun to read.
    One key point you brought up that I think is worth reiterating: it’s important to focus not just on coming up with a correct answer, but in making sure that you’re asking the right question. I come across this problem all the time in the science research community, and think it’s common in baseball as well. Two people will never to be able to agree on a common answer if they’re really debating different questions.

  2. Cybo said...

    Great article. You make a lot of good points and comparisons. I’d say the average fan is resistant to sabermetrics simply because they do not understand them. Most baseball fans are nothing at all like the geeks who frequent HBT and FG. We’re a rare breed of fan who’s passionate for baseball is much greater than most. We’re the 1% of fans who dissect and analyze the game to find new ways to measure skill and greatness. Or to discover patterns and attempt to predict “regression”. The average fan, or more importantly, the young fan, are intimidated by all these weird sounding, new age statisitics. Some can be hard to understand and even harder to explain. Take my 12 year old for example. Its easy for her to understand what an RBI is and why it’s important. Understanding why Verlander kept throwing over to first when Michael Bourn was the runner is harder for her to comprehend (we went to Thursday’s game together, this was a conversation we had). As she gets more familiar with the sport she will understand the more advanced aspects and nuances of baseball. This is, of course, if her interest continues to grow. For her and most fans the classic statisitics are more than enough. WAR is gaining in popularity because it is simple. Its easy to understand what WAR measures even if its not so easy to understand how its calculated.

  3. said...

    You hinted at one of the reasons there is still a huge conversational divide between pro- and anti-saber groups. Sabermetrics had almost no appeal to ordinary fans until recently. But by the time that even took hold, front offices had already begun to change philosophies a lot. WAR is, after all, a measure of value. It’s a quick way to understand how much better a team is made by one person, and gives a GM a way to think about how to replace talent on a roster. For people not making these decisions, the need to learn a completely new language about statistics is often unwanted interference.

    There is something to be said for a fan who wants to understand the approximate talent level of a hitter by looking at his batting average, home runs, and RBI. It usually gives you a good idea of that player’s ability. (Maybe add steals for a leadoff guy.) What advanced stats do is tell you at the margins who is playing better / providing more value. The triple crown categories are sufficient to inform you that Ryan Braun is better than Yunel Escobar, but you’d probably need more than that to be able to decide, as a GM, whether signing Escobar or Stephen Drew is a better idea.

  4. said...

    Outstanding article. It reminds me of Russel Carleton’s appeal for “translational research” over at BP. Both will stay with me as I continue to beat this drum. We’re speaking the same language, but with idiomatic differences. I find it fascinating that for the most part the only thing new about sabermetrics are the answers, while the questions have long been asked.

    I especially find the presence or absence of advanced statistics in broadcasts interesting. On the one hand, I simply don’t think the finer points, or even the broader ones, of wOBA or wRC+ really fit baseball broadcasts. I’m satisfied reading about them on sites such as this one and really don’t think I’m missing anything. On the other hand, stats such as FIP and BABIP can be pretty seamlessly integrated into broadcasts. The reason is that most broadcasters already address the questions that they answer. How many times have you heard a television broadcaster say that while a hitter is on an 0-12 streak he’s been hitting the ball hard, but right at defenders? Even sabermetrically disinclined broadcasters such as George Frazier and Drew Goodmen for the Rockies mention fly ball, groundball, and line drive rates, but they stop short of translating the meaning of those rates. I’m keeping track of these types of things this year. I expect that many broadcasts contain observations or questions that sabermetrics attempts to answer.

  5. Bill said...

    Great piece – I think the beauty of this approach to education is that it allows for the possibility that the individual is knowledgeable of the subject even if they don’t understand the statistics. If I’m a longtime baseball announcers and some kid tries to tell me that Joe Scrub’s batting average will increase as his BABIP regresses to the league mean, but I see clearly that the guy’s bat is too slow and this is causing him to hit weak grounders, I’m going to dismiss the argument and may even dismiss BABIP all together. However, if it was presented as a question such as, “His batting average on balls in play is very low, why might this be and will this change?” Then I would show my knowledge of the game and indicate why I thought it was and we would likely discuss BABIP and its predictive quality. I imagine this caused some of the friction in the initial introduction of SABRmetrics. They were often wrongly applied in ways that led to results that that smart baseball people knew were false and those making the arguments smugly asserted the superiority of their methods. Had they been presented in the ways indicated here, I think the adoption would have been much smoother.

  6. Ron Amesworth said...

    Wonderful piece, but one nitpick. Billy Martin’s As did not employ a four-man rotation. They had five regular starters in Norris, McCarty, Keough, Langford and Kingman. It may have been all those complete, high pitch games they threw that ruined them, but even that can’t be written with certainty. High pitch counts
    were not unusual back then, and they carried heavy workloads for only two seasons, one of those interrupted by a strike.

    • a eskpert said...

      >90 complete games = an excessive number of pitches, even if your staff was Nolan Ryans and Greg Madduxs.

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