Baseball Needs a Lesson in the Dialectic

It is a vast improvement, but I’m not convinced that sabermetrics have answered all the game’s questions and are not ignoring others.

<!– /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:Georgia; panose-1:2 4 5 2 5 4 5 2 3 3; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:647 0 0 0 159 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} —It’s November 16th, 2008, and the election results are coming out tomorrow. On one side, we have the conservatives behind stalwart Ryan Howard, who stands for everything they love about baseball – traditional counting numbers and intuition. On the other side, we have the new liberals using their new “statistical analysis” to back Albert Pujols. Lines have been drawn. Insults have been thrown. And the Baseball Writers Association of America has taken its annual beating from both sides. But, tomorrow, democracy functions as designed, and a winner will be announced.

We know what the election was for – the National League Most Valuable Player Award – and what those results were – Pujols won –, but this article is not one that will try to argue one way or the other. This article is more interested in the last few sentences of its own first paragraph. Today’s baseball headlines are filled with new rumors and stories of which player used steroids and which have not. But this article is not worried about that, either. It is worried about a new problem facing baseball. Actually, it is not exactly a new problem, but it is a problem becoming more visible every day. That problem? The battle between that “new ‘statistical analysis’” – sabermetrics – and the traditional statistics – counting numbers and intangibles – mentioned above.

I have been a baseball fan for years, but I cannot (or maybe I just did not pay as much attention) remember another MVP debate as bitter as the one over Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard. Phil Sheridan called baseball nerds (those generally associated with sabermetrics) “seamheads” (in a derogatory manner though the word itself does not seem all that negative) and railed against OPS and VORP in favor of Howard’s HR and RBI numbers. Murray Chass added his take on why Howard should win the award and took a shot at OPS as well. Thomas Boswell received probably the most criticism for his criticism of the same statistics.



But before you think it was one-sided, it takes two to tango. Matt Snyder attacked Chass and his argument and essentially called him “stupid”. Rob Neyer, during a chat, essentially relegated those who do not believe in VORP to the “Flat Earth Society”. Finally, Tom Tango recently declared:

All of the defenders of the “world is flat” simply don’t stand up to the scrutiny. They make lazy excuses, or simply want to remain in a pool of ignorance because it gives them comfort to keep doing things their way. Good. The world is big enough for all of us. Join us if you want. Just don’t stand in our way.



Ouch.



Again, this article is not about debating who should have won the MVP Award. It is about how we debate. Arguing and debating is a great tool, an amazingly effective way to learn. Karl Marx, famous for communism, should be more known for his more brilliant discussion of the dialectic. In the dialectic (this is the short, simplified version), you have two opposing forces/ideas (in this case, sabermetrics versus counting numbers). The idea is to rationally argue both sides, and through time and more evidence, the sides whittle the debate down to a higher truth (the measurement of a player’s value). Then, an opposing idea develops against the newly-formed idea, and we begin the process over again, slowly getting closer to that higher truth. I believe each journalist (all fine, smart people) is trying to find this higher truth, but instead of arguing and compromising, they each take a stiff, stubborn stance defending themselves, getting us and this debate nowhere.



Neither side is completely “stupid” and ignorant. Those who follow counting numbers have a point (among many). Baseball revolves around the run. It determines who wins and who loses. Therefore, should you not pay attention more to runs, RBI’s, and home runs? Home runs automatically score a run (making them slightly important) and bring in whoever is on base (making them more important). If the point of the game is to score runs than the other team, home runs and RBI’s are awfully darn important, which gave Howard the edge. However, just because they are important, it does not mean they are the be-all-say-all. Baseball is a game of statistics, with each one describing a different part of a player’s value (stolen bases are useful, right?). One needs to look at more than just home runs and RBI’s to see a player’s value. Just looking at two or three statistics is just lazy when you have a wealth of information that is readily available and easily accessible, but I think we have devalued many “traditional” stats to the point that they are believed to be obsolete and insignificant.

Those who devote themselves to sabermetrics also have a point (again, among many). Guys like John Dewan and Bill James are not Joe Average. They are ridiculously intelligent human beings who have spent their lives deriving new stats to take advantage of new technology and come ever closer to that “higher truth”. Incredibly, they have even come up with statistics that measure how many wins each player is worth. And if the object of the game is to make the playoffs, should not the wins each player helps a team win decide his worth, which gave Pujols the edge? Now, I am sure that the math (which I do not understand) is perfect and the addition and subtraction has been double-checked, but how exactly do you really measure how many wins a player brings to the team? Do those stats take into account how much Chipper Jones helped Brian McCann with his swing in order to become a three-time All-Star? Chipper’s advice helped McCann, which helped McCann get better, which helped the team get better, and which finally helped the team win. Did VORP get that, too? Sometimes, all the math and science in the world misses the mark. Believe it or not, there are “intangibles” that need to be accounted for (not that they’re extremely significant or the most significant, but they do exist).

This is just the tip of the iceberg of this complicated debate, but it at least shows you that each side is neither perfect nor baseless. Both sides have something to contribute, but the name-calling gets in the way. Being called a moron does not make you more receptive to the other person’s argument. Actually, it does the opposite. It makes you more defensive. As a result, we go nowhere. The debate over the NL MVP is just one example. We had the same debate over the NL Cy Young Award when the sabermetricians supported Johan Santana and Tim Lincecum over Brandon Webb, who had the most wins by far. We had the same debate over Gold Gloves while the traditionalists looked at fielding percentage and errors instead of the Fielding Bible or Dewan’s Plus/Minus System. Instead of coming to a better solution, we will probably have the same arguments this off-season. In order to make progress, we cannot continue to have the same argument over and over again.

Whose fault is this? No one’s really. Or both sides if you prefer to have someone blamed. The cause of this is the perfect storm. As both sides compete for readers and (ultimately) their jobs, they try to denounce the other side to make themselves better, just like in politicians trying to be elected or re-elected. Newspaper journalists, largely the traditionalists, are losing their jobs at a rapid pace (expedited by the current recession). Where are the readers going? The internet. Who is writing on the internet? The internet writers who support sabermetrics. In order to keep readers, the journalists attack sabermetrics and stick to proven methods.

But sabermetricians are not innocent. They smell blood. Newspapers are dying, and they realize momentum is on their side. Sabermetrics, around since James began writing in 1977, are finally getting some credit and exposure. Newspaper journalists and the traditionalists are the last obstacles in their path. In the process, stats such as RBI’s are belittled to the point where we see them as meaningless, but they are not meaningless. You just cannot look at it as the one stat that determines value. However, you cannot just look at WARP and VORP as the be-all stats, either. Understanding is key, and to fully understand, you must understand the argument’s and your own limits.

Maybe the old-school thinkers will just die out (literally and metaphorically). But I still think there’s a lot of things that can be learned by both sides from each other. Sabermetrics need to understand that there are influences on the game that can’t be put in a stat book. Traditionalists need to learn that just because we’ve been doing one thing for a long time, it does not mean it is the best way to do it.

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Note: Much longer than my usual post, this was my submission for the BP Idol competition. It’s probably not exactly what they were looking for, but it’s something that’s been on my mind. Anyway, I figured I would share it.

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