Thursday, August 18, 2011

Checking out a different field--baseball writing

A few days ago, I shared an exploration I took into baseball writing. I auditioned for some work in baseball writing, something only possible because so many professions have flattened their hierarchies. To be a baseball writer a decade ago, I probably would have had to hold a journalism degree or work my way in at the bottom, such as what I did back in the summer of 1989. My summer job then at The Olympian involved data entry, obituary writing, predicting the weather (sort of) and the occasional feature or news article.

Without a journalism degree or much experience, and equipped only with a love of writing and the Mariners, I took a chance at writing for a Seattle Mariners baseball blog. Some of the best sports writing and analysis I've seen comes from these blogs. I still appreciate the beat writers employed by various news outlets, but the bloggers have magnified the quality of baseball writing available to interested fans.

I did not get the "job" after my audition, but I received a good compliment about my writing. I learned a lot from this one week venture into another field. Some of my colleagues in ministry do work in other fields often. Others stay in the confines of the church for their entire careers and lose perspective and connection with what people who sit in worship encounter on a daily basis. My colleague, leader and teacher Ruben Duran says that "the church is not an end in itself, but the means by which God blesses the world." Too often pastors see the church as the end and fail to connect with those outside of the church world. Though my foray into writing on topics other than church was limited, it provided me a reminder of the insular nature of church life. Last time I checked, God loved the world, not only the church.

For all the perspective I gained, at the very least baseball writing for a weekend was fun. If you're not a baseball fan, or don't deal with advanced baseball metrics, the articles won't be of much interest. The one that might be of interest sits at the bottom of the post, since it touches on some theological themes.

A hypothetical Mariners roster move (thoughts on Matt Tuiasosopo)

Is something not quite right with King Felix?

If you want to learn more about advanced baseball metrics, the library at Fan Graphs gives more information than you ever wanted to know. But it's a start.

Movement toward baseball truth takes more than nerds
By Joe BW Smith

Baseball is joining the topics of religion and politics in my family.


I am a relatively recent convert to advanced baseball metrics. Now that I concern myself with BABIP and ISO, my family can’t talk about the baseball things we used to talk about (at least I can’t with a straight face). The debates between my father and I have shifted. I fully realized this shift the other night when Dad showed concern about the variables in Felix attaining a win over the Red Sox toward his “record.” I found myself not caring at all about a pitcher win for the first time as a baseball fan. More than not caring, I almost forgot the win for Felix entirely. This gradual shift occurred over 2 years. A pitcher win hadn’t mattered for a long time (thanks, Keith Law), kind of like saying goodbye to a dying grandparent who lives in a nursing home; they are a mere shell of their former selves: they’re not living, they’re existing. Pitcher wins died to me a long time ago, and merely exist in a box score or pitching line. I ignored variables associated with a pitcher win Saturday night (RIP, pitcher wins, we’ll still have an award called Cy Young, remembering your existence). What really concerned me about Felix on Saturday was the amount of line drives the Red Sox lasered all over Safeco. I had to find out about Felix’ line drive rate (it’s the worst of his career). But hey, it looks like Felix will get more wins this year! RIP, indeed.

Since I’m losing the ability to talk about baseball with my father, I have to ask the question:

What is the point of gathering baseball statistics?

I ask this question because I believe the human tendency is do negative things with insider status. Advanced baseball metrics are becoming more mainstream all the time. We know this to be true on the national level with Greinke and Felix winning Cy Young awards while pitching for crappy teams. We know this to be true locally, because it’s not just the beat reporters who help form public discourse on baseball (Geoff Baker, Larry Stone, Ryan Divish (sniff), etc.), but now we can hear Dave Cameron and Jeff Sullivan on the radio, and their words are shared at the ballpark and at the water cooler—“Cust didn’t hit many dingers, but that OBP was just gaudy.” All of this makes me wonder if some of the innovator and early adapter stat gurus are going to cop an attitude like fans of an once edgy band that goes mainstream: “Dude, I only like U2’s EARLY stuff.” Something like, “oh, UZR was sooooooo 2009.”

The point of baseball statistics is to tell the truth about baseball performance. What works against that truth is, baseball is a game that involves relationships. We probably know from some family relationships we’ve observed (maybe even our own), that even though we may have contact or connection with someone, doesn’t mean that we’re interested in truth. The same truth avoidance applies to baseball as it does families. Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe has written about sports and baseball spanning decades. He probably has countless relationships and work hours associated with a particular way of knowing baseball. Over a period of time he learns that the validity of some of his analysis is flawed. Of course he and others are going to be defensive, even downright hostile (his hostility toward advance metrics is well documented). Shaughnessy’s work and his relationships are affected by the changes in gathering statistics. Now the responses between advanced baseball statisticians and older generations of baseball analysts resemble political and theological discussions. You could probably tell stories about what discussions of politics and religion do to your family’s Thanksgiving. Baseball has drifted in that direction in my household. We still maybe able to discuss the Hot Stove League over Thanksgiving Turkey, but I’m not counting on it. There will always be barriers in finding truth—in baseball, politics and religion. It’s about control. Sometimes the carnage just sits there at Thanksgiving dinner (literally and figuratively).

The goal of gathering baseball statistics is truth about baseball performance. Yet, baseball is a game of relationships as well as athletic performance. The pursuit of baseball truth needs more ambassadorships, people who are well versed in the powerful link between relationships, truth and baseball. I think we see portions of that with Dave Cameron’s radio and social media appearances. Social media tools make the relational side of baseball truth gathering more possible. I am in awe of the response and interest in Cameron’s publicity of his leukemia and treatment (I’m sure he’s more in awe than me). In any learning environment, I have learned that relationships make the information more useful. Cameron’s public contact increases his trustworthiness. My exploration into advanced baseball metrics began reading Keith Law chat transcripts—where discussions of literature, language, cooking and FIP converged. Law answered my literature question before he ever answered my baseball questions.

Last Friday night at the Rainier's game, a good friend and I shared a Deschutes IPA. He attends far more live games each spring and summer than me. He has season tickets to his local semi-pro team, and his family gets to know the players over the season. He knows a lot about the game, but there are also many relationships woven in that knowledge. The topic of pitcher wins and run support came up in our conversation as we broke down the Fister trade and watched Luke French get pummeled. It was an opportunity to talk and figure out the truth of baseball performance. It’s one thing to have Jeff Sullivan tell me statistically why Luke French isn’t going to cut it; it’s another to be able to come to that conclusion among friends and family. It takes more than nerds to figure out the truth about baseball, but I’m glad that we have them, and that there are ambassadors among them.

No comments:

Post a Comment