The Internet, Baseball Analysis, and the Persistence of Dogma

August 3, 2012
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“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” –George Santayana, Life of Reason (1905) vol. 1, Introduction

Bill James did not invent the analytic study of baseball. He did, however, introduce sports fandom to the key principles of what is now known as SABRmetrics, a half-acronym inspired by the Society for American Baseball Research. And if you read through James’ early work from the 1980s, one clear intellectual project emerges: the destruction of dogma. James wanted to show that the insiders who thought they knew baseball best were handicapped by decades of collective “wisdom.”

For example, everyone knows that Runs Batted In (RBI) are a key measure of a player’s offensive ability. The only problem, James showed through mathematically informed analysis, is that it really isn’t. The statistic, it turns out, is highly contextual and if you pick your players based primarily on their RBI totals, things could go wrong in a hurry. The point of it all was to let reason and evidence lead the way. Baseball’s lore was often valuable, both for its authentic insights and its seemingly endless supply of straw men for sabrmetricians to tilt at on weekends. Dogma, however, needed to go.

Bill James is still around but, as is the case with all developing technologies, baseball analysis has moved too fast for any one person to stay on top of it all. Now the Internet is littered with people doing studies of all sorts, ranging from intense video analysis of every pitch to obscure simulations of bygone seasons.

But, according to Kevin Goldstein, perhaps not all of this change has been for the better. Yes, more people are doing, or at least following, advanced baseball analysis. But they have, as Goldstein implies in the interview below, forgotten their aims (to learn the truth about the game of baseball) and redoubled their efforts (to show that baseball insiders are generally wrong).

Goldstein is particularly attuned to this situation. His primary employer, Baseball Prospectus, is the best-known proponent of the statistical study of baseball. Most of his colleagues spend their days pouring over equations. But Goldstein studies and writes about prospects. He needs to give informed opinions on 18-year-old athletes from rural high schools whose statistics, as you can surely imagine, only tell part of the story. So Goldstein, much to the horror of the more orthodox sabrmetricians, doesn’t just look at stats. He also calls insiders–exactly the sorts of people whose persistent wrongness gives the sabrmetric community its raison d’être.

On episode 93 of his popular podcast Up and In: The Baseball Prospectus Podcast, Goldstein bemoaned the current state baseball analysis–the rant starts at 24:45 and is worth those who study fandom of all sorts. In the wake of the podcast, we exchanged a few emails on the subject:

Matt: You are clearly not the old curmudgeonly sportswriter who’s afraid of change. But you don’t seem to love Internet analysis.

Kevin: Well, just because I’m not an old curmudgeonly sportswriter doesn’t mean I’m going to embrace every change that comes about. Look, the Internet is a wonderful thing, and I wouldn’t have this career without it, but while it levels the playing field it also opens the door to a lot of garbage out there. What disturbs me is the amount of dogmatism, where basically the attitude is “I’m here and I know stats and every manager/GM/player is stupid, and here’s why.”

Look, being dogmatic is easy. What’s hard is to see something and say to yourself, “That LOOKS stupid at first glance, and maybe it is. But maybe there is something I don’t understand.” To look for that takes effort. It might even take talking to somebody else, which again, forces you to admit that maybe you don’t know everything. I’ve always said that my greatest advantage, one of the reasons this whole thing has worked out for me so damn well is that I’m willing to pick up a telephone with the hope of talking to someone.

Matt: Can you give an example?

Kevin: It happens all the time with everything. Every trade is stupid, every signing is stupid, every tactic is stupid. There’s a team right now and they have a player. Fans of that team want that player in the lineup every day. When he’s not in the lineup, they all scream “stupid stupid stupid.” But you know what? Turns out that team wasn’t playing that player for a reason.  Reporter needed to actually ask someone to get the truth.

Matt: Does the dogma crowd out the good journalism?

Kevin: Well, that’s the thing. Like I said during the little rant on the podcast, maybe I’m the asshole here. I think the signal-to-noise ratio is worse than ever, but people sure seem to like the noise.

Matt: So the Internet democraticizes but it also dogmatizes?

Kevin: Well, it’s two sides of a coin, really. The Internet is great because it levels the playing field. I’m here. I’m successful. I didn’t go to college and I have no journalism background. I was able to learn on the fly (still learning) and get an audience. The Internet is also awful because it levels the playing field and anyone can pretend they are doing what others do. It puts much more pressure on the audience when you think about it. Before, you had just journalists. You had TV and newspapers and those people actually providing the news were already vetted. Now, there’s a sudden onus on the audience to say “hey, who is this person writing this and why should I trust them?” And it’s pretty clear that not enough people are taking the step back to ask that question.


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2 Responses to “ The Internet, Baseball Analysis, and the Persistence of Dogma ”

  1. Sean Duncan on August 9, 2012 at 8:22 AM

    Hey, this is great, Matt — Antenna could use more posts about this kind of online interaction and fandom practice.

    Beyond the dogma argument, I have a slightly different take on how the context of online interactions might shape the particular forms of argument among baseball fans. The online participatory nature of SABRmetrics is a really interesting case, one in which the kinds of arguments that have gained traction happen to be some of the easiest to communicate in the medium. It’s hard for someone to accurately describe a “5-tool player” verbally without relying upon some kind of reliance upon authority, and so less-subjective, abstracted statistics become even more salient in such a context. It’s much easier to hop on a forum or Twitter and type, say, a .280/.380/.930 slash to convey a player’s value than it is to accurately convey the “intangibles” that folks like Goldstein are saying should get back into the conversation. Math works as a great, clear communicative tool in such online contexts, but isn’t going to capture everything.

    Just a thought. Great piece!

  2. Bill Kirkpatrick on August 9, 2012 at 12:06 PM

    Great post. One thing the post hints at but would be interesting to analyze in more depth is the effect that this has had on television broadcasts of baseball. A lot of the old-school broadcasters are there because of their deep and intuitive understanding of the game; even those whom fans love to pick on (Joe Morgan, Tim McCarver) have valuable baseball wisdom of the kind that Goldstein refers to and wants to maintain respect for.

    Yet one increasingly hears the tensions between old and new analysis tentatively creeping into the broadcasts thanks to more SABRmetrically inclined co-hosts, e.g. not just the once-exotic OBP but also occasionally FIP, WAR, etc. The shift is happening slowly as producers try to handle the on-air analysts, the analysts try to imagine their audiences, and audiences increasingly experience the game through multiple channels. In other words, what we’re seeing is a slow but perceptible real-time audience-driven shift in sports broadcast practice, as the paradigm clash that is so loud on the internet gets worked out more quietly on television.

    Thanks for your post!