The War Between the Stats
Four score or around thirty years ago, I was editing an alternative weekly newspaper in Burlington, Vermont. I had a good friend who owned a thriving local bookstore (what a concept!) who was more of a seamhead than I was. One day he told me about this obscure Midwestern baseball writer “with two first names” who was publishing a collection of long essays every year called The Baseball Abstract.
They were astonishingly deep, my friend went on, used statistics in an original, challenging way, and could only be ordered through the mail. Knowing this friend was highly critical of every piece of printed word that crossed his desk, I ordered the first two volumes without even glancing at his copy.
The books were crudely printed and bound, basically a notch above what you might find rolling off an old high school mimeograph machine, but the essays were something to behold. Filled with original numerical formulas I could barely comprehend, Bill James anchored them with thorough, often hilarious analysis of players and teams I was convinced could not be found anywhere else.
I still have these dusty volumes in a box in my garage, along with the subsequent ten Abstracts published by Ballantine Books, unaware at the time they would be the first Fort Sumter shots fired in the War Between the Stats.
These decades of mounting mathematical unrest have been civil for the most part, but this year, with the Mauer vs. Jeter/Teixeira MVP debate serving as a lightning rod, I’ve detected a heatedness to the skirmishes, as the two armies dig deeper into their trenches. On the traditional side you have a bevy of old school baseball people and newspaper columnists who value the baseball “book” and things they just plain see with their eyes. You have Dusty Baker bad-mouthing players who walk a lot because they “clog up the base paths.” Above all, this side of the battlefield is threatened by new thought, and terrified of new numbers. (I seem to recall game-winning RBIs being introduced in official box scores during the late 1980s, then summarily being expunged again after a minor old school backlash.)
On the other side you have the free-thinking, anti-traditionalists, the self-proclaimed sabermetricians who I like to call the Kansas City School. Bill James hails from that region, as does his disciple Rob Neyer, sportswriter supreme Joe Posnanski, and famed Royals blogger Rani Jazayerli, who was banned from Kaufmann Stadium this year for his repeated, entirely justified diatribes against the Royals’ insanely incompetent player management. Add to this camp the fearless militias from Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Analysts, The Hardball Times and a host of other brainiac outfits and you have an army of thought impossible to take lightly.
Old-schoolers are quick to dismiss any free-thinkers as “stat geeks writing in their mom’s basements,” but that cliche is as worn-out and useless as most intentional walks. Billy Beane and Theo Epstein are successful baseball executives who joined the free-thinking ranks long ago, as are a staggering number of baseball bloggers.
The odd thing about this war, though, is that the general baseball public seems largely unaware of its existence. Most fans who attend, watch or listen to games are perfectly content with their knowledge of batting and earned run average, wins and losses and runs batted in. If they’ve even heard of VORP, most would try to catch one with a net.
No, this war is being fought largely on the Internet, and has only recently begun to leak into broadcast booths. ESPN, despite its employment of a handful of unenlightened blabbermouths, feature OPS now as a part of their Sunday night telecasts.
I am far from being a genuine sabermetrician myself, because I never cared for math in school and have little interest in the inner workings of most new baseball stat formulas, but I certainly value these writersâ€™ passion for logic and common sense and am glad as hell they’re around to keep baseball talk fresh and alive.
I also know entertaining prose when I read it, and in the baseball world, this is definitely the golden age of it. Bill James’ “A History of Being a Kansas City Baseball Fan” from his 1986 Abstract (following the ’85 Royals championship) is one of the great unsung pieces of sportswriting ever, and could have been published on its own. The sadly-defunct web site Fire Joe Morgan featured annotated versions of horrid baseball pieces extracted from the old school press, and they are works of hilarious, radical beauty. Surf the net any day during the baseball season and you’re bound to come across a half dozen new Web gems you will never find in the sadly dwindling printed press.
Baseball is an endlessly fascinating sport, with ample room for new ideas, and it was only a matter of time before soldiers wielding these sharp ideas rose up to challenge the old guard. Like a spectator watching the battle of Manassas from my carriage, I become more enthralled with each and every volley.
You can find more of Jeff Polmanâ€™s work at http://1924andyouarethere.blogspot.com/ where heâ€™s conducting a fascinating replay of the 1924 season.