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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Resistance to Sabermetrics

In the baseball fan debate over statistics, I occupy an awkward position. In my day job, I use statistics all the time. In my baseball life, I care about, and follow, the stats, but feel that the stats leave something out. I am a member of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), but not a very active member.

I think I had the "a-ha" moment tonight. My problem is that I place myself in the analysis. Not as a baseball player. Let's just say that my boyhood dream of playing for the Detroit Tigers never came near fruition. (Although if I could just learn to throw a knuckleball, I my still have a shot at pitching an inning . . . .) But in my career, and in my current job.

Let's just say that, in sabermetric terms, I probably don't measure up too good. Sure, I hold my own, against the "players of the day," and if my boss today were drawing up the line-up, I'm starting. But am I an all-time great? A top 40 guy, HOF, etc. No, I'm not. If you had your pick of people to do my job, all-time, am I in that conversation? No.

Now, unlike a MLB ballplayer, I'm not facing the inevitable decline of age. Because I work with my mind, I may make the cut, eventually (although I will probably have to depend on a few great years rather than counting stats at this point). But I think that the deeper point is that lots of us smart guys, with plenty of talent, recognize that we're not the smartest, or sharpest, or whatever. That we're solid guys--hell, we always wish that there were a few more like us in the office--and not necessarily guys, don't mean to be sexist. We're in the top 20 percent, maybe top 15, but not in that elite group.

The problem with sabermetrics, it seems to me, is that it discounts these guys. The "very good" don't belong in the HOF. But there are many more "very good" cogs in the office machine than there are hall of fame players. And those of us who feel, rightly or wrongly, that we're in that category ("very good") have a somewhat visceral reaction to the sabermetric discussions of why, say, Jim Thome doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. Or, say, Omar Vizquel. Omar may not have been the greatest of all time (GOAT), but who is? Ripken? If that's the mark, then no one else counts. And that can't be right, can it?

This is especially a problem with "fan favorites." Players that the fans love but who "come up short" in the numbers department. Sure, may of these players may be over-rated. But guys like me worry that maybe we're over-rated, too. We start to think that it should count that people like us. Because, frankly, that isn't always the easiest thing to accomplish. People liking you. Generally, you have to earn that, and in most professions it doesn't come easy. I know that as a baseball fan, I don't bestow my affections on just anyone. It is earned. I think that it's the same with me. Folks don't instantly cotton to you. You have to show them something.

But if the standard is GOAT, then, hell, that's a pretty lofty goal. And being "pretty good" usually entails knowing how to recognize greatness, and knowing that you're always going to fall a little short (at least). By contrast, incompetent people don't share this affliction. (They are truly MORONS.) But my people, we see. And we understand, and feel, well, under-appreciated.

Or, to say it differently, we appreciate the very good ball players. We see in them (project?) our own virtues. We like to believe that we are like them--we know that we are not like the GOATs, who are beyond us, but that we may be like the players who have some success, even if it's limited in time or scope. Not the mediocre and awful, but the very good (good-to-very-good?).


At 11:20 AM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Nice post, 3. Didn't know u was so medioker. Why has I been hangin' out wit' u? Oop. Me guess me lack self-awayre.

At 11:36 AM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Yeesh, who was that guy!? Mr. Hyde unhides.

As a guy who played high school sports, small and slow, relying more on cunning, will, and toughness than on real athletic talent, I sympathize a lot with this analysis. Partly as a result, I've never been able to relate to glamor teams or glamor players. Screw Manny. Give me a Craig Counsell, a David Eckstein, or a Terry Pendleton any day. Even the "stars" I like tend to be anti-stars: no-nonsense battlers like Ripken and Smoltz. Maybe there needs to be a Madden award for baseball.

The scrappers may not all make GOAT level, but fan appreciation is certainly a reward of its own. I probably have less trouble reconciling all this in my mind b/c of my Calvinist sensibilities: forget perfection, do God's work wherever you are and whatever you happen to do. "Stand in the place where you are," as the boys from REM once sang.


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