March 27, 2004 · Filed Under Mariners · Comments Off on  

I’m posting something I’ve worked on, set aside, and worked on some more, because I feel bad about not being around to do actual postings. It’s sort of leaked into some of my stuff lately, but —

State of the Debate

“There are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who know better.”

When I first got on the internet, I flamed everyone, friend and foe alinke. I called people all kinds of names when they disagreed with me and I got frustrated with them, and I attacked message and messenger indiscriminately.

I don’t do that today, for a couple of reasons.

Part of it is that I almost never publish anything anonymously or under fake names. I’m aware that my long history of baseball ranting is published and archived, and that I’ll be responsible for what I write in a way that FlameBobAsbestosPants666 doesn’t have or want to be. I sometimes wish I’d done all my writing under a pseudonym from the start for privacy reasons, but it’s too late for that now.

I’m a better person than I was when I was in my late teens. That sounds clunky when I write it, but it’s entirely true. I’m slower to anger, more patient, more interested in reading a good argument than picking a spicy fight.

I’m confident the facts are on my side, and if they’re not, I’ll have learned something because the best argument I had turned out to not be good enough, and there was more out there. When I build a case for the Mariners not improving in the off-season, I’ll try to bring out everything I’ve thought about and let the strength of the facts and reasoning sell themselves. I hope that once I’ve written something, it’s clear enough and simple enough that a reader can’t help but be persuaded or disagree intelligently.

I bring all this up because for a while after I discovered Total Baseball and performance analysis, I carried a great stathead banner and rode around on a rhetorical war horse, trying to set fire to the houses of people I thought had lied to me. I called them “mediots” because they were mindless consumers of the tedious clichés and worn wisdom fed to them by what passed for baseball analysts.

I’ve since come way back to acknowledging the wisdom of good scouting. I understand that there’s great value in understanding the possible “why” of the performance on the field. It’s part of another thing that’s made me calmer and better at thinking about baseball: I’ve become a much better flexible thinker.

What I’ve been doing for a while now, partly because it’s interesting but also because it’s led to some great ideas, is think “What if that wasn’t the case? Could I prove the opposite side?” We saw this on the Melvin posts, where one of the things I found was that while Melvin was being stupid about some things, there were other things he was doing I’d overlooked.

We’ve taken a lot of reader feedback on things and reexamined those issues, and sometimes it turns out we were wrong and we get to run that, too. I don’t get mad at the people who email us, though: if we’ve gotten closer to a good opinion, it’s all for the best. I’m a baseball fan and I’m particularly a Mariners fan. And I know that I’m not like most fans in that desire to weigh conventional thinking and new ideas both, because for many fans the games are entertainment that don’t warrant investments of time and energy to gain deeper appreciation for.

Even for me though, as much as I want to be a neutral researcher, that’s never going to be the case. There are two things that affect the discussion of team and baseball issues that need to be acknowledged, because they affect the work everyone in the M’s online community does.

There is a clear perception bias. Everyone wants to see their side as the best one and interprets the world to support that. This is a proven issue with the way our brains work when it comes to group psychology.

Give a group of law students a hypothetical accident case with information about what happened that can lead to a clear determination of fault. Include what the injuries were, how much damage was done to the vehicles, and so forth. Ask the students to estimate the settlement value of the case and they’ll argue among themselves and come up with a number. Break another group into two teams, give each a side, the same information, and ask them to make an estimate, and they’ll come up with wildly divergent numbers.

Each team will look at the evidence in their favor and give it more credit and importance to the case than evidence that supports the side, and before they’re done they’ll be filing restraining orders against each other and tying up the court system with nuisance lawsuits against each other.

There are more studies about this than you could read in a year. We see this every year with Spring Training Syndrome (“If our team can just avoid injuries this year, the overperformers keep going, the bad guys bounce up, and we can get big years out of a couple kids, we’ll do great”). This affects our thinking about the team we follow by forcing us to struggle constantly for objectivity. But as a Seattle Times reporter told me a long time ago while describing the good and horrible things he’d seen on the job, “Objectivity is a myth.” I may attend sixty M’s games next year, and I’ll watch the rest. I loved 2001. I may never enjoy a baseball season more: a year of amazing games, cheering breaking out as the crowds walk out of Safeco Field after a win, the belief that the team was almost invincible, never too far behind, and even the water-off-duck reaction to losses, that they were flukes and nothing to be concerned about, because this was a historically great team that would get its revenge next time.

When it comes to the Mariners I want more than anything, to see great baseball played. Down the road, that’ll be seeing Edgar Martinez acknowledged and inducted into the Hall of Fame, but for now, good baseball will suffice. I am a biased observer of the team, because as much as I’m interested in nailing predictions and dissecting the games to find out more, what I really want is to take the bus back home packed in with a ton of other fans who can’t stop talking to each other about the amazing play they saw that night.

The other thing that affects discussion is our agreement bias. Just as we’re pushed to advocate for our side, it’s hard to disagree with someone, and it’s much harder to disagree with many someones. There is an enormous pressure to conform, to see what other people see. I can give some study examples, but doesn’t everyone know this? Or did I just use that trick myself? The most important voices in Mariner commentary aren’t Art Theil or Larry Stone. It’s Dave Niehaus, Rick Rizzs, Ron Fairly, Dave Henderson and Dave Valle, because that’s who we hear for three hours a night (minus commercials) on television and radio, and they’re deeply invested in clubhouse chemistry, magic, and most of all, selling the team. Broadcasts are marketing — almost all broadcasters are homers, and rarely is anything harshly criticized, and because of this, we don’t get good discussions of managerial decisions, or roster composition. The starting point for any serious discussion of the Mariners, or any baseball team, is set deep in the clubhouse and front offices, where we’re assured that the insiders know what they’re doing, because they’re inside.

What can anyone do then?

We try to be as good as we can. Learn as much as we can. Be open to new ideas, and be willing to admit we’ve been wrong.

I don’t believe that players are random number generators. I wouldn’t rather calculate pi to the next digit than watch a game. Knowing so much more than I did when I was sneaking out of Latin to go watch John Cummings get slapped around (I wrote a short story about this I may have to dig up sometime) has made me enjoy baseball more. Knowing that pitchers have much, much less control over what happens to balls in play has made the game more exciting, because I’ve been watching more and more defense, trying to compare how far and how fast players go to get balls, how strong their arms are, when a couple years ago I didn’t care about defense enough and didn’t give much thought to it.

The best thing we can do is acknowledge our flaws and open our minds. I’d be smarter today if I’d read Bill James earlier and gotten through my growing pains before I hit college, where I could have learned a lot more than I did.

Which brings me around to the worst thing we can do, and I know this because I did it and still do.

We can’t group-and-dismiss those who disagree with us. I’ve fought this for years, the urge to label vast tracts of the population “unreachable” and write them off. The temptation is great, but I see in it the seeds of past injustices by those who’ve given in to it: There was a time education policy was set by people who thought Mexican children were mostly retarded — seriously, it’s why they were segregated, check out Mendez v. Westminster. If I ever give up trying to have a conversation with everyone who wants to have a reasonable talk, I’ve lost any reason for writing. There’s a time in childhood development when kids want to have the same thing read to them over and over, and repetition serves a purpose (which I forget — again, should have paid more attention in college). But (and this is probably the first time I’ve made a biblical reference here) when we become adults, we give up childish things. Elevating the discussion requires all of us to look for new things say, and ways to speak that will invite new voices to the discussion and not turn them away.

What’s the point of labeling an opponent? When are the people who call the other side names ever right? If the facts speak for themselves, there’s no need to dip them in mud and throw them at someone. Which of these is more persuasive?

There’s good reason to believe that Ryan Franklin’s performance will decline significantly next season. He’s a severe flyball pitcher who is aging, and his strikeout rate has dropped dramatically over the last few years. His overall performance hasn’t looked bad because he’s seen a dramatic decrease in the hits batters get when they make contact on a ball. We can expect that as a flyball pitcher who puts many balls into play, many of those outs will turn into hits with Mike Cameron replaced with Randy Winn, though our estimates vary as to how great an impact that will be over the course of a season. Further, historically pitchers with low strikeout rates are far worse bets to have continued success than pitchers with more strikeouts, as Bill James showed a long time ago and has been proven repeatedly since then. While the word out of spring training is that Franklin has been working on a new pitch, I think Franklin’s probably going to put up an ERA around 4.50 this year, with some potential for getting it down below 4 if he can adjust his pitching style to (perhaps) get more grounders and avoid the long ball, but there’s also the chance that he’ll do much worse, and even that the strikeout rate hints at a progressive injury that could start to seriously hurt his performance.

Or this —

Why do people insist on thinking Ryan Franklin is good? They can’t all be from his home town, because it’s supposed to be small. They must all be hicks like him. Franklin sucks! He’s always giving up clutch home runs and he doesn’t have good stuff. Cammy saved him so many times last year it’s not even funny and now it’s all going to come back on him. He’s not the guy you want with the game on the line, someone who can put mustard on the ball and say “you can’t hit this, in fact I dare you” and blow it by great hitters. So what, he’s learning a sinker? How many times do you hear some pitcher’s working on some thing and it doesn’t ever turn into anything? ALL THE TIME!! How bad is he for real? Against Detriot he gave up 5 runs in six innings! San Diego owned him last year! Texas whupped him all year long. If you can’t beat the worst teams, what good are you? Why can’t all you dumb hicks see that?

There was a time I’d rise to the second one and write a scathing response that left little standing but now… why bother? If someone is unwilling to respect those they disagree with and make a reasonable argument, and to respect their audience enough to treat them well, why should anyone return that respect? We have so much to do with our time, and there is so much quality discussion out there that there’s no reason to listen to the unreasonable, the name-callers, the group-and-dismiss warriors, the blind corner prophets, and those who act the fool.

I encourage everyone to consider this. When you read an argument sprinkled with cheap shots and broad generalizations about the views of opponents, ask why the writer has to get around on that crutch, and consider that maybe it’s not worth your time to find out.

For my part, I’m going to try and lay off the derisive nicknames this year. I don’t know how well that’s going to go, but the more I’ve thought about all of this the more I think that referring to Bob Melvin as Box Melvin all the time distracts from my points more than it’s funny or makes a larger point about my frustration, and if I’m going to sigh and roll my eyes when people talk about what a bunch of robots “statheads” are when they mean me, I shouldn’t come up with cute nasty nicknames for the M’s braintrust.