Ichiro! and why baseball debate sucks
Dave’s post on Ichiro and the MVP has inspired me to write something I’ve been chewing on for a while. Here’s why I think the dialogue between the scout and stat crowds has gone so badly. It’s not because one side is more arrogant, as they’re both arrogant, or because some people have termed it a war, which it’s clearly not. It’s not anything close.
It’s the nature of argumentation we’re having. It’s like.. okay, I’m going to use a politically tainted example here, but bear with me:
“John Kerry served in Vietnam dishonorably, didn’t earn his medals, wasn’t under fire…”
“But all available evidence points to those being… well, lies, frankly. There’s a ton of evidence and testimony that none of that is true… and why is this an issue anyway?”
“Of course you’d say that, you’re a Democratic tool of the liberal media.”
You see what happened there, it’s totally obvious. The attack is facts + you’re an idiot for arguing the other point.
The stat/scout debate takes this to a new level.
“I think Ichiro’s a great player, and I enjoy Mariners games in no small part because he’s so much fun to watch.”
“Ichiro is overrated, because he doesn’t do the things great hitters do. You only think that he’s a great player because you’ve been trained to overrate contact hitters and told over and over that his defense is good, even though there’s no evidence for that.”
It’s a whole three-pronged attack:
– You’re wrong, for these reasons (reasons can be fact-based or subjective, doesn’t matter)
– Your whole argument is stupid anyway, I don’t know why you bother
– You poor thing, though, you don’t even know what you’re arguing because you’re the product of a whole set of beliefs given to you by another bunch of morons
It’s totally understandable that the reaction to this kind of argumentation is hostility.
It happens in reverse:
“Willie Bloomquist is the most valuable player on the Mariners because he contributes in ways that don’t show up in the statistics. He makes other players better and adds energy to the team, but I guess you don’t see that because you’re too busy looking at your spreadsheet. This is exactly the kind of think you would know if you went out and watched a game once in a while, instead of listening to the sophistic arguments of the stathead community.”
Except that I’ve never heard sophistic worked into that sentence. Same deal:
– You’re wrong
– You’re a moron
– You sad thing, you’ve been seduced by the dark side and don’t even know what you’re saying
Take RBIs. We know facts about RBIs: they’re not a good measure of a player’s hitting ability, as they’re dependent both on the rest of the team and even within that, the player’s position in the lineup — but at the same time, a guy with 120 RBIs is almost certainly better than the guy with 12.
We can debate the utility of RBIs using facts. But we don’t.
“Joe Carter was a historically great hitter, as you can see from his many RBIs.”
“Carter batted in the middle of the lineup of some great offensive lineups, but if you look at his offensive stats, he wasn’t outstanding and certainly doesn’t seem to qualify as a historically great hitter, no matter what criteria you use for that.”
“But Joe Carter was a huge clutch hitter and won championships.”
“Again, we can look at his stats and see that compared to others…”
“When they needed a hit, he got one. Did you ever see him play?”
… and we’re off to the races. That’s almost word-for-word an actual conversation I’ve had. I’m not a big Carter fan.
I wonder if this is even avoidable, if there’s a way to keep these kind of arguments that touch on belief issues substantive. I think there is, but it requires a patience and energy by the debater that is hard to invest and rarely rewarded. It requires a dedication to elevating the level of conversation that requires too much work. It requires time and an ability to argue at length, to discover the “why” behind your opponents beliefs and intelligently discuss the foundation of their argument. Done well, done politely and respectfully, objective truth can be arrived at, even it’s a complicated and grey truth of compromise.
Time isn’t in abundence for a television or radio guy with 20 seconds to sum up what’s wrong with the Tigers this year, though, but that’s not the limit of why this kind of quick, easy wave-of-the-hand argumentation pervades sports discussion. If you read enough press coverage of baseball (or anything, really) you know that there’s a predictable story pattern, where an event occurs and reporters, columnists, and editorial pages line up to crank out an easy set of column-inches. There are easy controversial tacts to take, and easy standard themes to hit.
If you pay attention, you can pretty accurately predict the column topics of many regular writers and the arguments they’ll make. They’re on autopilot. These are the showcase name writers for major newspapers, websites, stathead and clubhouse insider alike, and you could skip weeks of their columns and catch up by reading the headlines you missed. There’s no reward for them to make a continual fight for reasoned dialogue that doesn’t escalate the insults and contempt.
If anything, employing this trident of argumentation makes them safe. It keeps people at bay, because even incorrect facts can and are defended by this. You say Joe Carter didn’t hit that well in the clutch? Well, your stats are wrong because you don’t understand the magic of Joe Carter. This is how the two sides have dug their trenches, and those who have dared to stand up and charge across no-man’s land have been met in large part by indifference or when noticed, machine gun fire. Steve Goldman wrote a column at Baseball Prospectus about how many stathead truisims are proofs of long-held pearls of baseball wisdom. Jonah Keri wrote a great column about a day at the ballpark talking stats and scouting with a bunch of baseball organizational guys. Nobody seems to notice — BP for instance still seems to be regarded as some fortification on a hill, taking potshots at scouts who pass by.
I didn’t expect that these attempts to defang the debate and show people the common ground and goals of the two sides would bring about any kind of great wall-comes-down, LaMar-and-Beane-dancing-in-the-street festival of love. But for nothing to happen, for the autopilot guys to have slept through it, is disappointing. If you love your work, if you want to be a better writer, a better fan, and even a better person, trying out new ways of looking at things should be an important part of your job.
I wrote this in the 2002 Baseball Prospectus:
Along with Vladimir Guerrero, Cliff Floyd, and Chipper Jones, Ichiro is hugely productive despite not seeing many pitches: these guys swing at and hit the first good pitch they see. Jones somehow managed to walk nearly 100 times, but the others werenâ€™t even close. Ichiro is one of the best reasons in baseball to buy a ticket. While heâ€™s not as productive as some other playersâ€”and was a lousy MVP selectionâ€”Ichiroâ€™s crazy bat artwork, base-stealing, and his sometimes brilliant defense all combine to make him an entertainment bargain.
I believe, and will check when I have a chance, the MVP thing was inserted by my editors. Two years ago, I was calling Ichiro! hugely productive as an impatient singles hitter. Today, I don’t even want to talk about it.
I like Ichiro! and I always have. It is some measure of how bad the tone of debate is that I cringe when someone writes about Ichiro! from any viewpoint. I don’t want him examined for purposes of making a larger point about the state of media coverage of contact hitters. I don’t want to be told I’m dumb for enjoying his play. I know, as a reasonably well-informed baseball fan, that my opinion is my own to cherish or discard, freely formed, and while informed by it is not the product of the local media, or their attackers from afar.
And I, like Dave, think there’s a great argument to be made for Ichiro! as statistical hero as well. I don’t want to read about how Ichiro! didn’t pick up the clubhouse enough, doesn’t get the clutch hits, and how I’m somehow an unsophisticated fan for not noticing his failure to contribute intangibly to the team, glued to a computer screen watching his hit count go up.
What kind of screwed up world is it where I don’t want to read analysis of my favorite player on my favorite team? I read anything you put in front of me. When I was a kid I read the ingredients on a box of cereal if I didn’t have a random section of the newspaper to look at over breakfast. I haven’t read any of the Ichiro! articles, pro or con, that Dave mentions. Doesn’t that say all that can be said about how bitter this debate tactic has made our world? How can we all enjoy baseball so much and yet dismiss and heap contempt on people who share that love with us?
So to those who employ this three-pronged attack, obvious and implied: lay down your trident. Let’s make baseball discussion worth having.