Ichiro! and why baseball debate sucks

DMZ · September 8, 2004 at 1:54 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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 weren’t even close. Ichiro is one of the best reasons in baseball to buy a ticket. While he’s not as productive as some other players—and was a lousy MVP selection—Ichiro’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.


67 Responses to “Ichiro! and why baseball debate sucks”

  1. Zzyzx on September 9th, 2004 7:17 am

    As someone who has been one of the bigger critics of the snarky attitude of some members of the stathead community, I have noticed an improvement in attitude. You can’t expect long standing habits of writing to go away immediately, but there has been a lot more interesting baseball talk here and a lot less attitude.

  2. JP Wood on September 9th, 2004 7:19 am

    I have read this Blog practically since its inception as a message board for three rabid Mariner fans, and the writing has improved noticeably over what has been in fact a very short period of time. USSM has morphed from being a private conversation in public to being the largest Mariner forum in town for a number of good reasons, one important one being the consistently good analysis of baseball from various viewpoints, and I’m certain that there are many other reasons we are all focused here. I frankly don’t see the quality of the writing and analysis here as being a problem.
    One thing, though, that hasn’t emerged in this debate is the fact that the Mariners are having a pathetic year has driven wedges between fans with different approaches to appreciating and analyzing the game. There is just so much that defied prediction, so much disappointment in performance, so many different players and FO variables brought into the mix this season that the type of fans who congregate here are often at a loss to understand or explain what has happened. The season is a long 6 months, but relative to April 2001 to September 2004, it’s been a blink inflicted by a shot of tear gas that still defies total understanding. I feel as if I’m often foundering to understand the extent and depth of this disaster while also trying to project some hope on the next season by attempting to fill the holes with reasonable to good candidates. But the tools often just don’t work.
    I don’t imagine that I’m alone in this frustrating execise, and my anger in frustration must occasionally be evident. I try to keep it impersonal. That’s been Derek’s theme since May, and it’s a good one.

  3. Troy Sowden on September 9th, 2004 7:59 am

    Wow. I’d be fooling myself to think I have any new revelations to add to this thread. I’d just like to say thank you. This comment section is awesome, and Derek’s post was fantastic. As an aspiring writer, I’ll just say that I seriously look up to the three of you. Thanks again.

  4. B. David on September 9th, 2004 8:52 am

    Debate doesn’t demand that you not hold a negative opinion’s. It doesn’t demand that you not make negative judgments towards the person which which you are engaging in debate.

    What it does mean is that if you’re going to take a position, you support it. If you’re going to argue against a position, your argument address that position and not the person with whom you are debating.

    As much as I desire that the level of debate exist at a higher level than it does, I also dislike that this turns into a demand that we to cater to a lowest common denominator and treat every idea and comment with equal merit. I think it’s unfortunate that a writer as gifted as Derek is apologizing for things he said that were totally fair. The very first thing I ever read by Derek was his “worst of Weber” page, which just slammed horrible web design on early UW student home pages. It probably wasn’t the nicest thing anybody’s ever done, but A- it was totally on point and B- it was funny as hell. Mocking something that deserves to be mocked isn’t wrong. Failing to step up and support your opinion in a rational and adult manner when it’s challenged is.

  5. B. David on September 9th, 2004 8:56 am

    Another thing I’d add- is that the worst thing you can do in any debate is pretend to assume you understand the motivations of the other party/parties involved.

    Seems elementary, but about 2 years ago I started to work the notions of “giving people the benefit of the doubt” into everything I did, and I feel like I’ve approached debate with an infinitely more adult perspective since then.

  6. DMZ on September 9th, 2004 9:11 am

    B David Harrison… holy mackeral, they’re coming out of the wood work.

    I agree more with your second here than your first. I think if I had to distill my distaste for the way this argumenation style works, it would be not just the “you’re a moron” type, which I think can sometimes be true and often is best left unsaid, but the “your opinion is meaningless anyway” part. It’s that assignment of motive and “it doesn’t matter because you’re [not a GM] [a tool of dumb media commentators] anyway” that really bothers me.

  7. stan on September 9th, 2004 9:28 am

    I am not sure if this thread has run out of steam, but it seems to me to be obvious that the stats the statistical community use derive from a game based on scouting. If you are the third base coach for the Red Sox this weekend with a runner on third and less than two outs with a fly ball to Randy Winn in medium center, you are going to send the runner as long as he is not named David Ortiz. I can’t imagine any coach looking at some statistical chart in that situation before making a decision. It may be that Randy Winn has more outfield assists this year than Ichiro. Numbers are fine but numbers out of context are often misleading. I find baseball as narrative (i.e. Dave Niehaus) much more entertaining and informative than Rick Rizzs spouting a bunch of statistics. (I will give myself a probably undeserved pat on the back for saddling the stat heads with Rick Rizzs while keeping Dave Niehaus for my side in this debate:)

  8. Zzyzx on September 9th, 2004 9:33 am

    One of my recent obsessions btw is the manner in which the Internet changes debate. Instead of forming communities based around geographic proximity, we now do so around common interests. As a result it’s easier to stay stuck in your own world where anyone who disagrees with you is a troll. It’s harder to keep up your ability to rationally debate if you don’t have many friends who happen to disagree with you on issues.

  9. SteveF on September 9th, 2004 10:13 am

    You can’t have an argument with anyone who isn’t willing to learn. And you can’t learn anything without willing to be wrong. So, basically, don’t argue with anyone who isn’t willing to be wrong. It’s an exercise in futility.

    Also, don’t bother arguing things you yourself aren’t willing to be wrong about. You aren’t doing the other guy any favors.

    (This makes political discourse nearly impossible. Consider a few of your most cherished political positions and ask yourself if you’re REALLY willing to be wrong about them.)

  10. Paul Weaver on September 9th, 2004 11:00 am

    I’m a big fan of looking at the man in the mirror, but I don’t think the given examples of DMZ’s supposed hypocrisy fit the bad debate style he was denouncing. If they do, they are mild at best. No one is put down for being in some group or another. Individual performances (i.e. bad writing, baseball playing, or FO decisions) are bitingly criticized, but not stereotyped or considered wrong merely because of their source (or community from which the source comes).
    I used to go to unitedstates.com for political debate. There were too many people that debated there in the way DMZ warns against here, though.

  11. The Ancient Mariner on September 9th, 2004 5:05 pm

    Great post, Derek; which, by and large, spawned a great discussion, which is kudos to you, I think, as well as to the group of fans the three of you have attracted. I agree with PJL that you’ve succinctly and accurately described something which goes far beyond baseball debate; as the pastor of a church which spans the whole political spectrum, within the PC(USA) which is deeply and bitterly divided over a number of issues, a fair bit of my energy right now is going to addressing precisely the concern you raise, and the resultant polarization, and trying to find ways to build bridges across that gap. You’ve given me both food for thought and food for work (and do you mind if I quote you, both from this and from your May piece, in one of my sermons?), which I appreciate.

    I also think it’s important to second the point that nothing you’ve said rules out sarcasm or hyperbole. One need not be milquetoast to be fair.

  12. jemanji on September 10th, 2004 12:46 pm

    As to your awareness of the M’s inner workings — yes, you’ve written about Gillick’s pull many times, although the Gillick focus also misses the point.

    What is important is that you have written, many times, that Bill Bavasi is the worst GM in baseball. I’m addressing the position you take when you write the latter.


    You’ve written this many times, Dave, that I have too negative an opinion of you, for somebody “who doesn’t know you and who has never had a conversation with you.”

    1. I’ve got no animosity towards you whatsoever.

    2. I’m arguing against the contempt that SHOWS UP IN YOUR WRITINGS.

    3. You yourselves at USSM have NEVER hesitated to form opinions about others, because of their writings — as opposed to knowing them personally.

    You guys know John Kruk personally? Bill Bavasi personally? Howard Lincoln personally? … You form your opinions of THEIR opinions — from what they say and what they write.

    “If you want to get to know me, read my books. Who I am, is pretty much there!” – Mark Twain


    I don’t dislike any of you, Dave. But the fact is, that you have led the industry in smirks and sneers directed at those who disagree with you. It’s there in your writing, for anyone to judge for themselves.

    You plan to lead us into a kinder, gentler world of respect and tolerance, I think that’s great.


  13. jemanji on September 10th, 2004 1:31 pm

    We ask about Zumsteg calling Ann Coulter “an insane liar” and he writes, “I don’t feel bad about that — she IS!”

    I think I’m getting it. USSM vows not to use contempt — unless it feels the target DESERVES it.

    LOL. 😀

    I am not arguing about WHEN we should deploy contempt. I am arguing about WHETHER we should deploy contempt.


    When you guys call Gammons’ anti-union stance “insane,” it has the effect of — suppressing the opposing view.

    People are going to be afraid to write pro-owner, when they know that USSM considers the view insane.


  14. jemanji on September 10th, 2004 1:32 pm

    Look it, was Zumsteg who started this whole thing. Right?

    He sez, “C’mon, I’m afraid to even pop open an article about Ichiro. All the scorn and contempt is making the ‘net WAY HARSH, amigos. Knock it off!”

    Then he opens today writing about John Kruk’s “latest column of garbage.”

    Does John Kruk fear to open USSM? Does USSM care?

    Zumsteg brought it up,
    Dr D

  15. DMZ on September 10th, 2004 2:44 pm

    Heyyyy, welcome back, O Segmented-posting One.

    I’m going to be entirely blunt:
    You draw speculative opinions about Dave’s condescension from his columns and paint him as the most arrogant and baleful of all. You claim this is evidence-based, but it’s inherently a subjective judgement of yours. Your subjective judgements are not fact, any more than mine are.

    Second — while I’m all against scorn, your strange objection to using flat statements of opinion and certain descriptive terms that seem particularly offensive to you does not mean that they should never be applied. Kruk’s column was garbage, in my opinion. I didn’t say Kruk was a scumbag, or a tool of the conservative/liberal media or… or anything I’m talking about in this post about scorn and the particular nature of the dismissive attack.

    That you repeat your own pseudo-quotes about Ann/Gammons when I’ve offered a more detailed accounting of why I said those particular things speaks more about your argumentation than anything you write there.

    Third — this whole “You’re all a bunch of jerks LOL” schtick was amusing for the first post.

  16. giuseppe on September 14th, 2004 5:06 pm

    I think it is very telling that jemanji hasn’t been banned.

    Not that I would ever expect the three fantastic, open-minded authors of USSM to do such a thing.

    I’m not being sarcastic at all.

    Derek, great piece. I would also love to quote it with your permission and attribution of course.

    jemanji, give him a chance, just as they’ve given you more than one chance.

  17. Shannon Taylor on October 3rd, 2004 9:42 am

    I personally believe that baseball debates suck merely because after a while it takes away from the sheer pleasure of sitting down with a hot dog, some peanuts, a nice cold beer and doing what is most important: ENJOYING A DAMN BASEBALL GAME!! (pardon the d word)
    Secondly, Ichiro is a phenomenon…a rising star that will only get higher. As for the over-rated comments: HE JUST BROKE An 84 YEAR OLD RECORD PEOPLE!! But whatever people may or may not say about Ichiro, whatever record he may or may not break…he’s here for sheer love of the game. Everything else is just icing on the cake for him.
    Enough said. PLAY BALL!! 🙂