The Sabermetric Project and the “Science of Words”

Before I hit the record button on our recent conversation together, Geoff Young and I meditated briefly on the relationship between words and numbers — and the respective contributions of each to the sabermetric project. Young said something to the effect that he’d always regarded Bill James (i.e. father of us all) as a writer and thinker first, a statistician second. If I’m remembering correctly, James has said something very similar to this on more than one occasion.

Around this time last year, in these electronic pages, I addressed James’ opinion on the narrative quality of numbers. It could certainly be treated at greater length, but, to paraphrase, his most basic thoughts on the matter are summarized in this statement:

When the numbers melt into the language, they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do, to become fiction and drama and poetry.

Another voice — and another perspective — in this conversation belongs to an unlikely source: Romantic Poet and Manly Christian Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I’ve recently acquired from the University of Wisconsin Library a copy of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection. The first thing to say about the text — not entirely related, but relevant insofar as it’s awesome — is that the specific copy I’ve checked out was published in 1863 (and is, in fact, inscribed by one John L. Ladds, dated 1865). There’s a pleasure to this: to read the exact words that someone 150 years ago also saw fit to read.

More relevant to the present discussion, however, is the following sentiment. Attempting to summarize the purpose of his book, Coleridge states in the preface that his intent is to

direct the reader’s attention to the value of the science of words, their use and abuse, and the incalcuable advantages attached to the habit of using them appropriately, and with a distinct knowledge of their primary, derivative, and metaphorical senses. [Emphasis mine.]

Here we have an idea both opposite, and intimately related, to James’s. Coleridge is concerned not with the capacity for cold data to become warm and rich when organized meaningfully, but rather with properties of words and their particular effects on readers. Of course, there actually is a science more or less dedicated to this: linguistics (and rhetoric, too). That’s not news. But for a community that recognizes implicitly the importance of numbers to our enjoyment and understanding of baseball, it makes sense also to understand the role of words in the same.

Josh Levin considered something like this back in 2003, in a piece he wrote for Slate. In his article, he asks a simple question: Why doesn’t football have a Bill James?

Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders answered the question ably, stating that “baseball analysis exists as it does today because Bill James is one of the people who, in American intellectual history, is a force of nature.”

Levin is smart enough to recognize some other obvious reasons as to why baseball analysis has proliferated. Like, for example, that baseball is older, and also that, being a turn-based game, it lends itself more to quantitative analysis.

Still, it’s a fact: especially in the early years of the Abstract, when he was writing and publishing his annual almost entirely by himself, James’ output was incredible. For not only was he doing all that junk on his own, but he was, more or less, inventing a genre of literature.

What sort of person is capable of such singular focus and ubermenschiness? The same sort who’d write the following words, also in Slate, earlier this month:

I myself am a stubborn, sometimes arrogant person who refuses to obey some of the rules that everybody else follows. I pay no attention to the rules of grammar. I write fragments if I goddamned well feel like it. I refuse to follow many of the principles of proper research that are agreed upon by the rest of the academic world. An editor said to me last year, “Well, you’ve earned the right to do things your own way.” Bullshit; I was that way when I was 25. It has to do with following the rules that make sense to me and ignoring the ones that don’t. It doesn’t make me a bad person; it makes me who I am. I started the Baseball Abstract, self-publishing it when self-publishing was cumbersome and impractical, because it was my book and nobody was going to tell me how to write it or tell me what people were interested in.

Words, numbers, and baseball — and the overlapping relationships between the three — were recently addressed by Will Carroll and (by way of response to Carroll) Tom Tango.

Caroll’s basic stance is that writers in the saber community don’t really understand what it requires to make quantitative analysis palatable to the masses. He writes that

99% of baseball fans still don’t use OPS, let alone a more advanced measure. How about statheads take some baby steps, or better, take some lessons from Moneyball. Moneyball told a good story and brought some advanced measures to a wider audience. In the shadow of that book, statheads lacked a Michael Lewis to carry their message, and worse, didn’t understand why the book was popular. Until statheads stop worrying about decimal places, litmus tests, and passive-aggressive stands against the status quo, they’ll lose out to good stories, marketing, and simplicity.

First of all, with due respect to Mr. Carroll, it’s important to note that characterizing all of the many individuals writing in the sabermetric vein — characterizing them as a cohesive group — is misleading. There’s no central governing body for sabermetrics, nor is there much money in this particular racket. As such, while there is certainly a pretty high degree of interaction between the science’s various practitioners, to suggest that “statheads” are functioning with an agenda — or that they’re capable of doing so — is fallacious.

Second of all, on the subject of forces of nature, let’s all be clear about how many people possess Michael Lewis’s peculiar capacity for storytelling. “One person,” is the answer: Michael Lewis himself.

For his part, Tango takes an approach that won’t be surprising to those readers who’re already familiar with his work. To Carroll’s suggestion that sabermetric writers are failing to make inroads with the general public, he literally replies, “Who cares?”

He also writes this:

We are making strides. Who says we’re not? And we are making strides because we are making sense. But more importantly, the objective is to breed a loyal following to the ideas, because those ideas will live on forever. That’s how you measure success. You don’t measure success by the number of people you can get to buy your fish. You measure success by the number of people willing to sell your fishing rods.

Tango’s main concern, if I’m characterizing it correctly, is to ask questions about baseball — particularly about what contributes to wins and losses — and answer them. He’s excellent at doing this, as The Book and his blog both demonstrate.

We have, in Carroll and Tango’s respective comments, a couple of ways to measure the success of the sabermetric project. The quality of, and loyalty to, the ideas: that’s one criterion. The degree to which the general public begins to utilize advanced stats: that’s another, maybe.

But let’s be clear about something: the survival and proliferation of sabermetrics is ultimately meaningless. Sabermetrics is merely a means to the only possibly valuable end: our own happiness.

If James was successful at marketing sabermetric ideas, it’s not because that’s what he set out to do. Nor was his concern to perfect a science of baseball. Rather, the one thing that Bill James appears to’ve cared about — the thing which makes his work compelling — is satisfying Bill James.

James’ true accomplishment has been — and still is — that he trusts himself fully. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with baseball, at all. It’s a question of curiosity, courage, and, as Emerson says, the ability to “abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”

Before James, the prospect of dedicating oneself almost entirely to asking questions about baseball — it was laughable. He made it a thing. And he made it a thing not because his research methods were flawless (they weren’t) nor because he was a marketing genius (he wasn’t), but because he possessed a singular vision and was able to represent that vision in white-hot prose.

Which, that brings us back to Coleridge and the “incalcuable advantages” of using words well. Yes, James wrote in fragments: if you’re thinking that’s somehow an indictment of his writing abilities, then you’re mistaken in a hundred different ways. No, the fact is that James wrote (writes) the shit out of English. There’s no mistaking, in the pages of his Abstracts, that a human is on the other side of his words — a human who doesn’t take for granted, not even for a second, the wonders of the human mind.

Give me a distinct voice. Not someone who hedges bets in hopes of reaching the greatest possible audience: that’s sad and hollow. Not someone who sets out purposely to make controversy: that’s cheap, dishonest. No. Give me someone who trusts him- or herself entirely, whose writing is a celebration of human potential.

Are there authors like this writing about baseball? Yes, absolutely. Consider the work of Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing and Dan Moore of Viva El Birdos: for as much writing as those guys do, it’s amazing how often they hit home runs. Both make ample use of advanced stats — there’s no question about it. But to label either as a stathead, or whichever other term you’d like to use — well, that’d be a mistake. Yes, each of them writes about baseball, but the way they do it — that’s the very excellent part. If ever I find myself at odds with their work, it’s only because they’re younger than me and should have the decency not to make me jealous of their prose.

Finally, do not suppose that I’m declaring useless all quantitative analysis of baseball. That’s ridiculous. To the extent that a writer employs advanced stats when discussing baseball, that’s likely the extent to which he’s willing to employ reason, as well — and reason is a staple of good writing.

So, what’s the point, then? The point is that the health of sabermetrics, per se, is less important than the cultivation and celebration of idiosyncratic thought. That’s not to say the two are mutually exclusive. Still, there’s a question of emphasis, and the emphasis should be placed on the latter.

“But Cistulli, I know that already,” maybe you’re saying. Good. Excellent. If that’s the case, you’ll forgive me, then — and recognize that I’ve only attempted to state with new words an idea that should be yelled aloud over and over. For, as Coleridge writes (also in Aids to Reflection),

it is the highest and most useful prerogative of genius to produce the strongest impressions of novelty, while it rescues admitted truths from the neglect caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission. Extremes meet. Truths, of all other the most awful and interesting, are too often considered as so true, that they lose all the power of truth, and like bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Larry Smith Jr.
13 years ago

Excellent. Nothing more to add. Just excellent.