• According to Fangraphs, You Don’t Understand Love

    by  • February 19, 2013 • Baseball, Features, Mike Spry • 4 Comments

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    THE RITUAL OF BASEBALL’S spring training marks the true beginning of the year; a time for reflection, for pause, to consider the errors of years passed, and to be hopeful for a season not yet written. You miss that girl, but maybe it’s time to move on. You regret August, but there’s another coming just after July. You were so close to the postseason, but the postseason never came. For many of us, it’s a way out of the February blahs, from winter’s depression, the sight of crisp untouched diamonds and impossibly high uniform numbers lending promise to possibility. We’re all tied for first. We’re all batting a 1.000. We’re all in love. We have a 21.2 UZR/150.

    Wait, what?

    In so many ways, technology has improved the manner in which we both enjoy and disseminate sport. HD television brings you as close to being there as imaginable. Scores and injury updates fly across the Twittersphere in moments. Fantasy leagues are assembled with friends around the world, not just around the block. I can watch the Habs on my iPhone, in both official languages, and Punjabi. But the advent of the smartphone and a readily accessible supply of infinite information has ruined the art of the discussion, the joy of the bar argument. We have become overly informed, and nowhere is this more evident than in baseball.

    While not a Moneyball guy, I appreciate sabermetrics and I understand its role in the game, both in terms of evaluating talent and discussion amongst fans. We’ve evolved, even as casual fans, beyond batting averages and RBIs. I get that. But the beauty of baseball, its essence and charm, has always been in its never-ending narrative. The stories, the romance, the mystery and exposition of baseball cards. Shoeless Joe Jackson. Wally Pipp. Roberto Clemente. Sidd Finch. Morganna the Kissing Bandit. The game where the defense has the ball, where 1921 and 1981 can be measured in conversation, where there is no halftime, no quarters, no clock, no definitive end. Any given game on any given summer day, could possible go on forever.

    My god, the doubleheader.

    “It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!”

    While other sports attempt to create myth (hockey) or dismiss its flawed and injurious past (football) or revel in ego (basketball), baseball lives within the truth of its myth with every inning, with every game, and of course, each spring training. Arguing about who should start at second for the Jays, who should be the Pirates’ backup catcher, who should come off the bench first for the Yankees against a lefthander in a late inning afternoon interleague game in an NL park, was always the impetus of baseball discussion that found its arguments not in contrived acronyms, but in the hearts of its fans, in those who worship at its diamond temple. The arguments had no end, because they were not rooted in logic, but rather in love. And there is nothing as unquantifiable, as immeasurable, as elusive and impractical, as love.

    Technology has also opened up the discourse to an infinity of opinion. Anyone can access an audience. Essentially, blogs and social media have taken the bar argument to the Internet, and it’s there that the essence of my displeasure is found. Those who believe and subscribe to sabermetrics as law, have no humility in their arguments. They believe their opinions to be absolute. “Ricky Romero should start today because when adjusted for league and ballpark, his ERA+ is 104, which is six percent better than the average pitcher.” Arguing against this evidence is often near impossible, because that lack of humility is bereft of compassion for romance.

    I love baseball not because I can use statistics to argue whether or not Adam Lind is a better first baseman than Earl Sheely, but rather because I can construct a narrative that attaches the two. What the disciples of Fangraphs and Moneyball are incapable, or unwilling, to consider within their argument is that which cannot be measured, or quantified. The sun reflecting off a beer can on an August afternoon in Camden Yards. A pitcher whose girlfriend has discovered she can’t have children struggling against the prolific fathering of Melvin Mora. A shortstop whose hangover bled past an off-day. The infinity of intangibles, the unknowable, happenstance, aren’t reflected by WAR, or Z-Contact%, or rGDP.

    It doesn’t matter what your PECOTA algorithm says. The games need to be played.

    A few years ago, before terrorist meteorites and Biogenesis, the Barn’s Ian Orti and I ran a speakeasy of sorts in Montréal’s Plateau, affectionately and unfortunately called The Ashtray. We provided no alcohol, nor cigarettes, nor edibles, but the door was open at most hours, a Habs game was often on a TV, there were spare rooms for wayward poets to sleep it off in, the courtyard patio was equipped with a canopy and fireplace, and often filled with the comforting tunes of the Silver Jews, Marc Berube and the Patriotic Few, Wilco, and Bon Iver. The Ashtray was a place for lively discussion, informed debate, and discreet indiscretions. More often than not, the conversation would move to sport; how the Leafs sucked, or did not; how the Habs sucked, or did not; how the Jays sucked, or did not, and would inevitably deteriorate into arguments for or against our players of choice. And not once in those years did someone dare attempt a retort with the phrase, “According to Fangraphs,” because such an argument lacked what a good argument requires, what a good argument fueled by whiskey and late summer hours yearns for: passion.

    Not all of the above paragraph is true, but it is rooted in truth as opposed to the appropriated artifice that provides the basis for the sabermetric sect. Its narrative is born of love and an affection for the past, as is baseball’s. In forty-one days the season will begin, life will turn a page, and everything once old will be new again. Virginal. Unknowing. Wins will be accompanied by losses. Strikeouts with walks. Home runs with impossible catches. There will be injuries, and injustices. There will be heroes, and no doubt villains. Come October the field will be reduced to a few fortunate teams hurtling towards November with grace and devotion. And in some Montreal or Toronto bar, a few of us will order pints of Guinness on a Saturday afternoon, and cheer for, or against, men in crisp starched uniforms destined for grass stains and hoping for immortality. And we’ll argue and predict that which is inarguable and unpredictable, citing not acronyms or mathematics, but rather love, and our own histories, a vicarity born in youth, until the ball is caught one last time, and we settle out tabs, and begin a long winter’s wait for another spring.

    About

    Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others. He is the author of JACK (Snare Books, 2008), which was shortlisted for the 2009 Quebec Writers’ Federation A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry, and he was longlisted for the 2010 Journey Prize. The short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011) was shortlisted for the 2012 ReLit Award. He lives in Wakefield, Quebec. His most recent work is the poetry collection Bourbon & Eventide from Invisible Publishing.

    http://www.mikespry.org

    4 Responses to According to Fangraphs, You Don’t Understand Love

    1. Dan
      February 26, 2013 at 14:41

      This article is exactly the kind of thing that sabermetrics works against: statement of opinion without any facts as evidence. Why didn’t you cite any sabermetricians who supposedly said the things you ascribe to them? Who would ever say such a ridiculous thing as that games don’t need to be played as long as there is PECOTA?

      Probably someone caricaturing sabermetricians, rather than someone who actually calls himself one.

      An argument that doesn’t even pretend to offer evidence is called “fluff.” The Internet, sports, and journalism don’t need any more of it.

    2. AB
      February 26, 2013 at 18:06

      Yup. This is a classic straw man argument that’s been repeated umpteen times. Just a silly stereotype that bears no relation to reality. No one wants computers to take over the game; no one thinks there are no unmeasurable aspects of the game. It’s a multi-billion dollar business and it is going to get analyzed from every angle.

      A lazy approach to writing that doesn’t really shed any light on anything. If you think baseball is too big a business now and there are too many numbers and advanced stats being used, then being a MLB fan is not for you anymore and there are plenty of other things in life to enjoy.

    3. Matt
      February 26, 2013 at 18:34

      Just as there are people who “believe their opinions to be absolute” because they are backed by advanced statistics, there are similar people “lacking humility” who base their opinions on numbers like RBIs or ERA, or even how a player looks. The fact that some people may treat statistics or projections as absolutes and use them to try to prove you or others wrong doesn’t mean that the ideas themselves are flawed.

      In addition, I fail to see why someone would claim that people who like to use advanced stats / sabermetrics and logic in baseball are incapable of loving the game or appreciating its history. The article argues that people who truly love baseball will root their baseball-related discussion in passion, not statistics or math. If this is truly the case, then what counts as “math”? Are batting average and ERA granted exemption simply because they have been around longer? What about On Base Percentage? Am I allowed to use pitchers’ ground ball rates because they’ve always existed, or are they too banned because nobody officially kept track of the numbers until recently.

      Or are numbers completely banned from a discussion of baseball that is rooted in passion? If they are, then what does a passionate baseball debate sound like? The premise that numbers, math, or logic should be banned from “real” baseball discussion/debates is only slightly more foolish than the premise that some numbers are allowed, but others aren’t, just because.

      There are people out there who lack humility, who always believe that their opinion is right, and who get pleasure out of trying to prove other people wrong because they enjoy crushing other’s spirits. There are people like this everywhere, and they are not limited to one group of baseball fans. Just because some of these people incorrectly apply baseball statistics to try to make other people feel stupid, it does not mean that every individual who likes to use baseball statistics is evil or incapable of loving our national pastime.

    4. LB
      February 26, 2013 at 21:51

      I fear that reading this has lowered my IQ.

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