Monday, July 28, 2008

Mondays with Murray

It's funny that my fellow blogger RC posted about Mr. Chass below because, as luck would have it, I just received an email response from the journalist-turned-blogger. Late one night, after a few hours of studying, and feeling a bit loopy, I decided it was as good a time as any to email Mr. Chass. He was one of the sportswriters I looked up to when I was younger, so it had been a bit disheartening to me to see him come out so strongly against the numbers revolution in baseball. After all, hadn't numbers been a part of the game forever? From Babe Ruth's topping 30 home runs in the 1920s, to Cy Young's 511 wins, to the feats of the present day, baseball has been defined by numbers. You hear 3,000, 300, 755, or .400, and you know the context immediately. I talked about how many of the proponents of the numbers game were guys who had played sports at high levels. For example, Billy Beane was a bench player in the majors for a handful of seasons and Paul DePodesta was a two-sport athlete at Harvard.

So, I emailed this to the great baseball writer, and anxiously awaited his reply...

Well, to cut the suspense short, I didn't get much. He essentially repeated his disdain for the new-age numbers, saying that they cheapened the human element of the game. I obviously don't agree, but the guy was cordial enough in his email, and most importantly, I'm just some random law student who isn't going to change his mind anytime soon. I replied, thanking him for his response, and that was that.

I don't know exactly what I was expecting, and I don't know that it was even worth the trouble to send off that email. But, those of us who are a bit more enlightened can hope that things will change, and can be happy that there are sites like Baseball Prospectus, Hardball Times, and others.


RC said...

In the immortal words of David Hyde Pierce in Wet Hot American Summer: Fuck my cock.

Stats cheapen the human element? That's explicitly true, Murray, in the sense that the new-fangled stats allow for proper valuation of players with formerly overrated skill sets (Joe Carter). Oh, and smart people (read: nerds) can get ahead by getting undervalued skill sets (Adam Dunn, Matt Stairs, Wade Boggs, pick your poison).

Like Bill Veeck said, "It isn't the high price of stars that is expensive, it's the high price of mediocrity." Ask Barry Zito about the "human element" (or, better yet, Brian Sabean - he'll be joining you in unemployment soon, I hope) and the relative lack of need for more and better insight.

Look, even the greatest stats aren't explicitly predictive. No one wants kids to grow up viewing players as nothing more than VORP-producing robots. We will always convince ourselves that players are "clutch", we'll always have confirmation bias, we'll always have the human element. We'll also have the Red Sox beating people's asses even while being relatively inefficient in the free agent market (HI JULIO LUGO CONTRACT) because they can judge both the human element (Clay Buchholz) and the stats element (Dustin Pedroia).

You'll also have the Angels using a batting average-driven attack to lead the league in wins. It's not that there is only one way to win - there are just varying degrees of efficiency, and better ways to judge it. Put another way: individual games are won by players. Pennants are won by careful selection of players and use of resources - aka "stats."

RC said...

Also, that is one fucking creepy photo. He looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future mashed together with Herbert the Child Molester dressed up like James Dean.

You suck, Murray. Holy shit.

cseguin said...

So I ended up writing back to him; first, because I think my initial email was a bit disjointed from hours of studying, and second, because you don't get to debate a Hall of Fame sportswriter every day (even if it's just over email).

I think it's that "either stats or subjectivity, not both" argument that bothers me the most. Like you said, everyone is irrational to a point about baseball, even the people at Baseball Prospectus. Does it matter to me that Don Mattingly didn't walk all that much, or that his fielding prowess was overrated? No, he's still my favorite ballplayer ever.

The concepts can live in harmony. I would even argue that the stats have given us MORE of an appreciation of the humans who play the game. Without advanced statistical analysis, do guys like Jack Cust even get a chance to be valuable ballplayers?

I'll let you know if I receive any response from Mr. Chass, although I'm not counting on it.