John Thorn

Baseball’s official historian slams statistical analysis

49 Comments

What’s more unexpected: me linking a Bleacher Report column or baseball’s official historian — and sometime sabermetrician — John Thorn talking about how apocryphal tales are preferable to the actual nuts and bolts of what happened on the baseball diamond?

For a whole generation of fans and fantasy players, stats have begun to outstrip story and that seems to me a sad thing. Even the unverifiable hogwash that passed for fact or informed opinion in baseball circles not so long ago seems today wistfully enticing, for its energy if nothing else … Frankly, in today’s baseball writing I miss such [broadcaster Bill Stern’s] balderdash: the wink and the nudge of a Barnum or the tall-tale bluster of a Davy Crockett. Amid today’s mix of straight-on account and sabermetric analysis, I miss the fun …

… A decade ago, when counterintuitive strategy briefly was fashionable, someone thoughtfully provided a list of the all-time leaders in receiving intentional bases on balls with no one on base. This put me in mind of Thoreau’s remark in Walden: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” Fixate on the particular and you miss the big story.

Except, the big story is often baloney without the particulars.

The reason why someone might measure intentional walks with no one on base is to figure out how fearsome the hitter was at the time in the eyes of his contemporaries.  To take that analysis away and rely on “ripping yarns,” you get people simply asserting that a certain player — like, say, Jim Rice — was feared when, in fact, he really wasn’t as scary as everyone says. Oh, and then that allegedly fearsome guy gets elected to the Hall of Fame based, primarily, on the strength of a ripping yarn as opposed to merit or even fact.

There is such a thing as bad or pointless statistical analysis, sure, but one of the biggest reasons sabermetrics exists is because there was so much bad narrative history being done that it left a significant segment of the fan base (i.e. the future statheads) dissatisfied with the way baseball was handling its history. It’s entirely possible to lose sight of the big picture when you dig into the numbers, but it’s just as easy — I’d say easier — to lose sight of what actually occurred when you rely on anecdote and memory.

The point of any worthwhile sabermetric analysis is to answer a human question, not to traffic in numbers for numbers’ sake.  Human questions that help illuminate baseball’s history in ways that, one would hope anyway, would inform someone who was just named baseball’s official historian.  That he seems to be missing this is somewhat unsettling.

Jose Fernandez’s high school jersey was returned

MIAMI, FL - JULY 09:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins pitches during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Marlins Park on July 9, 2015 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

Yesterday it was reported that someone stole Jose Fernandez’s high school jersey, which had been hanging in the Alsonso High School dugout in Tampa for a vigil. That was pretty vile stuff indeed.

Thankfully, however, someone’s conscience got the best of them: the jersey has been returned. School officials say that a family found a large envelope outside of the high school with the words “Jose’s jersey” written on it. They took the envelope into to the school this morning and the jersey was found inside.

Bad form taking it, whoever you are, but in most cases it’s never too late to make a better decision and fix your mistakes.

The Tigers have an interesting weekend ahead of them

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 08:  A general view of outside the stadium ahead of the Philadephia Phillies versus Atlanta Braves during their opening day game at Turner Field on April 8, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Getty Images
1 Comment

In late August, when everyone started looking at the schedule in an effort to see who had the easiest road ahead of them to the playoffs, the Tigers stood out as particularly blessed. The end of their season featured several games against the lonely Twins and, if things were tight heading into the final weekend, a three-game series against the lowly Braves.

Problem: the Braves have not been very lowly lately, and that could cause the Tigers all kinds of grief.

Atlanta has won 10 of 11 games. They’ve scored 66 runs in those games and their pitching staff has an ERA of 3.28 over that span. Oh, and remember how, earlier in the season, the Braves were hitting like a deadball era team, being outhomered by multiple individual players? Well, they’ve hit ten during this neat little run. Really, though, the run isn’t that little. They’ve won 19 of 30 and have been a solid team, offensively speaking, since late July. They’re hot as heck now and haven’t been pushovers for some time.

So enter the Tigers, who have been seesawing through August and September and who have to play in Atlanta this weekend without their DH, Victor Martinez. Oh, and who stand a halfway decent chance of having to fly out of Atlanta Sunday evening for a makeup game in Detroit that could then cause them to play a tiebreaker game in Toronto or Baltimore which could then have them travel to the other city for a Wild Card game. And that’s if things break decently.

If they break poorly? It’ll be a long, season-closing flight home from Atlanta. A city that was supposed to provide respite for them when it first appeared on the schedule.