“Narratives” vs. analysis: can’t we all just get along?

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source:  Let’s talk about narrative.

It’s a word that has come up a lot in baseball writing recently, in everything from the AL MVP debate to the Red Sox meltdown and now to the Yankees listless ALCS performance.  In response to most baseball stories in which, well, stories are told as opposed to a focused analysis of game action, it is not uncommon to see comments dismissing the storyline angle as “narrative,” with the implication that it should be ignored as something superfluous or even fake.

What has me thinking about this is a Twitter exchange between two smart people who, though I’ve never met them personally, I consider friends in that way you think about people you have interacted with on the Internet: Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan and Baseball Prospectus’ Colin Wyers.

The exchange was prompted by that Passan article I linked a few minutes ago about the bad crowds and angry fans in Yankee Stadium. It broke down like this:

This prompted Colin to tweet a link to one of my absolute favorite cartoons ever. Yes, the one to the upper right of this post:

Jeff took exception to this:

Colin responded by, correctly I think, noting that a debate about that is not well-suited to Twitter. I hope he does address it at some point. In the meantime, I’ll opine that both of them are right to some extent and I think they’re kinda talking past one another.

There is nothing wrong with telling stories about what happens off the field or, in this case, the stands.  I know there are people who care nothing about anything that does not take place on the actual diamond — people who are not interested in clubhouse controversy, gossip, off-the-field news and stories about the politics of fandom — but that doesn’t mean these off-the-field stories are meaningless for everyone.  A lot of people want the flavor and the drama and stuff.

Where it becomes dicey, though — and where I think both Colin and the XKCD cartoon are rightfully focused — is when writers believe that the storylines they identify and write about, however legitimate in and of themselves, have a significant impact on the actual baseball being played. Or that said storylines must necessarily impact how a given person should interpret what occurred on the field in the way that the story teller would have it go.

By way of example, it’s legitimate and interesting to write a story about how Miguel Cabrera accomplished a rare and cool feat in winning the Triple Crown.  It is specious reasoning — and the imposition of unnecessary narrative, however — to say Cabrera carried his team into the playoffs by virtue of doing something cool and rare, without actually assessing those contributions.

It is legitimate to note just how poorly Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez are hitting right now and to talk about how it is killing fans’ enthusiasm.  It is specious reasoning — and the imposition of unnecessary narrative, however –to say that Yankees’ fans lack of enthusiasm for poor play means that the Yankees are an awful train wreck of an organization or  that the poor offense is a result of the hitters choking, being complacent or uninspired because the team has a big payroll and the crowd isn’t cheering them on (not that I think Passan is necessarily making all of these points).

Miguel Cabrera is a great player who had a great season and people should totally talk about that. When they do, they can and should use every literary device and express their every emotional reaction to it.  They should not, however, claim that their emotional reaction to it makes the feat something that it is not.  Likewise, people who empirically analyze Miguel Cabrera’s contributions and find them to be less than the prevailing narrative suggests should not claim that their empirical value should affect how people feel emotionally about him and his game.

It is news — and people should totally talk about — that the Yankees fans are pissed, booing former heroes and are not selling out their games.  They should not, however, use that as data for their analysis of what is actually happening in the ALCS or use that legitimately interesting stuff to oversell how bad off the Yankees truly are. Likewise, people who empirically analyze the Yankees’ poor offense and find it to be a less than dire thing than the prevailing narrative suggests should not claim that it it illegitimate for fans to be angry as all hell that Robinson Cano and A-Rod can’t hit.

There is a place for analysis in baseball writing. There is a place for prose. There is even a place for poetry.  And as long as people aren’t confusing one for another and claiming that their preferred means of understanding the game should necessarily be adopted by others, it’s all good and it can and should all exist.

The Mets are a mess

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The Mets lost again on Thursday afternoon, suffering a 7-5 defeat at the hands of the Braves. It’s their sixth consecutive loss and the club is now in last place in the NL East. Not exactly the start the Mets envisioned.

Matt Harvey got the start, but lasted only 4 1/3 innings. He gave up six runs on five hits and five walks with only one strikeout. After the game, Harvey said he was tight and that he threw yesterday expecting to start on Friday instead, per Matt Ehalt of The Record. Sounds like no one communicated to Harvey that he’d be starting this afternoon until it was too late for him to properly prepare.

Harvey started because Noah Syndergaard was scratched due to a “tired arm.” Syndergaard blew reporters off after the game, according to Mike Puma of the New York Post. Puma then added that Syndergaard ripped Mets P.R. guy Jay Horwitz for letting reporters approach him.

By the way, the Mets also lost outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a hamstring injury. Not much else can go wrong in Queens.

Joey Votto isn’t on board with the latest fly ball trend among hitters

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If you haven’t heard, fly balls — not ground balls or line drives — are all the rage among hitters these days. Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez summed it up perfectly last month when he said, “I’m not trying to hit a [freaking] line drive or a freaking ground ball.” The goal is to maximize damage. Last year, for example, fly balls became hits about 17 percent less often than ground balls (7.4% versus 24.6%), but hitters had a slugging percentage more than twice as much as on ground balls (.539 versus .267). This refocusing has helped hitters like Martinez as well as Ryan Zimmerman reinvigorate their careers.

Reds first baseman Joey Votto, who is as much a student of new age analytics as anyone in the game, doesn’t feel that this approach is necessarily a good one, as Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Votto said:

Where I get concerned is the guys that make this attempt and burn out too much of their time and don’t get a chance to be their best selves, and either don’t make it to the big leagues or don’t perform their best in the big leagues because they’re always attempting this new style of hitting. I see it with a lot of guys. Everyone tells the good stories, but there’s a lot of s—ty stories of guys who are wasting their time trying things.

Votto added that while the fly ball approach is working right now, pitchers will soon adapt and the fly ball approach won’t be so good anymore. And he’s right. Baseball has always been a game of adjustments. For example, as teams have gotten comfortable with shifting their infield, hitters like the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber have both dropped bunts down the third base line for easy hits. Knowing that hitters are aiming to hit fly balls now, pitchers may stay higher in the strike zone more often as one possible solution.

Votto is just trying to stay as well-rounded as possible. He says that he wants to become “unpitchable.” Votto wants to be like Angels outfielder Mike Trout, whom he describes as a guy “who can do absolutely anything he wants” and “at all times [has] all options.”

So far, Votto is having another productive season despite a relatively pedestrian batting average and on-base percentage. He’s hitting .238/.330/.563 with seven home runs and 16 RBI in 94 plate appearances. Coincidentally, he’s been hitting way more fly balls than usual as he’s currently carrying a 42.3 percent rate compared to his 33.1 career average, according to FanGraphs. His line drives are way down to 16.9 percent compared to his 25.4 percent career average.