XKCD

“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.

White Sox ballpark to be renamed “Guaranteed Rate Field”

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 10:  General view as members of the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins stand for the National Anthem before the White Sox home opener at U.S. Cellular Field on April 10, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Stadium naming rights have long been with us. They’re just a part of the sports landscape now. Some are pretty spiffy despite their corporate underwriting: “Great American Ballpark” could be the name of a sports facility even if it wasn’t also the name of an insurance company. “Progressive Field” could be the name of a field even an anti-corporate dude like Bernie Sanders could appreciate, at least if he’s sloppy with capitalization.

Others are clunky: “Globe Life Park in Arlington” seems to have both adjective and preposition problems, as if it were run through a foreign language translator and then back again to English. The joint in Oakland went by the name O.co Coliseum for a spell. That was for Overstock.com, but it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

At the risk of being snobbish, I think it’s fair to say that there are also higher and lower rent names as well. Banks, airlines and beer companies, however crassly commercial they are, seem a bit more respectable and venerable than, say, the fly-by-night dot com companies which named sports facilities for several years. “Chase” and “Coors” aren’t going anyplace. Those places are named after American institutions, even if they’re still corporate institutions. I’m pretty sure that circa 2001 half the stadiums and arenas in the country were named after businesses still being run out of tech incubators in nondescript office parks, their first biggest investment being the naming rights, their second biggest investment being the ping pong table in the break room.

The White Sox have long played in “U.S. Cellular Field.” This is pretty dicey as it is, given that that company is only a regional wireless provider. Fifth largest in the country. Certainly not A-list, and likely far more identifiable to more Americans as the name of a ballpark than the name of a going telecommunications concern, thereby sort of defeating the purpose of naming rights. Which must be why U.S. Cellular is getting out of the naming rights business, leaving the White Sox to find a different naming rights partner:

As the tenth largest mortgage company in the country, is there even any guarantee that Guaranteed Rate will be in business in 2030? If the choices are “it goes under,” “it gets purchased by a larger lender” and “it’s still there,” I am not putting money on the latter choice.

That aside, it’s just a goofy name for a ballpark. It’ll better lend itself to columnist jokes about bad guaranteed contracts for bust veterans than it will to spreading awareness of a financial services company. And don’t even get me started on the dissonance between the ballpark name and its tenant’s ticket price policies:

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 4.48.18 PM

Best work on that, guys.

UPDATE: LOL

 

Phillies’ Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz cleared waivers

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 10:  Ryan Howard #6 of the Philadelphia Phillies follows through on a 3 RBI double in the ninth inning off of Kenley Jansen #74 of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on August 10,  2016 in Los Angeles, California. Phillies won 6-2.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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ESPN’s Jayson Stark reports that Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and catcher Carlos Ruiz have both cleared waivers, which means the club can attempt to trade either player unimpeded. Stark adds that two teams are mulling a pursuit of Ruiz, but Howard is “virtually certain” to stay with the Phillies.

Howard, 36, has unimpressive overall stats, as he’s carrying a .198/.252/.445 triple-slash line with 19 home runs and 43 RBI in 286 plate appearances. The Phillies have limited Howard to right-handed pitching by platooning him with Tommy Joseph.

Shockingly, Howard has been one of the best hitters of the second half, as Corinne Landrey explains at FanGraphs. Using wRC+, an all encompassing offensive statistic that sets 100 at average, only Joey Votto has been a more productive hitter since the All-Star break, owning a 226 wRC+ to Howard’s 191. Howard is trailed by Freddie Freeman (179), Adrian Gonzalez (149), and Paul Goldschmidt (140).

Howard is owed the remainder of his $25 million salary for the 2016 season as well as a $10 million buyout for ’17. Despite Howard’s productive second half and even if the Phillies were to cover all of the remaining money owed, there won’t be much of a market for an inconsistent 1B/DH in his mid-30’s who can’t field, can’t run, and can’t hit left-handed pitching.

Ruiz, 37, has had a solid season, batting .261/.368/.352 in 193 plate appearances. Like Howard, Ruiz has lost playing time at his primary position to a younger player — Cameron Rupp, in this case. Ruiz is owed the remainder of his $8.5 million salary and is under contract next season if his controlling club picks up his $4.5 million option. That option may make him even more attractive to interested clubs, as Ruiz is still a valuable catcher. He has accrued 1.3 Wins Above Replacement despite limited playing time and has a reputation for working well with his pitchers. A playoff-bound club could do a lot worse.