“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.

Justin Verlander named ALCS MVP

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Following the Astros’ decisive 4-0 shutout over the Yankees on Saturday night, Justin Verlander was named the Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series. Hall of Fame outfielder and former MLB manager Frank Robinson handed the award to Verlander, who was beaming as he thanked his teammates and members of the Astros’ organization.

“I’ve got to say, it came down to the wire, and one thing kept going off in my head was Dallas,” Verlander told the crowd gathered at Minute Maid Park. “When he called me, he said that I won’t regret my decision to join the Houston Astros. And here we are right now, it’s the best feeling in the world. We’ve got four more wins to win a World Series, and I do not regret my decision to come here. This is the best feeling a player can have. So, thank you.”

Among a cast that boasted the likes of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel, among others, Verlander was spectacular. He locked down a complete game win in Game 2, holding the Yankees to one run on five hits and a walk and striking out a postseason-high 13 batters. In Game 6, he saved the Astros from elimination with seven scoreless innings, helping propel the club to their eventual 7-1 finish that set up their series-clinching finale on Saturday.

The 34-year-old righty also took his place among some postseason greats. Thanks to an eight-strikeout outing on Friday night, his collective 136 postseason strikeouts are good for sixth-most in MLB playoff history, just a smidgen shy of Tom Glavine (143), Mike Mussina (145), Roger Clemens (173), Andy Pettitte (183) and John Smoltz (199). He also joined Bob Gibson, Curt Schilling and Sandy Koufax as one of just four hurlers to strike out 20+ Yankees in a postseason series.