At Baseball Prospectus on Friday, Rian Watt wrote something which opened my eyes. The article was entitled “What Comes After Sabermetrics.” It was not really about sabermetrics as such. It was about what we do here at HardballTalk and have done for a few years now. And what some others writers I admire have been doing as well. I had no idea until reading Watt’s article, however, that that’s what we were all doing, but we are and I think it’s worth talking explicitly about what that is and why it’s important.
But let me start at the beginning.
Watt starts off talking about what a lot of people have said in the past few years: sabermetrics has gotten stale. Or, since so many great analysts have been hired by teams and since most of the bleeding-edge stuff has moved in-house with clubs, maybe it’s just that sabermetric writing has gotten stale. There’s a sense that all of the big discoveries and insights have been made and that most of what happens in that realm now is niggling around the edges in ways that don’t lend themselves to big, broad engaging writing like Bill James used to do. Or, maybe, to written eviscerations of non-believers like Fire Joe Morgan or Joe Sheehan specialized in back in the day. Which, no matter what you thought of them on the substance, were entertaining reads.
I can’t really opine on the “all the big insights have been made” part. I’m no stathead. I also know well enough about how science and analysis works that to say that there won’t be something groundbreaking tomorrow or next year with any sort of certainty is a fool’s game. Someone with a database may very well revolutionize statistical analysis of baseball tomorrow. No one saw DIPS coming, for example. Voros McCracken is sneaky like that. There might be a major breakthrough on defensive metrics. There probably will be. But it is safe to say, I think, that sabermetrics is now a mature area of study and mature areas of study are in a lot of ways less exciting to lay people. When that big breakthrough on defense happens it will be great, but when people are merely refining established areas of any science, it’s mostly of interest only to the scientists.
So Watt asks: what’s next? What’s the next area of baseball writing that might be vital and might give us new insights or different things to talk about that haven’t been talked about at length — or with serious depth — before? The answer:
I think that a second major paradigm shift is already well underway. It’s being missed, however, and taken for something other than it is, because it’s not about sabermetrics, and it’s not about statistics at all. (How could it be, if those things form the bedrock of the existing paradigm?) It is, instead, about sports within the context of the broader society, and about the renewed humanity of the game.
The best baseball writing I’ve read this year has been about more than baseball. It’s been about politics, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and money, and power, and how they all come together in this game we love. It’s placed the game in its social context, and used it as a lens to talk about ideas that are bigger than the nuts and bolts of a box score or a daily recap. It’s engaged with difficult questions about how to be a fan when players you love are disappointingly flawed and human, and how to be a human being living in an often unjust world.
Watt calls those who do this sort of writing “Intersectionalists.” People who write and talk about the places where the sport and the lives of its participants, its fans and society at large intersect. About the business of baseball, labor relations, the culture of fandom and allegiance, the enjoyment of sports as entertainment and the prioritization of sports in people’s lives. Off-the-field things too.
This is exactly the sort of thing I have found the most interesting and about which I have written most passionately in the past several years. I had no inkling that it was part of any kind of paradigm shift — I have always simply written about what interests me — but having thought about it for the past 24 hours or so, and having thought about all of the baseball writing that I read and the writers I most admire, I think it’s safe to say that it is.
Since Friday, there has been a lot of discussion, some of it angry discussion, about Watt’s article. He has taken to social media to try to clarify what he meant and make clear what he was not saying. I and others have likewise had conversations about it and, not surprisingly, some of them have turned into arguments. That’s sort of inevitable with Big Insights like Watt’s, I suppose.
It’s the sort of thing that calls for some sort of declaration of principles. A manifesto or three. Some carrying on of the conversation beyond its introduction. So let’s do that, shall we? I think Q&A format is the best way to handle it.
Q: So, is this some sort of repudiation of sabermetrics? Do the statheads and the intersectionalists have to fight now?
A: NO! As Watt notes, intersectionalist writing is not a rejection of sabermetrics, it’s an evolution that builds on what came before. Sabermetrics was a total game-changer that made people fundamentally reevaluate how we look at baseball. To reject old orthodoxy and take a fresh look at what was really going on in the game. Without that splash of cold water snapping us out of a century of baseball cliche and often-faulty conventional wisdom, intersectionalists would never even be able to ask the questions or to discuss the topics we discuss. Instead of taking a fresh look at, say, hitting, intersectionalism takes a fresh look at the athlete as role model. Or the allegedly hard and fast pillars of the culture of the game. Bill James asked “why are RBI so important?” An intersectionalist might ask “why should I care if the batter flipped his bat?” or “why should fans root for a guy just because he plays for their favorite team?” or “should the fact that a player committed a crime change the way we or his team look at him?”
Maybe the best way to think about it is through a somewhat old term: “The Liberal Arts Wing” of sabermetrics.” Former Baseball Prospectus editors Steve Goldman and Christina Kahrl coined that term to talk about the writers at BP as opposed to the number crunchers. I think it has wider applicability to describe people, like me, whose baseball fandom was energized or reenergized by sabermetrics and whose brains are wired that way but who aim our brains at other questions instead of analytics. I’ve often used the phrase “fellow traveller” of sabermetrics. Liberal arts works too.
Q: STICK TO SPORTS!
A: NO! That’s exactly what we will not do. And what we have never done here at HBT. The entire point of it is to understand and appreciate that sports are part of the real world, impact the real world and that the real world impacts sports as well. Why not talk about how they do so and what it means, both for sports and the real world? If you really want to be that dude who keeps their sports fandom hermetically sealed and, within their world of sports fandom, sports are everything, go ahead and be that dude. Just know that you’re boring. You’re David Puddy from “Seinfeld,” unironically painting your face at the game and making your friends uncomfortable. You’re the guy who calls in to talk radio and angrily rants about how some player is “stealing money” because he didn’t hit as well as you had hoped. You’re that guy Fox catches on the camera crying at the ballpark when your boys lose. Don’t be that guy. Even if you follow sports for escapism, understand that sports don’t take place in a vacuum. Understand that it is just a ballgame, that you can LOVE the ballgame with every ounce of your being and that we do too, but that the ballgame is not your entire life nor should it really be and that the players are themselves human beings with human failings. Understand that, once you make that realization, it’s interesting to talk about what sports means for life and what life means for sports.
Q: But I don’t want politics in my sports writing!
A: First of all, it’s not just politics. It’s sports culture. It’s players’ lives off the field. It’s uniform upgrades and new ballparks. It’s TV deals and the business of the game. It’s drugs and addiction and punishment. It’s a team’s role in the community and a player’s status as a role model. It’s Billy Bean’s outreach for diversity in the game, Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiatives and the treatment of women as fans by teams in promotions and marketing. Politics comes up sometimes too, but intersectionalism relates to any conceivable aspect of the game, as it in turn relates to the real world in which its participants and its fans actually live.
But you also have to face facts: politics impact sports and sports impact politics. I write about that stuff sometimes. But with all of these issues, it’s still baseball that is the starting point. Baseball and what’s going on with the game that may invoke some political or cultural discussion is the driver, not the shoehorning of politics and culture into a baseball context or using baseball as a pretext for our political hobby horses. But the fact remains: baseball has a labor union and labor politics are relevant. Major League Baseball has a lobbying apparatus with direct contact with Capitol Hill. Major League Baseball is, by its own admission, concerned and interested with expanding outreach to minorities and women. Sometimes, quite often actually, legal and political stuff touches on the game too. The people who run the game contend with that on a daily basis and it directly impacts the product with which you the fan are presented. It’d be foolish for us not to talk about that.
Q: Great. So the future of sports writing is political rants, political correctness and Social Justice Warriors telling me that I can’t enjoy anything?
A: Of course not. I’m a liberal dude so you usually know what to expect from me, but there is nothing stopping someone from writing about, say, the value of conservatism in baseball. Indeed, baseball is one of the most conservative institutions there is in many ways and, to the extent it has changed or evolved over the years culturally, that change has been led by commissioners, owners and players, the VAST majority of whom are conservative people. Oh, and they’ve made these changes, in almost all cases, without intervention of the government. For example, there’s a great case to be made that, for all of Bud Selig’s detractors, he perfectly balanced tradition with “progress” however one wishes to define it and presided over the game as it slowly and deliberately evolved pursuant to a consensus which was built up in the community. That’s kind of the textbook definition of small-c conservatism. There’s also a good argument that, if he had done what more progressive types had demanded of him and made changes just to make changes, it would’ve been a bad thing. Anyone writing about that? Oh wait, this pinko liberal did, but others can too.
Yes, I will grant that many of the most prominent voices in intersectionalist baseball writing are liberal. But they don’t have to be. Social and political issues within the sport, as long as they present themselves organically and aren’t shoehorned in, are open for discussion by everyone. At the moment, yes, there is a good bit of writing out there which comes off as “Freshman social science student has SOMETHING TO SAY!” That discourse is improved and liberal doofuses like me will become less complacent if met with reasoned and respectful pushback from people who don’t share our assumptions. That’s how ALL good discourse works. Indeed, it seems to me that there is a great need for dissenting voices to weigh in NOW lest a certain sort of homogeneousness of opinion sets in and calcifies as the only acceptable form of discourse. In short: if I’m wrong, tell me why! Or, better yet, write a response of your own to it and explain why I’m full of crap. I really am full of crap sometimes.
Q: So it’s just now gonna be hot takes and opinion writing? Is actual baseball reporting going to continue to be denigrated the way it has been by some sabermetric types?
A: Not at all. Indeed, there is probably a greater need for good reporting than ever before. Reporting, like opinion, is undergoing its own evolution, after all. Off-the-field stories about players used to be used to explain baseball stuff (i.e. he’s a good guy, so he’s a good player). Such reporting was marginalized or denigrated by some after the rise of sabermetrics, thought of as irrelevant or as mere source-greasing (“The analytics can explain baseball. Why are we talking to Shlabotnik? He doesn’t know what makes him good!”). And to some extent there is some legitimate criticism to be made along those lines. There has also been a well-deserved backlash to it.
If anything, intersectionalism needs more reporting. Maybe fewer game stories and scoops — we’ve gone on at length about the diminished value of such things — but more off-the-field stuff about the athletes as people as opposed to gladiators. Maybe more about the business of the game and things like that. There’s a lot of that in existence already, of course. For starters, good traditional baseball reporters — and off the top of my head I’ll cite Tyler Kepner, Derrick Goold, Andy McCullough, Nick Piecoro, Bill Shaikin, Geoff Baker and many, many others — have always made a point to write stories that go beyond just the Xs and Os. They’re not just checking in with baseball bits, dashed off. Good baseball writing like theirs places baseball in context, describes players as human beings and makes the readers care about the game as it fits in their lives. It’s probably also worth noting that The Players Tribune is doing a lot of this too, delivering to us fresh looks at athletes as human beings. It’s probably the case — and you’ll be shocked to hear me say it — that Murray Chass was doing exactly the sort of reporting I’m talking about here with respect to the business of baseball before most of you were born. Yes, dammit, Murray Chass was an intersectionalist. A lot of old school baseball writers were, even if they were often considered oddballs for being so.
So yes, there have always been people doing this work and doing it well. But we could certainly do with more of it. And, perhaps, from some different sorts of reporters and commentators than those who have done it in the past. More reporters and commentators who question the assumptions of fans, owners, players and league officials rather than defer to them as much as they tend to. More reporters and commentators whose background isn’t necessarily just sports, whose work doesn’t just appear on the sports page and who aren’t necessarily beholden, implicitly or otherwise, to Major League Baseball and the clubs via their access or merely their familiarity and subconscious biases.
Also — and perhaps most importantly — reporters who aren’t so heavily members of the same demographic. There’s no escaping it: there are a lot of white men between the ages of 40 and 60 covering baseball. People with different backgrounds have different perspectives and the entire purpose of intersectionalism in baseball writing is to give us new perspectives. A lot of the sabermetric people were from business and math backgrounds, after all. It took that new look to bring us fresh content. We should strive for greater diversity in baseball writing, not for its own sake, but for the sake of new, interesting work that asks questions which haven’t been asked before and which challenge the assumptions people who look like me or people who see the game only from a press box don’t even realize that they harbor. And, of course, us old white guys can stick around too as long as we appreciate that we do not have anything close to a monopoly on the cultural experience and realize that there is a lot which we try to talk about that, really, we know jack crap about and probably should leave to others who know better.
While I didn’t know it had a name before the other day, baseball intersectionalism is very much the sort of thing which has interested me and animated my writing for many years now. Indeed, I find that the topics which truly inspire me are exactly the things Rian Watt spoke about on Friday and constitute the subject matter of the baseball writing I most admire. Likewise, the negative reaction Watt refers too — the “stick to sports” refrains — are exactly the sort of response I have received from detractors when I write about these topics, a response I’ve never truly understood and which constitutes a request I will not honor. Ever.
We need more of this sort of writing. We need more people asking the questions about sports that only a few of us have been asking and we need different sorts of people from different backgrounds and with different worldviews asking them.
More baseball fans and readers of baseball writing should ask why things are the way they are and whether or not the way things are are the way they should be.
We should be asking what we expect from baseball players and why we expect it in the first place.
We should be asking what role sports should play in our lives and in society as a whole.
We should look at sports through the lens of our real world experiences and real world realities and see if, through the lens of sports, we can’t make some insights about the real world in return.
I love baseball. My life always has been and always will be better for its presence. We must realize, however, that it’s a strong, strong institution that isn’t going anywhere. Our questioning it and its foundations and assumptions will not damage it too greatly. We should not be afraid to challenge it and its leaders and its participants and its fans to examine what, exactly, we talk about when we talk about baseball and what it is we enjoy about it and why. And perhaps, if enough people ask enough questions about the world baseball inhabits, it can even be improved a bit. Even if it’s just around the edges.