“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.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 10, Rangers 5: This one was a barnburner, featuring eight home runs combined from both teams. Gleyber Torres hit two, both off of Bartolo Colon, who is more than twice his age. Torres is the second-youngest Yankee to have a multi-homer game. Aaron Judge, Neil Walker, and Aaron Hicks also contributed dingers for the Yankees. Joey Gallo, Rougned Odor, and Ronald Guzman went deep for the Rangers. Masahiro Tanaka‘s ERA goes up to 4.95 after serving up four runs in five innings. Despite that, the Yankees improve to 31-13, good for the best record in baseball.

Phillies 3, Braves 0: Nick Pivetta was brilliant, spinning seven shutout frames with seven strikeouts, limiting the Braves to four hits and a walk. Seranthony Dominguez pitched an impressive eighth and Hector Neris closed it out 1-2-3 in the ninth. Catcher Jorge Alfaro was the star of this game, throwing out Johan Camargo attempting to steal and making an absolute laser throw to first base for the final out of the game. He should’ve also had a caught-stealing on Freddie Freeman, but shortstop Scott Kingery didn’t handle the ball well. The Phillies got homers from Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr. Odubel Herrera, by the way, somehow got a hit on this pitch:

Mets 2, Marlins 0: Jason Vargas finally put together a good start for the Mets, tossing five scoreless frames. The Marlins only scraped out a hit and two walks while striking out seven times against him. The Mets, who started this month off with a six-game losing streak, have now won four in a row. The Marlins have lost four in a row; Monday’s was on the heels of Sunday’s absolute mess of a loss.

Nationals 10, Padres 2: The Nationals powered out four home runs, including Juan Soto’s first major league dinger. Mark Reynolds went deep twice and Bryce Harper went deep for his 14th homer of the year. Gio Gonzalez limited the Padres to a pair of runs on two hits and three walks with five strikeouts.

Brewers 4, Diamondbacks 2: The Brewers were powered by the long ball on Monday. Travis Shaw drilled a two-run shot while Domingo Santana and Lorenzo Cain hit solo shots. All three homers came against Zack Greinke, who struck out nine over six innings otherwise. Chase Anderson outdueled him, limiting the D-Backs to a pair of runs on three hits and three walks with three strikeouts.

Orioles 3, White Sox 2: Manny Machado hit his 15th homer of the season, moving into a tie for the major league lead with 15. He’s tied with Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox. Mark Trumbo and Adam Jones also homered. Obviously, all of the Orioles’ homers were of the solo variety. Jose Abreu contributed a pair of doubles for the Pale Hose. The O’s are now 15-32; the White Sox are 13-31. Yuck.

Twins 4, Tigers 2: Jose Berrios may be back on track. He struck out 10 and held the Cardinals to one run over 7 1/3 innings his last time out. On Monday night against the Tigers, he limited the opposition to two runs on three hits and two walks with nine strikeouts in eight innings. Fernando Rodney worked a 1-2-3 ninth for the save.

Cardinals 6, Royals 0: The Cardinals continue to get dominant starting pitching. After Jack Flaherty struck out 13 Phillies on Sunday, Miles Mikolas followed up by tossing a shutout against the Royals. Though he only struck out eight while holding the Royals to four hits and a walk. Tyler O'Neill homered in his third consecutive game and Matt Carpenter also went yard in a 3-for-4 night. The Royals are on pace for 114 losses.

Rockies 2, Dodgers 1: Carlos Gonzalez broke a 1-1 tie with an infield RBI single in the eighth inning. The other two runs scored on solo home runs from Max Muncy and Gerardo Para. Both times combined for only six hits and committed a combined four errors — three by the Dodgers. German Marquez tossed seven solid innings for the Rockies, striking out five while allowing the one run. Walker Buehler matched him with seven one-run innings, fanning six.