“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.

Red Sox survive back-and-forth affair with Astros, win 8-6 to take 3-1 lead in ALCS

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Game 4 of the ALCS on Wednesday night between the Red Sox and Astros was a thrilling back-and-forth affair with seven lead changes. Ultimately, the Red Sox emerged victorious with a hard-fought 7-5 victory.

The Red Sox wasted no time getting on the board, plating two runs in the top of the first inning against Charlie Morton thanks to a walk, hit-by-pitch, wild pitch, and a Rafael Devers single. In the bottom half, José Altuve hit what appeared to be a game-tying two-run home run to right field off of Rick Porcello. Mookie Betts leaped and was interfered with by fans in the stands, so Altuve was called out instead. The ruling was upheld after review.

In the bottom of the second, the Astros officially scored their first run when Carlos Correa knocked home a run with a single. The Red Sox immediately got it back when Xander Bogaerts doubled in a run in the top of the third, running the score to 3-1. In what would become a trend, the Astros also responded as George Springer drilled a solo homer and Josh Reddick hit an RBI single of his own to tie the game at 3-3. Tony Kemp added a solo homer down the right field line in the fourth to put the Astros on top for the first time. Bogaerts hit another RBI single in the top of the fifth to re-tie the game at 4-4. Correa followed suit in the bottom half, hitting his second RBI single of the game to give the Astros back the lead.

Jackie Bradley, Jr., who hit a soul-crushing grand slam off of Roberto Osuna in Game 3, hit another homer in Game 4, a two-run shot in the sixth off of Josh James. In the seventh, the Red Sox loaded the bases with two outs and Lance McCullers, Jr. entered to try to put out the fire. He did not, briefly, walking Brock Holt to force in a run and make the score 7-5. McCullers did end up getting out of the inning without any further damage. Just for good measure, though, J.D. Martinez tacked on a run in the eighth with an RBI single to make it 8-5.

Ryan Brasier got five outs and Matt Barnes one in the sixth and seventh. Manager Alex Cora decided to call on Craig Kimbrel for a six-out save when the bottom of the eighth rolled around. The 2018 postseason hasn’t been kind to Kimbrel as he had given up runs in all three of his appearances. Kimbrel gave up hits to the first three batters he faced. Kemp led off with a single but he tried to stretch it into a double and was thrown out at second base by Betts. Kimbrel then hit Alex Bregman with a pitch and surrendered a double to George Springer, putting runners at second and third with one out. Altuve knocked in a run with a ground out to make it 8-6, but Kimbrel saw his way out of the inning by striking out Marwin González.

In the ninth, Cora decided to keep Kimbrel in the ballgame despite his continued struggles. Kimbrel got Yuli Gurriel to pop up to start the inning, but then issued back-to-back walks to Reddick and Correa. Kimbrel got out number two by getting Brian McCann to fly out to right field, then walked Tony Kemp to load the bases. Cora decided to stay with Kimbrel as Bregman came to the plate. Kimbrel threw a first-pitch, 97 MPH fastball that Bregman laced into shallow left field. Andrew Benintendi charged in and dived, catching the ball just in time to save the game, ending it for an 8-6 victory. Of the 18 half-innings, the two sides failed to score in only seven of them.

The Red Sox, now up three games to one in the ALCS, will try to close it out on Thursday night in Houston. If the Red Sox win, they will return to the World Series for the first time since 2013.