“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 4, Rays 1: The Yankees used an opener and made this a bullpen game, trotting out eight pitchers who combined to give up only two hits and to strike out 13 in this one. Given that the Rays invented the opener thing, that was all rather rude, frankly. 🎵Anything you can do I can do better/I can do anything better than you🎵 etc. New York’s win eliminated the Rays from postseason contention and kept themselves a game and a half up on Oakland for home field in the Wild Card game.

Athletics 7, Mariners 3: The Yankees win over Tampa Bay clinched the Wild Card for Oakland, but his win allowed them to avoid that awkward thing where they spray champagne all over each other after losing a game. Khris DavisJonathan LucroyJed Lowrie and Matt Chapman all went deep for Oakland. The A’s finished in last place for three straight seasons and now they are 95-game winners heading for the playoffs. What a season.

Nationals 7, Marlins 3: Anthony Rendon hit a two-run homer and a two-run double and Matt Wieters and Juan Soto each homered. Bryce Harper hit a sac fly that gave him his 100th RBI on the year. It’s a year that so many people have labeled as disappointing for Harper, but he’s going to finish it with at least 34 homers, those 100+ driven in, 126+ walks and 100 or so runs scores while posting an OBP of close to .400. It’s not the dynamic year a lot of people expected to see — he’s hitting .245 and hasn’t been slashing doubles and triples all over the place — but he’s done all of that and has been in the lineup all year long, which was one of the big knocks on him before. Not too shabby.

Astros 5, Blue Jays 3: Brian McCann and Josh Reddick hit back-to-back homers. Dallas Keuchel allowed three runs and seven hits in five innings for the win and pushed his season innings total over 200. Roberto Osuna got the save, but did so to a chorus of boos before his former hometown fans in Toronto thanks to them seeing him for the first time since his arrest for domestic violence. I would bet decent money, however, that had he not been traded to the Astros, he would’ve received a far warmer welcome by Jays fans on his first appearance there following his suspension, because that’s how fandom, unfortunately, works. Houston’s magic number for clinching the division is now two.

Red Sox 6, Orioles 2: Mookie Betts hit a two-run homer in the Sox’ four-run second inning and Nate Eovaldi struck out ten in five innings of work, allowing only one run. Fun Fact: last night I was at some social event on this here business trip I’m on and met a couple from Baltimore who are longtime Orioles season ticket holders. I asked them what they think about this year. They made great efforts to change the subject to the Ravens, for whom they are also season ticket holders. When we did eventually talk about the Orioles, one of them asked me what I thought of Chris Davis‘ contract. Remembering that everyone at this thing was an accountant, I used the term “sunk costs” and hoped for the best. They all thought it was cute that a guy with no accounting background understood what a sunk cost was. I don’t think any of that means anything. I’m just happy I found something to talk about with a bunch of accountants.

Pirates 5, Cubs 1: Cole Hamels hit a homer but that was the only run support he got while giving up three runs, two earned, of his own. His counterpart, Jameson Taillon, meanwhile, went 0-for-2 at the plate but gave up only one run over seven innings. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Do your job and don’t fart around with secondary tasks, maybe? I don’t know. My whole life has been based on farting around, basically, so I can’t really fault Hamels here.

Indians 4, White Sox 0: Corey Kluber has likely heard me and everyone else saying that the Cy Young should go to Blake Snell and decided to flip us all the bird with a seven shutout inning, 11-strikeout performance. I don’t think that changes the equation really, but it was strong all the same. Brandon Guyer and Adam Rosales each went deep for Cleveland.

Brewers 6, Cardinals 4: Ryan Braun homered and Christian Yelich drove in two as Milwaukee expands its Wild Card lead over the Cardinals and pulls to within a game and a half of the Cubs in the Central. St. Louis had a one-run lead heading into the seventh, but the wheels fell off, with Yelich tying things up on a fielder’s choice before Eric Thames tripled and then came home on a wild pitch. I was going to say that it was probably rare for him to triple, but it was actually his third this year. Bryce Harper, mentioned above, has zero. Weird.

Rockies 10, Phillies 1: Jon Gray was moved up a day in the rotation but it didn’t seem to bug him as he allowed one run in seven innings of work, striking out seven, against the mailing-it-in Phillies, who have now lost five in a row. Colorado has won four straight and pulls to within a half game of the Cardinals for that second Wild Card slot. David Dahl hit a two-run homer and Trevor Story made his return after missing a week of action with a bum elbow, hitting two doubles and turning a couple of double plays.

Dodgers 7, Diamondbacks 4: The Rockies did not gain ground on Los Angeles, however, as the Dodgers came from behind late to win for the sixth time in seven games. David Freese homered and went 3-for-4, Manny Machado knocked in a couple and Clayton Kershaw struck out six and walked one in six innings of work.

Angels 5, Rangers 4: Jose Briceno hit a pinch-hit walkoff homer in the 11th to power the Angels to victory. Shohei Ohtani and Michael Hermosillo also went deep for Los Angeles. Ohtani, by the way, now has a batting line of .280/.361/.546 with 21 homers and 56 RBI in only 99 games as a hitter. His looming Tommy John surgery is obviously a big concern for his pitching prospects, but we’re getting to the point to where you wanna ask if it’s gonna cause more disruption for his batting.

Padres 5, Giants 0: Bryan Mitchell took a shutout eight and two-thirds innings of the way and Jose Pirela homered as the Padres hand the Giants their fifth straight loss. The Giants are 4-17 in September and, last night, fired their general manager. So, yeah, this is gonna be a heck of an offseason in San Francisco.