Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, who you think has met enough sports fans and analysts in his career to know better, decided to use his Sunday column to peddle the old b.s. about how people who are into statistical analysis don’t appreciate and enjoy baseball:
What ultimately matters is whether you can still appreciate a given baseball game. I wonder if the New Breed Stat Guys ever actually enjoy a game, because they are so obsessed with what the manager is or isn’t doing, based on the data in front of them. They’re often upset before the game even starts, because the lineup isn’t sufficiently stat-based. And God forbid the skipper who doesn’t properly handle what they have termed “high leverage” situations. Sometimes lost in all this is an appreciation of the aesthetics, whether it’s a great play in the hole by a shortstop or a snappy inning-ending 5-4-3 double play or a base runner cleverly taking an extra base. Or even a game-winning hit in the ninth inning if it happens to be delivered by someone other than the guy they thought should have been up at the plate. Sometimes the New Breed Stat Guys aren’t so good about accepting the vagaries of a very complex game.
This “all stats guys want to do is second guess” thing is exceedingly rich coming from Ryan, who makes a lot of money showing up on obnoxious, shouting television shows every day in which he and three or four other sports reporters spend a half hour second guessing every possible thing that happens in sports. But let’s leave that alone for now. Let’s let Ryan believe that, until Bill James came along, no one ever second guessed managers or lineups or strategies. That thinking the manager is making a mistake is purely a function of linear weights, statistical regression and WAR. You’re right, Bob. Nice catch.
What’s also rich? That it’s only sportswriters who come from the “no cheering, no rooting” school of reporting who accuse other people of not enjoying the game. Call me crazy, but those of us who routinely pay for our own seats, enjoy a beer while we watch the game and wear our fandom on our sleeves may be enjoying ourselves a wee bit more than the people who think the worst offense one can commit is showing some native and emotional enthusiasm for what happens on the field and who, at least if their Twitter content is any guide, spend far more time complaining about the air travel, deadlines, no-comments and everything else that comes with their chosen profession. I may be hyper-critical of Fredi Gonzalez’s decision to bunt in the third inning of a 0-0 game, but I defy anyone to hang out with me while I have the Barves on TV and accuse me of not enjoying it.
But neither of those things are really the issue here. No, what really mystifies me is how one can truly believe that people who devote all of their mental energy to figuring out baseball stats don’t appreciate or enjoy baseball. Has Ryan ever met a “New Breed Stat Guy?” Ever watched a game with one? I can tell you, there is no one more focused on baseball — aesthetically and intellectually — than one of those dudes. It’s almost as if scores and scores of them loved baseball so much that they ceased working on other things in their lives and devoted all of their energy and free to time to baseball, with some even giving up far more lucrative career tracks in order to pursue jobs working in or writing about the game. I’m struggling to think of any other similar obsession in any other walk of life one could have and be described as not appreciating the subject of the obsession.
“God, look at the guy who left his accounting career to write obsessively about gardening and then came up with new ways to talk about and understand gardening and then got that job working for The American Association of Gardeners. He must REALLY HATE gardening!”
That’s silly, but guys like Ryan say it about baseball geeks all the damn time.
I’ll agree with Ryan that most fans probably don’t care about advanced stats. The cool thing about that is that they don’t have to. No one is making them. Indeed, it’s perfectly easy to enjoy a game without thinking about stats once. I do it all the time when I have a game on TV or, even more so, when I’m at a park. Every stats person I know enjoys and appreciates baseball and its aesthetics in such a way. It’s almost like that’s what drew us to baseball to begin with and it’s almost as if we’d still pay attention to the game if someone took our spreadsheets away.
But it’s also worth remembering that all teams care about those things. They all have stats departments and analysts and they all make decisions based on the sorts of analysis Ryan dismisses as mere distraction and superfluity. And it’s worth acknowledging that anyone who wants a deeper understanding of what teams do and why and what they might do in the future would be well-served to at least appreciate the broad concepts of advanced analysis. That’s just basic logic, right? “Who will the Mudville Nine trade for?” is best answered by knowing how the guy who runs the Mudville Nine thinks and what he believes will make the Mudville Nine better. To the extent Ryan thinks that only “New Breed Stat Geeks” care about such questions is crazy. Indeed, his entire career is based on readers and viewers caring about and wanting to know such things about the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Patriots and the Bruins.
So, if “New Breed Stat Geeks” enjoy and appreciate baseball — and they do — and lots of fans beyond “New Breed Stat Geeks” care about team strategy and decision making — and they do — why is Ryan so hostile to the stats stuff?
Is it because he doesn’t understand stats and, as is often the case with one who does not understand something, he is lashing out? I kinda doubt that. Ryan is not an idiot. I’ve seen him quickly explain statistical concepts in broad layman’s terms showing that he understands that stuff perfectly well. He’s like me, actually: not a numbers person by any stretch of the imagination, but conversant with the concepts behind them and what they’re trying to explain. He’d fit right in with the so-called Liberal Arts Wing of sabermetrics if he wanted to (though he obviously doesn’t want to). So that’s not it. Ryan understands these things.
Is it because he knows a lot of his readership doesn’t like or understand stats and he’s throwing them the sort of raw meat that people who truly don’t understand and/or hate stats like to chew on from time to time? Possibly. The comments to his column certainly brought those folks out to play today, so that’s a distinct possibility. But at the same time, Ryan doesn’t appear to be engaging in simple trolling of the “I don’t really believe what I’m arguing here but I’m arguing it anyway” variety. Just as I’ve seen him explain statistical concepts, I’ve seen him repeat versions of this argument in the past and I think he believes it well enough. Ryan isn’t being disingenuous here.
Is it because, while Ryan may not be specifically threatened by the stats, he feels threatened by the people who use them? The reporters, columnists, bloggers and — increasingly — front office personnel to whom statistical analysis is so important? I feel like this is far more on the money. The sort of reporting Ryan made his name doing is no longer the exclusive means to achieving status in media or achieving a connection to the people inside of the game. Recently Ryan lamented that there isn’t any chumminess between reporters and athletes. He argued that “the human factor” remains the most important in sports. He may have good points on both counts, but it’s also worth noting that relationships with insiders and writing the narratives which explain “the human factor” are what has set him apart from everyone else for the bulk of his career. It’s what made him valuable. Now people are doing, more or less, what he’s doing and they’re doing it without that access and without caring nearly as much about “the human factor” and I bet that galls him.
I know Ryan is not a stathead, but I wish he understood and took to heart one concept that statisticians must know: mutual exclusivity. As in, it doesn’t apply to baseball fandom or baseball reporting. We can have our kinetic game action and our statistical analysis. We can have our human interest stories and inside dish and we can have our outside observations and outside voices. That Ryan seems so upset about a new — actually, not even new anymore — way of enjoying and talking about the game is telling that he thinks there isn’t room for both. That’s wrong. And kind of sad.