Baseball and History: Narratives, Part One

Note: this is part of an ongoing series I’m doing. Part one, and links to all the other parts, can be found here.

Narrative is a huge part of both history and baseball writing. This should come as no surprise to anybody. In both cases the goal is to tell a story. While the goal may be to prove some argument or other, it is still held together by a narrative structure. Without that, what the author writes would not make any sense.

The largest part of any narrative is what is left out. There is simply too much information to include in a story. From a historical perspective, this comes in two forms. First, more important to the historian but much smaller than the second, is what the author chooses to leave out. Archival research simply turns up information that does not fit in the story being told. I do not mean things that do not fit the argument. No historian puts everything he or she finds into the final product. Well, except for maybe a few nineteenth-century German historians. They wrote down everything.

The second is what the historian cannot know. Lots of records are destroyed in wars. Lots of other records are thrown out by archivists looking to save space. Others are lost because an idiot decided to build a subway line under an already structurally sound archive. Even more records are never written down at all. This is why attempts to measure low-level crime, especially in pre-industrial times, always fail miserably. Most is never written down. While today that is likely still true, before the twentieth century most crime was dealt with without necessarily writing it down.

This applies to baseball as well. While generally covering a much shorter time span than a history book, a baseball narrative – the history of one game – only takes up a newspaper column’s worth of space. Like in history, most of it is not written down. You will not read about every pitch. Even if you consider Gameday or PitchF/X to contain its own narrative, it does not tell you the exact positioning of every player on the field. Most pitches in baseball history were not recorded with that much accuracy anyway. Oh, sure, you might know the infield was in for a batter, or the outfield was in no-doubles defense. But you do not really know where every defensive player was, because every defensive player has a different positioning that he is comfortable with. Torii Hunter and BJ Upton have different definitions for “straightaway.” It is also different based on the number of outs, the count, the pitcher, the batter, and a host of other factors. You might know the temperature, humidity, and so forth but you do not know every gust of wind in every little piece of the ballpark. And you never know when it will matter.

Both types of narratives narratives generally include what the author considers important. “Extraneous” details are left out. If Derek Jeter hits an opposite-field single for a hit, that is his normal style of play. If Ortiz gets a game-winning single because it beat the shift by going the other way, then that will be included in the column. If a peasant girl decides she has an urgent message for the king and is desperate to tell him, the historian likely leaves that out or only includes it as a heartwarming story. Unless that girl is Joan of Arc. Fangraphs has measure for a single play’s importance called win probability added. It is a descriptive stat which measures how much a single play changed the probability of one or the other team winning the game. It is also a contextual stat, meaning it has nothing to do with the importance of the act in a vacuum. A solo home run has a different WPA opening up a game than it does with your team down by eight runs in the ninth. Thus, while it is not a good tool for measuring a player or a team’s skills (nor is it meant to be) it is excellent as a narrative tool.

The beauty of WPA for an article like this one is that it shows what historians look for. Historians cannot take every example of change to make a narrative. Most events peter out, and most ripples do not lead to great changes. Sometimes a single anecdote is used to illustrate part of the story like one strikeout might be used to show how great Tim Lincecum was that day. Other times a single at-bat will be chosen for illumination because of its importance to the game. Historians make the same choices.

The events we place into our narrative completely changes the story. In baseball we know the endings so an outright lie is easy to spot. False or misunderstood narratives are easier to spot in history because the variables never change. But what if you did not know exactly how all the numbers add up? You know Wandy Rodriguez gave up 5 hits, struck out 7, and walked 4. You do not know how many runs scored. You do not know Rodriguez’s team’s batting stats except that he went 0-for-2 with a sac bunt himself. How do you write about that game? That is what a historian has to do.

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One Response to Baseball and History: Narratives, Part One

  1. Pingback: Baseball and History and Futility | History and Futility

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