Note: this is part of an ongoing series I’m doing. Part one, and links to all the other parts, can be found here.
The problem with WPA and other contextual stats is that they are teleological. This is not really a problem for a description of a single baseball game, of course. They are purely for entertainment and the reader often already knows what happened. The need for dramatic effect means that writing up Aaron Boone’s 2003 homerun includes lots of foreshadowing and details that would not have been included if he struck out. I do not have to even tell you which one I am talking about. It becomes an issue when this turns to labeling some players as “clutch” and others as “chokers” even though small sample sizes abound. This essentially creates narratives that writers will use before the end result is known, which is even worse. I also wonder if, player tendencies being what they are, the different infield alignments in clutch situations might account for better or worse “clutch” states. E.g., a player always hits the ball between the first and second basemen. With runners on – a clutch situation – they are at double-play depth. Would that not lead to better results? The prevailing wisdom seems to be that stats even out once there is a large enough sample size so there may not be enough of a difference even for that to be a valid reason.
Of course, if clutch was a major field of historical study, then some revisionist would eventually write a book stating that the non-clutch players are better than clutch players. If one player bats .250 with the bases empty and .300 with runners on for a whole career and another player has those same statistics except flipped, most baseball authors would fall head over heels in love with the story lines provided by the former player. The hypothetical historian would argue, perhaps just to be contrary, that the latter player is actually better, because the better numbers came in a larger sample size. In fact, the real problem is not that the latter player chokes; it is that the former player obviously does not have enough focus in important situations.
This brings us to another major problem in baseball writing. Readers probably already know this, as it has been covered ad nauseum by others, but here is a primer just in case: white players who are bad at baseball are loved by the media and considered gritty and scrappy. Black, athletic players are often called “toolsy.” Infamously, Latino players who have been exclaimed for their own athletic prowess and have a hot streak at any time in their careers get the “lazy” label. B.J. Upton has become the poster boy for this.
First off, he is not lazy. One cannot play center field as well as he does and be “lazy.” Only the rarest of men would make it to the major leagues at all and be considered “lazy.” When a player makes an amazing defensive play and looks nonchalant about it, he is smooth. When he looks nonchalant but misses a catch, he is lazy and does not care.
Baseball players mail in individual efforts all the time, and all of them do it. This is not a critique. If you have never mailed it in at your job, you are lying. The wave of narratives of the mainstream media, though, means that when B.J. Upton hits a grounder that he did not run out on at full, exhausting effort and might have just beaten out, that play is determined to have been lazy. When Derek Jeter does it, nobody writes about it. Remember what I said about choosing which records and events to include? Another player might be called out on not running out a grounder or two but it gets labeled a mental error, easily correctable, and not a personality defect.
Then there are descriptions of whole teams winning and losing based on who has more heart (warning: awful sports writing). This would be akin to suggesting the Allies won World War One because they cared more. Meanwhile, I always thought it was British blockades, bad harvests, and lots and lots of fresh American troops. While it is true that great teams often have a feeling of destiny around them – and if they do not, writers create one – it is an illusion. The teams that seem to have a destiny aura but fail in the playoffs simply get forgotten and their stories left untold, unless there is something else going on in the background like the 2001 Yankees.
Teleology has long been a major problem in history. Major narratives explaining all of history in simple, easy strokes, also known as tropes, dominated much of the field until World War Two and later. Luther and Hegel led to Hitler! Prussia bad! No wait, Prussia good! Erm, actually, Prussia bad again! Manifest destiny! French Absolutism! Calvinist work ethic! These have been brought down over the last several decades. While some are defeated only to be resurrected in changed form, it is always with more nuanced understandings of the historical context. Prussia is a perfect example. Despised since World War One for its authoritarian, state-within-a-state tradition, marred by the monarch allying with the Junker nobility to oppress the serfs, recent research has uncovered that the monarchy and the nobility did not ally any more than in any other notable state. Its recent political tradition is at least as much social democrat as it is authoritarian. While the army’s special status remains an important piece of historical knowledge (one I think still holds true) Prussian society was far from militarized.
Again, that is just one example. The fight against common, simplified, and often mono-causal tropes was spearheaded by post-modernists among others (and you will not hear me say much good about what post-modernism has added to history’s toolbox). Fire Joe Morgan (RIP) may be the most famous of those fighting against the same in baseball journalism, but the blogosphere as a whole seems to be doing an excellent job of it.
Next week we will look at a couple of baseball’s own historical narratives.