I'm OK, You're OK
I think the most productive discussion is the one where, after spirited debate, each person argues in favor of his opponent's case. And the least productive is when each person comes away convinced he is right and has demolished his opponent's arguments.
I would like to spin off from the Mark Armour In Defense of the Hall of Fame thread to consider the differences between traditional baseball writers and the contemporary analytical community. The distinction is not always stark; I always considered Leonard Koppett an analyst, and I enjoyed reading Arthur Daley, Roger Angell and others who brought the game to life for me and often provided a sense of intimacy with the players. Often, they brought to the issues facing the game an intellectual perspective that stimulated thinking on subjects like expansion or the DH rule or the Curt Flood case.
And often they were fine writers whose humor and ability to delineate the character of particular people expressed the mood of the game and enhanced the joy of watching and thinking about it. I still alternately laugh and tear up reading Larry Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times" even while cringing at some of the cliches from Lefty O'Doul and others. Periodically I listen to excerpts on tape from some of Ritter's interviews, and hearing Sam Crawford describe Rube Waddell or barnstorming in the mid-west, or Hans Lobert discussing Honus Wagner's kindness to the rookie or Fred Snodgrass defending himself and Fred Merkle from the criticism both have endured makes the game real and vibrant. I really think it is required reading (or listening) for any baseball fan.
But in my mind, with rare exceptions, these were not really analysts. They were writing about the game as literary figures, creating plots and climaxes and denouements and using all the approved techniques of novelists. What mattered was the story. Baseball was the arena in which to exhibit character and moral principles. And stories were built around those issues. Players rose to the occasion or choked, were heroes or goats, overcame all sorts of obstacles and odds or failed to deliver for their teammates and fans.
The stories were exciting and sometimes even had whispers of truth in them, but they had nothing to do with what was really happening because most of what really happens is mundane and not terribly exciting. The job of these writers was to extract the drama from the details and to make the story as interesting as possible.
After a time, certain themes (often reflecting virtues like sacrificing for the team or out-thinking the opposition) became fixed orthodoxy, elevating strategies like sacrifice bunts and moving runners over and the psychology of winning to the status of gospel or leitmotifs in most story lines. I have sometimes speculated that in the first decades of the 20th century when the sport was considered disreputable by many and the province of hooligans, in an effort to make baseball more respectable, books and articles by Christy Mathewson (or his ghostwriter) and others focused on the "inside game," the intellectual components of baseball, and praised the cleverness and psychological maneuverings of manager John McGraw. The effect was not simply to make baseball a more intellectually and morally respectable game, but it simultaneously established the basic principles that hardened into "the Book."
I was satisfied with this sort of baseball writing and raised my son with my recollections of baseball in the 1950s and discussions of columns in the mainstream newspapers and books of the 1970s. When he was a teenager, he returned the favor by introducing me to Bill James. And in my mid-40s, I became dissatisfied. Of course, James was interested in the stories and anecdotes. (In fact, I was sometimes irritated when I expected a hard analysis of some player's ranking in his Abstract only to be treated instead to some tangent about Dick Williams socializing with Sal Bando.) But alongside were questions and a serious attempt to find some way to answer them. I did not always follow the math, but I did understand the logic, and it was exciting. I still read the columns but they were not enough. The columns were about human interest and could have been on any subject. James and company were about baseball specifically.
In a way, the sabermetricians have created a problem for the traditional columnists. The early journalists always used stats, but they were rarely the key to any argument, and they generally were rather simple and commonly understood. They were the details that lent depth to a story, like descriptions of scenery and characters' physical traits in a novel. The journalists' audience, training and medium are not conducive to detailed statistical analysis. When Murray Chass mocks VORP and the like, I think he is actually making a valid point (I am really biting my tongue now) in the context of what would be acceptable in a mass circulation newspaper.
Of course elements of sabermetrics can and should be incorporated into the columns, and the movement has earned the right to be respected by columnists. Some have and do, and even those who ignore or resist progressive statistical analysis are clearly influenced by it, at least on the margins. OBP has almost gained the status of BA, albeit not quite, even among traditionalists. But to ask them to accept its approach as authoritative or to defer to its judgments is futile. They can include OBP, even ERA+ or OPS+ in their assessments, but their style precludes the charts and graphs and more detailed statistics. You don't ask Tolstoy to include a chart of the nationalities of prisoners in "War and Peace."
And the reason is not that they are wrong. It is that the two groups are engaged in different purposes. And while it is easy for sabermetricians to apply the approach of traditionalists to liven up their writings, it is not so easy for traditionalists to incorporate statistical models and arguments in theirs. So there is frustration on both sides.
When a traditional columnist writes an article defending a position, sabermetricians attack using all the tools at their disposal, and sometimes with sarcasm and nastiness. If the columnist dismisses their arguments, they pile on. But it is even worse if he tries to meet them on their own grounds. Without the expertise, his statistical arguments appear juvenile and then the attacks often turn vicious and personal. A successful career journalist, out of his depth in this kind of debate, finds himself the object of mockery, and with the internet, there is now a public forum for the ridicule. The problem is there is no common ground. The traditional journalist is not wrong; he simply has a different purpose, and to critique him is like arguing with Shakespeare that Hamlet should have compromised with Claudius or brought him before a board of inquiry.
When an issue like the Hall of Fame elections arises, the problem is magnified because for statistically minded analysts there are objective criteria from which to begin the discussion. But to many traditionalists, the key word in the discussion is "Fame" as in who do people know, who had an impact on the story.
Jack Morris exemplified qualities that suggest he is a Hall of Fame character; Bert Blyleven did not. Jim Rice dominated because that is the story line, and for anyone who lived in his era, it makes perfect sense. It does not matter to those who are now voting if the statistics belie the claim.* When I watched a Yankee game and Rice came to the plate, I was scared. I was not as worried when Dwight Evans was at bat. I may have been wrong, but Rice felt like a star and Evans a supporting player. To say the journalists are wrong does nothing to advance the discussion because these players are first and foremost literary figures to them. You and I may know that Watson and Crick were far greater men than Alexander the Great and Napoleon, but in the pantheon of human heroes, you can bet Alexander will get in first, and nobody is going to identify Crick as Crick the Great.
I do think there can and ought to be dialogue between the "schools of thought," but I think it requires mutual respect for and recognition of the divergent approaches. The dichotomy is probably not as dramatic as I have suggested, but I do think it would help if in debating points each side tries first to ascertain where there is common ground so they can talk to each other rather than at each other.
*I am reminded of reading that the Medieval books about the Lives of the Saints were almost entirely fictitious as narratives of events. Their truth was in the morals of the stories, the standards of behavior and faith the saints represented. So a particular saint may not even have existed, but the virtue of courage or charity he exemplified did exist and was true.
Robert Rittner is a retired high school history teacher from Westchester county, NY, now living in Clearwater, Florida. He has been a baseball fan since 1951, moving to Florida in part because of the opportunity to watch baseball regularly. He is also starting to hit a little better in his softball league.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer Newsblog.]