The Narrative, the Statistics, and the Game: Baseball and the Construction of Meaning

Who is the most valuable player? In 2012, the question came down to a debate between the well-rounded Mike Trout who led the league in WAR and Miguel Cabrera, who may be the best hitter of the generation. In one sense, the question of value can be answered easily with WAR, and Mike Trout wins automatically. WAR was specifically developed to answer that question. Put a dollar in, get a candy bar back. Simple. But because Mike Trout played for a non-contender and didn't rack up many RBI, took his walks, and generally flew under the radar for a guy having the greatest rookie season maybe of all time, it was Miggy who took home the AL MVP trophy.

Naturally, saber-types were nonplussed at the baseball world's flat-out rejection of truth. And I get it. But I think the issue is more complex than a discussion about WAR and its relative merits. And I don't just mean that Trout has regressed to the mean as the sample size of his defense has increased and he's had fewer opportunities to save a run that's about to go over the wall with one of those highlight plays Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro have about a million of. Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown has aesthetic value, doesn't it? A guy leading the league in counting stats is more likely to fill seats, and there's a kind of value in that, even if the barometric pressure at Coors Field allowed a few of his extra-base hits to scrape over the wall, or a little HGH inflated his overall talent level. (Actually, it's exactly the kind of value that WAR ultimately measures: monetary value. WAR is, on some level, an attempt to monetize overall baseball skills adjusted for the current market). A guy who interviews well or creates perceived clubhouse chemistry has narrative value to beat writers and homeristic fans, and he may even add value as measured by WAR. We don't know yet. And for all that we do know, there's a much larger amount we don't.

For what it's worth, I am a nerd. Sabermetrics make baseball more fun for me, not less. But I am also concerned that the sabermetric community has adopted a fundamentalist attitude toward truth. We have replaced the monolithic "old-school" and its unwillingness to consider the facts with an equally monolithic "new school" that sometimes arrogantly assumes it has the final say on what is true, even while parroting that it is more open-minded and able to admit error. I am not decrying science, or denying evolution, or something drastic like that. But it is possible, even if one's head isn't stuck in the sand, to become rigid and intolerant in the opposite direction, closed to the fluidity of reality out of fear that we'll revert back to a world where the batting title was a thing.

This kind of rigidity is illustrated by the slow-developing refinement of DIPS and BABIP. FIP remains the primary component in pitcher WAR even as we acknowledge that we might not have given enough credit to pitchers who induce ground balls or infield flies; BABIP is the first place we look when a hitter we don't expect starts going on a tear, when it could very well be that he's improved the quality of his contact. It would be easy to say that this is proof that we are open minded and willing to revise our opinions, but the fact is, we don't know which statistics we'll end up revising ten or a hundred years from now, and unless we already know they show room for improvement-like defensive measures and catcher value-we are fairly easily satisfied just like our slash-line predecessors were pre-Bill James.

We are beguiled by the authority of Science to abandon intuition when it doesn't correspond with wOBA or DRS; as a fan in the Braves' primary market, I hear all the time that Freddie Freeman's defensive value according to stats is maybe slightly above average, but to commentators, managers, and casual fans, he gobbles up balls at first base. It would be easy to dismiss the latter because they're taking into account the two elements of his defense which are most readily visible on a television broadcast-his arm and his stretch at first base-while ignoring his glaring weakness-range. But the issue is more complex than that. We have made meaning-Freddie Freeman is at best a slightly above average defender right now-out of a stat-his DRS and UZR are ho-hum.

The fact is, DRS and UZR don't mean anything. They have no intention-no vested interest-and don't care at all about whether Freddie Freeman is a good defender. People care about whether he's a good defender. Front offices care because they want to save as much money as possible while putting a winning, profitable product on the field. They want to exploit market inefficiencies. Fans care because nothing is more fun than being a homer armed with stats for ammunition. Neither is objective because neither actually wants the truth; they are both motivated tacticians relying heavily on heuristics and prejudices so their brains don't explode with inefficiency. They need a version of the truth that works in the moment to accomplish their goals.

It is worth reminding ourselves that people make meaning out of statistics. We make meaning out of statistics, spinning them in whichever direction we want, ignoring what we don't know or don't care to know. Statistics mean nothing. Statistics do not tell stories. We only say that statistics tell stories to escape the claim that we're taking the fun out of baseball or to acknowledge that stats are often grossly misused by even the savviest of sabermetricians.

People mean things, and people tell stories. People are biased and subjective. People don't consider all the facts because people can't consider all the facts (and even the concept of a "fact" assumes there are sentient beings capable of knowing it; a carrot in the forest was never "raw" until somebody could cook it). What is considered fact in one generation is subject to revision or rejection in the next. People of the traditional type use stats like RBI to tell a certain kind of story involving clutch and chemistry and grit; other people use linear weights and take base-out states out of the equation (or add them back in later, recognizing they're not predictive) to tell a different kind of story involving the independent evaluation of players.

It is little more than cultural imperialism-no different than teaching natives English, giving them jeans and Coke, and then buying their land for oil-when we assume the scientific, modernistic lens through which we view the game is the best or the right one, telling the right story-the one that corresponds most closely with reality. Ironically, by attempting to stake a claim on reality, it must abstract itself from reality, relying on probabilities that at best predict what will happen at this at-bat, but, in some sense, have even less access to that knowledge than a casual fan at her first game. It assumes a kind of omniscience to which we have no access.

It's why I find it silly when traditionalists claim saber-types don't watch games, and saber-types know good-and-well the only reason we care about stats is because they help us to understand the game we love. Actually, neither side is watching the game; at least we aren't watching it straight-on. We're watching it through the interpretative lenses given to us by our history with the game, our knowledge about the game, and our biases, acknowledged or ignored. The reason both sides are so angry is that, even if they're in the stands together, they're watching two different games, with different events, outcomes, and (therefore) interpretations; that's the nature of truth. Each side thinks the other is stupid when they describe the book, but neither realizes they're reading different authors.

Reality is a construct. We are all deciding, based upon the stimulus data we have available, what is true and real and concrete. So I can't too easily write off the folks who still want RBI on the baseball card, or who waffle between the plate appearance and the at-bat at whim. I don't begrudge the manager who tries a bunt, even if it decreases his run expectancy. I wish was willing to acknowledge it might not be the best idea given what we know right now, but I give him credit when, going with his gut, he induces an error-ridden inside-the-park home run that shouldn't have even been a single. He was reading the signs as he saw them, imaging a reality ahead of him given what he already had, and got more than he bargained for when that reality smacked everybody in the face (most of all the ball) in the middle of the seventh with one out.

And maybe Miguel Cabrera should have won the MVP. Maybe we'll know someday. Maybe there's such a thing as grit or clubhouse chemistry or predictive clutch that we'll be able to quantify someday that will lead to a book and a Brad Pitt movie about a future Billy Beane who exploited it against the big, bad Yankees. For now, I withhold my judgment, tentatively giving the edge to Trout, knowing a revision of opinion may be in order, not surprised when Miggy or Trout comes out next year and completely flops. That's baseball.

This FanPost does not express the views or opinions of Talking Chop.

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