A Response to MBB, Re: Murray Chass

The New York Yankees blog, My Baseball Bias, recently defended journalist Murray Chass after he was bought out by the New York Times. Chass, of course, is not highly regarded among most baseball bloggers, but it’s perfectly fine for MBB to defend him if they have legitimate points. I largely disagree with how MBB backed up its statements, and I’d like to show why. MBB’s words will be in bold, my words in regular typeface will follow.

Why get rid of him at the beginning of this season, and not after last season or at the conclusion of the current one? I’m not sure if the New York Times even gave a reason. Was it his age? Quality of work? Or a combination of the two?

There likely isn’t one big reason; more likely, it was a combination of things: the continuing decline of the newspaper industry, Chass’ abrasiveness, and the popularity of baseball blogs (which is, for the most part, inversely proportional with Chass’ and subsequently the New York Times sports section’s popularity).

The website “Baseball Prospectus” penned an open letter to Chass and criticized him on this point. Like sheep, other internet writers followed suit.

“Like sheep”? So, Sabermetric-minded bloggers don’t think for themselves and simply follow whatever Baseball Prospectus (I’m assuming he’s implying other big baseball websites as well) does?

Because of the scientific mindset that Sabermetrics take, you’ll always find its users criticizing each other. It’s a healthy process that occurs in all other branches of science, as science is self-critical. Baseball Prospectus, for instance, bases some statistics off of replacement-level players. Tangotiger analyzed some statistics to find out that BP’s replacement level is set at too low of a standard.

Sabermetric-minded bloggers aren’t all one cohesive unit that think alike. You may find one person who likes to use VORP, WARP, and UZR to judge a player’s value to his team; another might prefer WPA, Win Shares, and RZR. Every statistic has it’s pluses and minuses, some more than others.

My point is, so what if Chass, who was inducted into the writers’ wing of the baseball Hall of Fame in 2003, didn’t care for what he labeled, “new-age baseball statistics?’’

If he simply “didn’t care for” Sabermetrics, there would be no problem. However, he has overtly criticized people who do use them and has shown little to no effort in attempting to understand them. It’s like saying you don’t like Oreo cookies without ever having eaten one.

Here is exactly how Chass feels about Sabermetrics and the people who use them, from an article called “As Season Approaches, Some Topics Should Be Off Limits” dated February 27, 2007:

Things I don’t want to read or hear about anymore:

[…]

Statistics mongers promoting VORP and other new-age baseball statistics.

I receive a daily e-mail message from Baseball Prospectus, an electronic publication filled with articles and information about statistics, mostly statistics that only stats mongers can love.

To me, VORP epitomized the new-age nonsense. For the longest time, I had no idea what VORP meant and didn’t care enough to go to any great lengths to find out. I asked some colleagues whose work I respect, and they didn’t know what it meant either.

Finally, not long ago, I came across VORP spelled out. It stands for value over replacement player. How thrilling. How absurd. Value over replacement player. Don’t ask what it means. I don’t know.

I suppose that if stats mongers want to sit at their computers and play with these things all day long, that’s their prerogative. But their attempt to introduce these new-age statistics into the game threatens to undermine most fans’ enjoyment of baseball and the human factor therein.

People play baseball. Numbers don’t.

Can you smell the intolerance? He doesn’t just “not care” for Sabermetrics and its users, he views stat-heads as beneath him and the science of Sabermetrics as a waste of time, mostly his.

This is a professional journalist, someone who has a college degree and gets (I assume) adequately compensated to write and publish well-thought-out, well-researched, professional articles about baseball. Instead, he takes offense to an activity that would have no effect on his life whatsoever if he were to just ignore it. Similar to people who are against homosexual marriage — what do you care what people do behind closed doors when you’re not even around — what does Chass care what people do on their computers, what they highlight in newspaper and magazine articles, and how they analyze baseball teams and players?

To be honest, I’m not sure if VORP really adds anything, or simply confuses one’s enjoyment of this beautiful sport.

Just because it doesn’t enhance the game for you doesn’t mean it doesn’t, or can’t, for anyone else. VORP seems to be the cliche “nerd stat” but Sabermetrics are so much more than VORP — an offense-only counting statistic, by the way.

Baseball is a game packed with numbers, some valuable and some not. Does every statistic have meaning?

Some statistics are more meaningful than others. Wins and losses for pitchers? Meaningless. Batting average? Not so meaningful. On-base percentage? Meaningful.

“Meaning,” of course, referring to how informative it is.

I think there were instances when had the A’s used the latter strategy, the team would have advanced in the playoffs.

Isn’t hindsight a great thing?

When Joe Torre was managing the Yankees to multiple World Series titles, he never had a problem moving a runner over or swiping a bag.

Courtesy “Danny” in this BBTF thread about MBB’s article, a comparison of stolen bases and sacrifices in the Oakland Athletics’ four American League Division Series appearances:

2000 ALDS
SB: A’s 2, Yankees 1
SH: A’s 1, Yankees 1

2001 ALDS
SB: Yankees 4, A’s 3
SH: A’s 1, Yankees 1

2002 ALDS
SB: Twins 2, A’s 1
SH: Twins 2, A’s 0

2003 ALDS
SB: A’s 3, Red Sox 3
SH: A’s 1, Red Sox 0

Total
SB: Opponents 10, A’s 9
SH: Opponents 4, A’s 3

The A’s were just a hair out-small-balled.

Oh yeah, the A’s never got past the opening round, and only advanced to the second round in 2006 before getting swept by the Detroit Tigers.

So, the lack of deep-playoff success is the fault of a general ideology? The New York Yankees made the playoffs every season between 1995 and 2007 (13 seasons), but haven’t been out of the ALDS in the last four. Using MDD’s logic, we can pin the Yankees’ recent lack of playoff success on their not having a problem “moving a runner over or swiping a bag.”

My point? There are a lot of factors that go into winning and losing in the playoffs. Pinning it on a broad philosophy is intellectually dishonest and, frankly, lazy.

As a sportswriter, it’s important to keep up with what’s going on, but it’s also vital to dismiss what I think isn’t critical.

There’s a way to do that tactfully. Chass took the route of unprofessionalism.

I enjoyed his insight and passion, and never failed to read his Sunday column, which I felt was consistently strong until the end.

What’s the point? So what, you like the guy. This doesn’t add anything to your case and only detracts from your credibility because it seems you’re biased (that, of course, having nothing to do with the blog’s title).

That Chass, who had been the national baseball columnist for the Times since 1986, is a baseball traditionalist shouldn’t be held against him.

No one is holding his baseball traditionalism against him. He has the right to think the way he does; what we are holding against him is his intolerance for differing ideas and the lack of tact he has in expressing his distaste for Sabermetrics.

I’m a traditionalist, and likewise honor and respect the game.

You don’t need to be a traditionalist to honor and respect the game.

Few internet writers bother to attend games and sit in the press box.

This seems like a subtle “he actually watches the games unlike you nerds staring at your computer monitors” argument. You don’t need to actually attend the games to understand what occurred during the game. There are radio, television, and Internet broadcasts that don’t make stadium attendance mandatory to be hip to the scene.

To me, this is a must, otherwise it’s going to be tough getting players on the record.

Er, what? Chass needs to sit in a press box to get players “on the record”? I’m going to simply claim “false dichotomy” here.

Many bloggers simply just take pot shots, and have no basis in what they’re spouting.

Such a generalization… and MBB cites no examples. What, exactly, is a pot shot anyway?

I would be interested in seeing MBB’s examples of bloggers taking pot shots and having no basis for statements.

Last week I went to writer and Boston native Seth Mnookin’s blog, and essentially said the same thing. Everybody comes in with their own bias. Maybe Mnookin doesn’t care for Chass because he perceives him to be anti-Boston? Who knows?

Who cares what a Boston blogger thinks about Chass? You yourself just said that “Many bloggers simply just take pot shots, and have no basis in what they’re spouting.”

I have never read Mnookin’s work before but if he doesn’t like Chass, it is probably due to his intellectual dishonesty, tactlessness, and intolerance.

What is clear is that Chass, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1960, then worked for The Associated Press, and later the Times beginning in 1969, is an expert on all matters pertaining to baseball’s labor and business issues.

All of that has little to do with being “an expert on all matters pertaining to baseball’s labor and business issues,” unless he took a class on matters pertaining to baseball’s labor and business issues. I’m going to guess he didn’t.

During baseball’s strikes, and the events leading up to the work stoppage, reading Chass was mandatory. His work was directly on the pulse of what the players’ union and team owners were saying. His sources were impeccable, and his writing keen, clear and impeccable. He always hit a home run.

If you want, I can get you Murray’s phone number so you can fellate him in person.

Last season during spring training, I e-mailed Chass and asked if he’d do a question-and-answer for a weekly column I write for The Tolucan Times in Southern California. About a week before the season began, and after his stay in Florida was over, he agreed. Most writers, and especially one approaching his seventies, would have begged off. Not Chass, who answered my queries. I give him much credit for this and also not abandoning his trade.

Ah, so we get to the crux of the matter: Chass patted your back, now you’re patting his. This has nothing to do with the quality of his work, it’s simply an anecdote of a time when Chass was simply agreeable. If we had a list of Murray’s interactions with bloggers via E-mail, this anecdote, I’m presuming, could be labeled as a cherry-pick.

At a time when Peter Gammons, Buster Olney, and Tim Kurkjian, have all left the newspaper business and headed for the more-profitable television gig, Chass stayed put. That is until his employer asked him to leave.

It’s funny that the author of this article intended to defend the actions of Murray Chass, but it seems that the longer he wrote this article, the harder it became to rehash the same line over and over, so he started citing positive examples of his personality.

Murray Chass could be the most generous sports journalist to ever live. He could donate half of his salary to charities and one of his kidneys to an ailing family member and rescue orphaned puppies in his spare time, but it matters not in an objective discussion about the quality of his writing and the way he treats people who disagree with him.