In the summer of 2006, I didn’t know any better.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I thought I knew better. I thought what I knew about baseball was all there was to know. I figured a hitter was probably best judged by his average, home run and RBI totals. I figured pitchers were probably best judged by their records, ERA, saves and strikeouts. These things were all I knew and all I counted on to tell me what I wanted to know about baseball players.
About a year prior, I had stumbled upon a site called SomethingAwful. Longing to entertain the geek in me, I found a lot of their articles funny, the weekly Photoshop showcase sublime and the occasional animations to be pretty good in their own right. The site featured a forum, one that required a one-time, $10 charge to register and post (reading was free). I thought the concept insane – pay to post on a forum, when the rest of the Internet is basically free…no thanks – and resisted even examining what I was refusing to pay for.
Until the summer of ’06.
I finally gave in and poked around that forum, which contained a sports-centric subforum called “Sports Argument Stadium.” Okay. That seemed up-front enough. So I poked around some of the general baseball discussion threads, and found that this was no ordinary place. These people talked about weird things, statistics with acronyms I had never heard of and couldn’t pronounce, opinions on players I had paid no attention to or regarded in a completely different light.
This was my introduction to the world of sabermetrics – a school of thought I choose to refer to as “advanced stats” moving forward – and it was odd. Adam Dunn is actually a pretty darn good all-around hitter? On-base percentage is a more viable tool than batting average? RBI are dependent on things other than a batter just being good?
I hesitated. I was resistant to accepting these things – concepts and beliefs that mostly flew in the face of what I had come to know and understand as a baseball fan all those years prior – and especially all at once. But the thoughts were implanted. I had seen them, and they had struck me so oddly that, though I did not believe them to be true yet, I started looking for examples in box scores. Sort of like the arrow in the FedEx logo; you see it once, and you never miss it again. Yeah, Adam Dunn struck out a lot, but he did not make outs on the whole as frequently as a lot of players. On-base percentage was the true measure of how often a guy didn’t make outs, not just the times he got a hit. The big RBI guys tended to be good hitters, sure, but they usually had some high on-base guys – read: Equally as good or better hitters – in the order right in front of them, and so on and so forth. I was surprised at how right these strange forum people actually were.
I found myself newly fascinated with baseball. Having always been big into numbers – compiling statistics and reading box scores for all sports, not just baseball, was always fun to me – there seemed to be an entirely new set of things to learn. It was something fresh; an entirely new way to take in the game I had always known. I didn’t understand it all – hell, to this day I still don’t get about one of every three advanced stats they’ve got out there – but it seemed interesting enough and delivered by people who sure seemed like they believed in it. I wanted to see what color these glasses were tinted.
I say this because an article by a prominent, national columnist was released Thursday to the eye-rolling that’s becoming more and more prevalent each and every time one of these pieces comes out. By “these pieces,” I refer to those that attack the notion of using more numbers to evaluate players or supplement one’s viewing experience, seemingly without the slightest inkling of caring or wanting to know about these other numbers and what they’re trying to contribute to the bigger picture. Lots of people – on both “sides” of this new era of baseball – want to read pieces like this whenever they come out. Advanced stat proponents want to read it, no matter how many like it they’ve seen before, to see how this latest argument is structured (or fling some impassioned riposte back). Traditional stat folks read it to agree with it. Those in the gray area in the middle read it to be in on the joke, or ignore it altogether and watch people get mad over it anyway. Some posit that these numbers, this new math, interferes with one’s ability to enjoy baseball; that it saps everything beautiful and enjoyable out through the seams, out of every fleck of infield dirt and through the tips of every strand of Kentucky bluegrass.
Really, none of this debate interests me anymore. I used to be in the shoes of whoever writes these anti-advanced articles – though not to the point of active resistance – and I used to see the game the way they currently do. It was a fun time, and I enjoyed the hell out of baseball. Then, I came across advanced numbers, and…I still enjoy baseball. Perhaps it has something to do with my age; having been a conscious baseball fan for a time far shorter than most national voices at the time of my introduction to this new set of evaluators perhaps left me in a better position to be accepting of it. This isn’t about that, as I’ve been introspective and self-analytical enough for the moment.
The point remains that my fondness for this game remains intact. Baseball is entertainment, but there is absolutely still a sense of romance in the air around a ballpark. I feel it, I sense it. My emotions have not been converted into a formula. I look at baseball and its players differently than the aforementioned columnist, but that does not mean I regard his viewpoints with disdain or superiority. I do not feel as though I have the right to enjoy this game more than anybody else, but more importantly, I do not care how anyone else chooses to see the game. Do you or I or anyone else need things like xFIP or WAR to justify our appreciation for the game? Of course not. That does not mean it needs to be right or wrong. By all means, enjoy the game without paying attention to the same numbers I do. I do not care. My enjoyment of this game is neither dependent on nor threatened by yours, and I would hope, in the end, you would feel the same.
I come off as a cynical bastard on the Internet, seemingly unstoppable in my quest to be doomsaying, paranoid and put off by Ryan Howard. To be fair, though, I’ve always been that way in some capacity. I want my teams to win, but fear angering some sort of cosmic deity at the first sign of confidence. I dare not be obnoxious about my team’s historic success for fear of sudden damage to Roy Halladay’s rotator cuff. I dare not dangle the luxury of my hometown team – I grew and up and have had no permanent residence farther than 20 minutes away from the stadium complex by car even to this day – in front of fans now experiencing what I experienced from the mid-90s until, well, the summer of 2006. This is how I watch the game and how I root for my team. Everyone else can find their own way to enjoy it; whatever works. My opinions of players are sometimes shaped by stats, but in the end, the essence that my fandom is boiled down to is and always has been the same: It’s love.
I love baseball, and advanced stats played a part in ushering that love along. I find my fascination of the game furthered by the seemingly countless ways with which I can compare players and assess value. And that’s just me. I don’t shove this down anyone’s throat or force all those I come in contact with to see things my way or no way at all. Following someone on Twitter is a totally voluntary thing, after all. Everyone is entitled to see things in their own way. To find that love for the game that I’ve found in whatever way they so choose. I wish that of every fan. I don’t understand the need to attack or belittle someone because they value RBI more than on-base percentage. Knowing what I know now, do I think it’s a less-than-ideal approach to valuing players? Sure, but that’s my take. I am a fan, not an executive. I say what I say, think what I think and feel what I feel because I am driven by my own attachment to this game. At the heart of the matter, that’s what every one of us is. For me, advanced stats played a huge role in strengthening that attachment. For you, I hope you’ve simply found a way to keep enjoying the game.
We rally around our respective nines throughout the summer because, for one reason or another, we are drawn to them; to each other. There’s a sense of camaraderie lost between groups of fans over some numbers. What difference does it make how you or I take pleasure in a night out at the park, or form our opinions of players from our couches? In the end, we all want to win. That’s a common bond that no number should fray. I don’t weep for some forever-lost sense of community, because I believe that merging these traditional and advanced sects is still absolutely feasible. What’s more, I think it’s right. Fans deserve to celebrate together, to boo together, to love the game together. Nothing about this influx of numbers or new age of evaluation should ruin that, and the name-calling and stereotyping associated with all that is negative about these debates has no place in the game. Numbers have not ruined the game for me though they have certainly changed the way I watch baseball. I view that change as positive; I feel as though I know more now than I ever could have dreamed of five years ago. Baseball is a beautiful game deserving of love from all its fans, and a mutual understanding that everyone won’t see the game the exact same way, but that that’s okay.
I know that I love baseball, funky stats and all. I know that, out there, everyone who has put fingertip to keyboard to write a single word about this game feels that love of the game. I know that people who don’t use advanced stats love the game, too. What’s important is not caring about how the other guy watches the game, but how you find enjoyment in it. What really matters, in the end, is how you keep that love alive for yourself. Leave those with differing viewpoints alone if you don’t care for it. Picking fights does nothing productive and only serves to widen the growing gap between the two dominant schools of thought. Really, in the end, all anyone around here remembers from 2008 is the 0-2 slider to Eric Hinske and the celebration that followed. No one remembers Pedro Feliz’s WAR or Geoff Jenkins’s RBI total; no one cares about Jamie Moyer’s strikeout rate or how gritty Eric Bruntlett was. The elation of being fans as one is what resonates with us from that October, and it had absolutely nothing to do with whatever sugarplum number fairies might have danced in the heads of a given fan walking down Broad St. following the parade’s exodus to the stadium. The game exists to unite, not divide, and to provide entertainment to everyone, however they might interpret it.
Love it however you’ll love it. It’s a beautiful game, numbers and all.