Saturday, March 22, 2008

IS Knowledge Good?

Earlier this week, yours truly was reading the "Journal of Sports Sciences" (day job, don't ask). A trio of English academics, doubtless fueled by a large grant, had examined the results of every Football Association match of the last 50 years. They then used a great deal of math we won't get into here to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that teams wearing red jerseys enjoyed a notably greater margin of success than those that didn't which could not be accounted for by any other factor.

Sound stupid? Sound like the sort of thing congressmen make fun of when they're trying to pretend they're saving money? Not to me it didn't. Not to Tiger Woods, either. As everyone knows, Woods wears a red shirt on every tournament Sunday. It sure can't be shown to have done him any harm.

The thing is, psychology is a science. And the effect of colors on the human brain is a well-researched part of that science. It's real, just like on-base percentage. And that, I think, offers us a clue on how to move beyond the increasingly boring baseball debate between the sabermetricians and their abstreuse acronymns, and the (spiritual) tobacco-chewers who evaluate the game by the amount of dirt on each player's uniform. We all need to acknowledge that science is a lot bigger than we think.

Mathematics is a science, and a helpful one at that. If it helps some people to categorize baseball knowledge in numbers rather than words or spitting, great. I would point out, however, that many of the most cherished numbers of the sabermetric crowd are very easily expressed in words, words that baseball has used for over a century. What is "on-base percentage" besides a numerically expressed version of the ancient call from the dugout "a walk's as good as a hit?"

Or take the concept of the figure filberts (another phrase dating back before World War I, not much changes in baseball) that is most often and viciously ridiculed by the tobacco-chewers-VORP. VORP sounds funny, but again, it's an easy concept. All it means is "how hard would it be to replace Player X with the next bum we call up from Triple A," an issue fans have been debating during pitching changes for a very, very long time. Manny Ramirez=impossible. Julio Lugo=still hard, but doable. Your average middle reliever=very easy.

It escapes me why this idea needs a number of its own, but if it helps people understand the game on their own terms a litttle better, so be it. One advantage numbers have is that they're shorter than words. Time is of the essence in sports, even baseball, so if Terry Francona wishes to express an idea in a percentage, it serves a purpose for him.

So the tobacco-chewers are ridiculing an imaginary enemy of their own creation. Information is not defined by where it comes from, but why whether or not it's true. Baseball has been generating an excess of statistics for about 150 years. Letting them just lay there without someone putting them to use would be a sinful waste.

The sabermetric crowd, on the other hand, needs to realize that as far as being in the vanugard of science, most of their work would not be unfamiliar to the ancient Greeks. The body of knowledge about reality that applies to baseball is vast, far vaster than their own discipline. To pretend that folks who've spent their lives watching baseball haven't absorbed a large amount of knowledge because they dislike equations is arrogance and foolish.

To repeat: psychology is a science. So is the management of other humans, or else they put up a lot of buildings at Harvard Business School for no reason. When the tobacco-chewers insist that a manager's prime responsibility is the mental focus and well-being of their 25 neurotic charges over the infinitely long season instead of the hit-and-run sign, they are right. They have science on their side. The first step in any scientific process is observation, and this is something that has been observed about baseball since John McGraw.

Let's take another flash point between the sabers and the spitters-Derek Jeter's fielding. Some professors made their graduate assistants do too much work this winter and came up with some chart proving that Jeter is the worst fielding shortstop in the American League. This made many sabers and Yankee-haters very happy, as they have been arguing the same for some time. It did not, however, prompt Brian Cashman to trade Jeter.

Numericizing fielding is the Holy Grail of sabermetrics, and just about as likely to be found. No accepted formula exists, and probably never will. This is not ignorant prejudice, but a better understanding of some mathematical principles than the number-crunchers have, specifically, the concept of proportionality.

As a words guy, I'll put it this way. The difference between the worst and best fielding shortstop is very, very, very small compared to the difference between the best hitting and worst shortstop. Nobody makes the big leagues in the infield without the ability to make the routine plays over 95 percent of the time. There are shortstops who hit .240. and there's Jeter, who's good for 100 runs a year and hits over .300.

Because most fielders are competent at worst, hitting is more important than fielding. Jeter would have to play shortstop blindfolded and drunk to neutralize the VORP (gee, that was fun) he has over other shortstops.

The one sabermetrician who knows all this and has said so, is, ironically, the prime hate figure of the tobacco-chewers-Bill James. This is unfair on so many levels I hardly know where to start. For one thing, James is a brilliant sportswriter. I started reading his Baseball Abstracts in the early 1980s, and believe me, it was for the words, not the numbers.

For another, more important thing, James is a true scientist at heart. He knows there is much he doesn't know, and that careful observation and trial and error are the heart of the process, not certitude. James knows psychology is a science, which is why he acknowledged Jason Varitek had value for the Red Sox which could not be demonstrated through his statistical methods.

That's what's known as intellectual honesty. It is the core of science. It is also supposed to be the core of journalism. The 2008 baseball season will be far more pleasant for all concerned, especially me, if both the sabers and the spitters would take that truth to heart before resuming their endless war.


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