Friday, June 20, 2008

Youkilis, Eucharist, Data, Stigmata. Close enough.

From the Archive: May 15, 2006

I awoke this morning, okay, this afternoon, to find a somewhat disturbing article in yesterday's Globe sports section. Yeah, my days and times are all messed up. Whatever.

The article is another anti-intellectual 'I liked things better when I didn't understand them' piece by longtime Red Sox columnist Bob Ryan. You may know him as a talking head on ESPN.

I wrote him a letter in response to his article. You might be surprised to learn that I talked about baseball as a way of understanding science and religion (and vice versa.) Even if you're not on top of the latest anti-intellectual trends in the wide world of sports, I hope you're able to follow along and enjoy his article and my response. I’ll let you know if he writes back.

Dear Mr. Ryan-

I am a longtime reader of your column, and I read your May 14 article “A feast of data, with a slight glaze” with considerable interest, but also with slight concern. There is much debate in our society today over how to understand our world, as both scientific knowledge and religious sentiment wax and wane in different quarters. I am writing to you as both a lifelong diehard Red Sox fan, and as a professor of Philosophy, to let you know I felt that your article represented, albeit implicitly, that very debate. Though I hope the length of this letter does not deter you, as I know you are a busy man, I hope you will indulge me as I try to suggest an interesting perspective on this very live issue concerning how to enjoy this great game of ours.

One of the greatest differences between the ‘old-school’ statistics like BA and RBI, and the ‘new school’ stats like VORP, is that the Old School stats are something anyone can count themselves from their own box score. At the end of a game, you can count up the hits and errors and know, from that one box score of that one game, just what went on that day, and without knowing anything else that happened across the league. But by contrast, in order to know the ‘New School’ stats like VORP even for the players in the game you just watched, you can’t just rely on your own box score. In order to know VORP, one has to know virtually everything about everything- New School stats include what every other player did that day, and on every other day, and in what ball park they did it- as you point out, the New School is “in love with equivalency”- and so it is impossible by definition for a fan to be able to track New School stats just from his own box score.

The box score, and the anecdotal evidence of which you are fond, are both stories about a particular time and particular place. Such stories are ‘local’; one can understand something local just by being there- by keeping a box store or hearing an anecdote. But on the other hand, New School stories of equivalency, for instance, are ‘global’; one can only understand what’s going on after one has related the event in question to virtually every other event on the globe.

But this is much more than just a problem of how many box scores one might have to read to know what is going on, and I hope you will continue with my letter.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the so-called ‘butterfly effect,’ where the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Africa, through an ever-increasing cascade of tiny events, may result in a hurricane here at home. If this sort of thing is happening all the time, such that any nearby or ‘local’ event is shaped and perhaps even brought about by innumerable events far distant, then it would be misleading to think a box score of your local hurricane told the whole story, and it would be misleading to think one could predict the weather very accurately on the basis of that local box score. And if one could only know the flapping of every butterfly, one could predict the weather better than by just watching the local weather report. The New School’s emphasis on including league averages and ballpark effects is their way of tracking butterflies in Africa. The New School thinks its global statistics are better at predicting the future than such local or box score statistics like ERA and RBI.

Prediction and science go hand in hand. Part of taking a scientific approach to something is trying to understand precisely how all things interact with all things, for the purpose of isolating variables and trying to predict the future. But there is another essential element to the art of prediction, which is that the scientific approach attempts to understand each event as being of a certain type. If the hitter about to step up the plate today against Jorge Julio is a red-head, and if we know that red-headed hitters hit .370 off Jorge Julio in day games, classifying this single event – this at bat- as of this kind allows one to say there’s a 37% chance of a hit in this at-bat. Classifying in this way is the basis of prediction. And because the New School records and charts everything, it can classify everything, and so any new event you please can be found to be just like a million others, and given how frequently it happened in the past, one can then say what the odds are of that event happening again in the present or future.

This scientific way of doing things may not be for everyone, and it might be less fun than other ways of looking at things, and it does seem like a lot of time to put in for often trivial results. But what’s wrong with it? What’s the big deal, one might ask? Why do so many people dislike the New School approach so strongly? I’ve suggested that science seems to view all events as interrelated, and so as interdependent, in some or many ways, and also that all events are of a certain kind or another. Now why should this be bothersome? Well, this scientific way of looking at things contradicts two important ideas that many people hold- that the event we see before us is localized and distinct from all others, but more importantly, that the event we see before us is unique. And here’s what this all might have to do with religion, as promised earlier. The reason science does not accept the religious notion of miracles is that science does not accept the notion of unique events at all. A miracle is a unique event, something entirely unlike, and independent of, all others. Miracles don’t rely on something like a ‘butterfly effect’ to happen, and miracles, in being unique, cannot be classified.

And what does this have to do with baseball, you are probably asking. The enjoyment of baseball is very often the enjoyment of what appears to be a unique event; one hopes for the thrill of seeing a miracle. Fisk in ’75 or Roberts in ’04 are unique events, and felt like miracles. They even played the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ as Fisk rounded the bases! Now, neither of those players are the greatest players of all time. But who cares? Is it not an anathema to ask whether given 100 such pitches, how many more times could Fisk or Roberts have duplicated their results, as opposed to a ‘better’ player? You point out that the New School has provided us with the information to find out the odds of the Sox winning Game 4 once Roberts stole the base. But why would we need such information- they did in fact win, didn’t they? It happened. We saw it. And it was great. The meaning of such events is not how frequently similar things could happen, but that they did happen, once, end of story. It is their uniqueness that makes them special, and the idea of reducing them to others of a type or dragging in what appear to be outside factors to explain them seems to ruin what is most special for many people about such moments in the great game of baseball.

But can one make any predictions based just on single events like Fisk or Roberts, for instance, about how those players will perform the following year? Clearly not. And so whether or not there really are such things as miracles, they don’t do a General Manager any good, because miracles are useless for the purposes of making predictions. A baseball miracle is a single square in a single box score for a single time and place. And although such box scores or miracles may have meaning for other times and places, as memories of history always do, they don’t have statistical or scientific relevance on their own. The New Statistics are not fans’ statistics, if by ‘fan’ one means someone who enjoys the game most when unexpected and seemingly miraculous events occur. The New School stats are really for general managers, (or fantasy general managers), who do need to watch the waiver wire and know how much a player is really worth over the long haul so he can know how much and whether to risk.

So insofar as he takes the GM’s and not the fan’s approach, you might not want to watch a game with a New School stat guy. But it’s funny. People in this country often times vote for their President on the basis of whether he’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with, even though you probably never will have that beer, and more importantly, even though being the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with isn’t the Presidents’ job. And being the kind of guy you want to watch the game with is not the General Managers job- his job is to try to predict the future of each player and use that as a basis to decide whether that player should or shouldn’t be on the team. So even if your GM or your President is the kind of guy who prefers the unique to the pattern, or who prefers the miracle to the law, or who prefers the religious to the scientific, to do his job he should use every resource and trust every fact available to him, even if that means losing the meaning of the present moment for the sake of a winning future.

Thank you for your time,



notdave said...

Great response, Jonah. Many things in there I had never really considered before. But now I can't NOT think of them. Like the hidden arrow in the FedEx logo. Now I have no choice but to acknowledge it. Anyway, it was a smart and articulate letter you wrote. I'm sure Bob Ryan will print it or respond to it (if he knows how to read other people's words).

dave g

Soxlosophy said...

thanks for the kind words dave... though it has been two years since i wrote the letter, and no response yet. i'm still waiting to hear back from santa, too.