Synecdoche (BEAT) New York: What We Talk About When We Talk About Baseball

Why do we like this, really?. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Two things.

The first is something that a professor once told me when discussing the ways in which statistics are used as evidence. His exact wording, as best I remember it, was "statistics are synecdoche." Synecdoche, for those of you who weren't forced to read and memorize a litany of literary terms from ages 18-to-death, synecdoche is the literary substitution of a part for the whole. As one particular literary glossary notes, synecdoche is a type of metonymy, a kind of figurative speech that also substitutes part for whole; the specific subset of metonymy that is synecdoche is characterized by its particular investment in the physical body. Thus, while "an army of ten thousand sails" is metonymic of "ten thousand ships," it is debatable as to whether or not it could serve as synecdoche; more clearly synecdochic would be a phrase like "the face that launched a thousand ships" as representative of Helen of Troy. The distinction, of course, is important to the initial claim's implication, namely that statistics, despite their seemingly objective and impersonal nature, are synecdoche particularly because they are representative of physical bodies. In a more troubling sense, this means that, as hard as it is to imagine, statistics on the poor or the hungry are indeed representative of individuals in awful situations; in a more relevant sense to us, it is that sabermetrics and traditional baseball statistics alike have behind them real, physical people. When we play around with scheduling and standings and WAR/162, etc, we are playing around (hypothetically) with real, live individuals, albeit figuratively.

The second is a confession that, at times, generally when I walk to the train, right past Wrigley Field, I start wondering what exactly I root for when I watch baseball games. Indeed, there is something deeply strange about rooting for a corporate entity as if it were an integral part of one's life; as much as I love the Phillies, it is inescapable that they are a profit-driven corporation ("Safe and secure with New York Life!"), and, in a certain way, rooting for them should feel about as natural as rooting for Wal*Mart. Not that this stops me from rooting for them, but the fact remains: I stop and think about it sometimes. Who and what are we ultimately rooting for?

Consider this, in part, the right brained response to the Moneyball question, the trouble of the unexamined baseball life: if we simply trust what our forebears have told us is important in thinking about baseball, then we risk falling into common sense assumptions about how the game works, both practically and philosophically. So, let us ask the question more seriously, without the knee-jerk reaction to "we're rooting for laundry!" or "we're rooting for America!" or "we're rooting for reason!" and really ask ourselves: what is the other end of the statistical synecdoche? What do we talk about when we talk about baseball?

It seems to me that taking the occasion of this unlikely wild card push - futile or not - is a helpful way of situating the question in the concrete experience of hoping for a particular objective for the Phillies. That is to say, the difficulty of the question of what one roots for can be further muddied by too many varying focal points of rooting interest: does one root for a high draft pick, appropriate playoff seeding, or simply for enjoyable games? We might see the question rather rapidly devolve into which scenario is right for rooting purposes, what you might call the "fan" question - which set of questions best reflects the appropriate fan concern? This ends up with mostly unarguable jousting, the kind of thing you'd see Jeff Passan or Rick Reilly or Gregg Easterbrook opine over. Fortunately, the issue at hand for us, as Phillies fans, is the question of the playoffs, namely whether, after a year of mostly futile baseball, we will see our team make them or not. This is the central focal point of interest for the 2012 Phillies, and thus the central focus of our inquiry here.

There are two ways of thinking about this point of interest: first, the position that hopes the Phillies make it, accomplishing an unexpected and unlikely comeback push to relevance; and second, the position that (ostensibly) hopes the Phillies fail, validating critiques of Ruben Amaro, Jr., Charlie Manuel, et al. I think we've essentially seen where The Good Phight falls on this question, but for rigor's sake, let's work out these positions a little bit. The hope that the Phillies make it stems from enjoying exciting and improbable baseball, and if this sounds too simplistic, it's likely because this is a pretty simplistic perspective. Indeed, it takes far more contrivance to argue that exciting baseball should not exist than to argue that it should, and it's of course why this seems like such an obvious position: why wouldn't we relish late season heroics? The second position answers this question, though we should be careful to note that it does not answer by way of the strawman counterpoint of "Well, I just hate exciting baseball because it's against statistics!" This, based on the Passan snippet above, as well as the general jumping off point for this position being the often excellent Crashburn Alley, is not a totally unreasonable assumption, given the emphasis on statistics in both positions, saber or otherwise, but a more careful approach yields different answers when we are particular to the Phillies. Read the second Crashburn piece, by Bill Baer, carefully:

There is also the implication that optimism is, by default, the correct lens through which to be a sports fan. There is no one correct way to be a sports fan; it is what helps you best enjoy what it is you spend your time obsessing over...[if] you hate stats and you enjoy baseball better without them, that is absolutely fine. Saberists have no moral high ground in the great fan debate because they pore over spreadsheets.

We can respectfully disagree with Baer on many points, but we ought not characterize him as some sort of fandom Nazi, at least not in his intentions. Clearly, if the argument is that the Phillies ought not make the playoffs - more available in the Pierre article, written by Michael Baumann, than Baer's piece on optimism/pessimism - it is not grounded in a desire to prove advanced statistics right in the same way that, say, rooting for the 2012 Cardinals to make the playoffs might be. Instead, for the writers at Crashburn specifically and the second camp generally, the point would have to be about negative implications of the Phillies making the post season: the retaining of pieces (Amaro, Manuel, Dubee, Pierre, perhaps) by way of illusory success that will hurt the team in the future; the valorizing of actually problematic practices (bunting for hits, bunting for sacrifices, benching for lack of hustle, misapplication of LOOGY and ROOGY types); or the reinforcing of the front offices (admittedly only perceived, though reasonably so) anti-stats bias which could lead to misallocation of resources in the future. That's a lot of assumptions, but I'd expect most would bear out; still, to simplify to a more defensible characterization of the stakes of the "miss the playoffs" argument, we could say that the concern is that a playoff berth at this point is fool's gold, an illusion that will justify wrongheaded practices by way of a lucky bounce, as opposed to sustained success.

And we should not act as if this is a particularly unfair concern. Indeed, say the Phillies do get in with the second wild card, and say (oh please no) that they lose the one game play-in to the Braves. Would this be much different than the situation that our larger-round ball playing friends, the Sixers, were in the last few years? Mediocre performance covered over by a reasonably unsuccessful playoff berth? Wouldn't there be a more efficient rebuilding of the value of the team through a painful but fundamental loss, followed by rebuilding and changes? Well, sure...to a point. Statistically, as schmenkman and JoeCatz, among others, have pointed out, the Phillies are playing at a higher level at this late point in the season, and while this is built on some unsustainable performances, we could reasonably argue that, as they become healthier, the Phillies start to represent the team they should or could be, that we ought not rebuild based on the appearance of ineptitude. That if this team can make the playoffs, then we can extend the "window" without a rebuild. The statistics might suggest that this point of view relies on some unsustainable performances, and I would expect that there is a fine argument to be had on this wrinkle, but I'm not particularly interested in having it.

Instead, what I'm interested in here is the market logic of the various moves in the above paragraph. What, precisely, are we worried about here? That is to say, what are the deeper stakes about rooting for this team? Certainly none of us in either camp want sustained ineptitude, decades of darkness, or inept management at all levels. And we want this because we want the team to win a World Series each and every year; impossible as the goal is, that's the fan's prerogative - win it all every single year. Living in Chicago, I am here to tell you that Cubs fans feel this way, too, even though their chances feel slimmer in April than ours are at this very moment. And the reason we feel this way is, in the end, not because we want the Phillies to be profitable as an LLC. In fact, the very discussion of finances usually devolves into discomfort or moralizing on the value of baseball players against, I don't know, doctors or teachers or whatever. We don't like to think about baseball players as commodities that either make a profit or do not, but that is a reality of the game. That is, in fact, the driving logic behind the sabermetric revolution, a revolution I wholeheartedly admire and follow and support: sabermetrics isolates and locates inefficient and efficient markets in an effort to earn more than one spends. Sabermetrics is economics, plain and simple.

And this isn't wrong. My heavy Marxist tendencies aside, I admire the basic structure very much, and, as I've said, I believe that most sabermetric insights are correct and impressive. But here's the problem: if we simply focus on the objective valuations that new and innovative statistics give us, if we simply say that it's a disgrace that a team with the third highest fWAR in baseball in the Cardinals (30.6) is in a position to be leapfrogged by the team with the 12th in the Phillies (22.8), then we are missing the forest from the trees (and this is without even mentioning the Orioles at 13.4 WAR, worsted only by the Mariners, Cubs, Indians, and Astros, basically locking up a playoff spot). As we often say about FIP and ERA, WAR is a descriptive stat, but team W-L record is a narrative stat, and simply dismissing narrative because it encourages bad market practice is dangerous thinking. Put it this way, what would it be like to root for this team without even asking oneself the hypothetical questions one inevitably asks about a team like the 2012 Phillies: "Say they won it all...would that be worth the x years of incompetence in retaining y?"

To think about baseball without asking that question is, of course, to blind oneself to clear and often troubling market realities, both in the symbolic market of statistics and the very real market of MLB profits. But it is a thought process that I believe is epistemologically important to us as baseball fans, and one that is not taken seriously in intelligent baseball circles. If dialectic reasoning obtains (and, to be painfully dogmatic, it always does), then it makes sense to say that the narrative is quite close to the statistical, despite their seeming contradiction. Sites like Notgraphs or Pitchers and Poets (RIP) demonstrate this for us, though with little fanfare or recognition, so let me take another crack at it. What we talk about when we talk about baseball is necessarily market-based, situated in capitalism and systems of profit/loss, for better or for worse; but what we talk about is also necessarily based in the symbolic marketplace of expectation and hope, attachment and affiliation, and loyalty and association. It is not as if this symbolic marketplace can't be coopted in much the same way the financial marketplace can - we can overvalue players based on empty batting averages, body types, even racial cues, subconscious or otherwise, and we can see our team allegiances turn jingoistic, hateful, and factional (DISCLAIMER: factionalism acceptable when it concerns the Atlanta Braves). But what no one seems to want to say is that, while sabermetrics exists as a challenge to common sense assumptions about how baseball works on the field, there is no equivalent philosophical challenge to common sense assumptions about the subjective appreciation of the game outside of saying that we need to think more statistically.

This is not sufficient. Not to get all manifesto-y on y'all, but if I've proved anything here, I hope it has been that, when we root for a team, we do it from the right and the left brain. We can't mechanize or make efficient our lizard brain desires for our team to win all of the time, regardless of the quality of their performance, and by leaving these desires unexamined, we simply reinforce pernicious concepts like hustle, grit, winners' desire, and, ultimately, the totalizing vision of economic thinking over all aspects of the game. Baer is unfairly critiqued when people suggest that he wants the Phillies to lose because of stats, but Baer is a lot smarter than many of the rank-and-file Fangraphs commenters, and it is my contention that someone posting "Ryan Howard is LOLD and busted; and Juan Pierre shouldn't have a job. Amaro should read a book once in a while!!" is just as painful and regressive as someone posting about Rollins' hustle on philly.com. I do not root for the Phillies because they are a corporation I want to win; I root for them because of a complicated affiliation that stems from my regional roots, my father's influence, and an inexplicable connection to baseball. It's a boring, long, and often uneventful game that we watch, based on failure and housed in spreadsheets, yet it is also a game that inspires joy through wildly different generations. Forget football's ratings domination, baseball is the quintessential American sport. That we are content to leave it unexamined and assume that the intellectual position on such an important part of our lives boils down to the purely scientific or mathematical messianism of statistics is troubling.

We don't do this on TGP, at least as far as I'm concerned - schmenk's stat dumps are wildly informative and he's far too smart to be a demagogue, and taco pal's logic dome is able to coexist with JoeCatz's speculative fictions. We do a good job of working out these questions here, but I'm convinced we can think about it even more. Again, nothing against Baer, Baumann, or anyone potentially rooting against playoffs (and I realize I'm unfairly conflating these folks), but there is something to understand about the way we watch the game that cannot be boiled down to a further objective or market-based turn. I don't have a fun acronym for this umbrella of intellectual questions (HEART? GRIT? JETER? PIERRE would be kind of fun - Philosophical Iterations of Epistemological Relations Regarding Enjoyment), but it would seem that we need a complementary movement to the Sabermetric revolution, in which we actively and carefully diagnose the assumptions we make when we root for our teams against logic, reason, and efficiency. We are not market-driven robots, but to admit this does not make us superstitious, jargon worshippers, kneeling at the altar of Morgan. To figure out why, to determine how we can root for these corporate entities while dialectically understanding that they exceed that cynical dispensation, is a worthwhile endeavor. I'm going to try to undertake it a bit more myself, and I encourage you all to, as well. We need to think without the shame of the subjective and the onus of the objective when we think about baseball. To do otherwise would be to do a disservice to the object of our passion itself.

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