New Year's Revolutions: Does the Dialectic Sleep?

Shaping up, or... - David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Wherein spinning our wheels takes on a much more metaphysical connotation.

Years ago at this point, I wrote what I've probably already plugged too many times as my first article here at TGP.  If you're interested in the least, you can find it here.  The premise of the article was basically that the debate -- much fiercer then, though oft recapitulated in the Trout-Cabrera wars of late -- between advanced statistics and traditional statistics boiled down to how one saw "luck."  Was a lucky hit "clutch" or was it simply "timely?"  I won't hash out the whole line of reasoning, but basically, I argued that if you view the contradiction of luck through a dialectic lens -- essentially a lens that assumes and asserts the eventual resolution of those contradictions into a new coherency -- then what seems like an intractable debate eventually resolves into an eventually joyous (or, if your team does poorly, depressive) emotional outburst.  In short, the debate was moot once we -- as we all do -- watched the game.

The sub-claim I made was that this resolution speaks to the ineffability of baseball as such: no one knows what will happen, and no one can quite tell us why certain things happen in certain moments.  I can tell you that, over a career, Miguel Cabrera is a better hitter than Freddy Galvis. But I can't tell you if one or the other is going to get a hit in a particular plate appearance.  Over a thousand plate appearances, Cabrera is going to hit more homers against, say, Aroldis Chapman than Galvis, but we know full well that Galvis will likely hit his share (however meager) in those same 1000 PA.  In short, the fun of baseball is that we can't know what's going to happen next; the appeal -- and the tendency toward -- sabermetrics as a predictive tool simply amplifies the wonder of the anomaly.  This is the happy conclusion: everyone's rooting for the same thing; everyone's on the same side.

I did have one caveat, though, which I included at the end of the article.  I'll quote it here if you'll excuse the kind of poor wording:

I should note that this does not apply to GM’s, owners, managers, or even people who can actually vote for awards like the Cy Young or MVP.  I think being anything but militant and critical over non-SABR folks who are actually making baseball decisions is not the same as letting one’s colleagues in the real world just like baseball their way.  Frankly, it is in my mind irresponsible to limit the potential or recognition of honestly good players simply due to an anti-statistical bias, and should be, to their minds, potentially unprofitable to leave such players in the minors or as trade bait when they could be identified as good by using different, even "nerdy" methods.

I've bolded the important part, or at least the part that gets me back to today.  Because the article -- and I'm not sure this was a conscious thing when I was writing it -- really assumes that the dialectic of traditional and advanced would resolve in favor of the latter.  Just as GWF Hegel writes without a telos (end-point) to his own dialectic of the material and the ideal, but holds the ideal as the true point of resolution, my analysis assumed that the natural endgame of this sort of contradiction/resolution back and forth was a continual progression toward data collection and standardization, for better or worse.

And for the most part, this is the case.  Every team has an analytics department, and enough teams are making statistically informed choices that there isn't an Oakland A's or Tampa Bay Rays that totally stands out from the pack.  Even new hires -- see Jeff Luhnow in Houston -- tend to be folks who are knowledgable about the more theoretical aspects of the game.  It's a new world.

But we, of course, care about one particular team, and they have been roundly critiqued for not buying into this new world.  Yes, the Phillies have contacted the Commissioner's Office about getting a stats guy, and yes, they've hired an "extern," but we've seen signings that have not exactly enthused the fanbase.  An aging, maybe not-as-good-as-he-was-last-year Marlon Byrd; a truly uninspiring Roberto Hernandez; rumors about JP Arencibia and talk of Win-Loss record.  It seems as if Ruben Amaro, Jr, alone in the wilderness, is content with avoiding the statistical resolution.  Could I have been totally wrong?

It's worth noting, of course, that all of these moves have their defenders.  Our own joecatz has done yeoman's work in arguing that the extern analyst actually has been contributing much to this offseason's moves.  His work on Hernandez's contract is required reading, and makes a fairly clear case for Ruben's slow emergence into the 21st century after all.

But I'm less concerned with the question of whether or not the Phillies are newly statistically savvy or not.  Frankly, I'm not sure I could answer the question with any degree of authority before the season plays out.  They'll almost certainly not win the division, but that's hardly the fault of this offseason's moves; if they can manage to ride the line between build and rebuild and not fall into the rut of mediocrity, I'll be happy to eat any and all words I may have said against the owners and GM. What I'm more interested in now probably (I'm realizing as I write this tome) doesn't have a concrete answer.  The question, though, interests me: is it possible for anyone, from Ruben Amaro, Jr to Andrew Friedman, to successfully buck the tendencies of history?  Is what we all fear truly possible?  That a rogue, stat-hating GM and ownership group could keep the team we love in a statistical backwater, despite all of the progress around the rest of the league?  Will we be laughing stocks forever?

The answer, it seems to me, is no.  Maybe Ruben has found a new way with this stats guy, in which case, we'll see marginal change over time that tends toward my exact predictions of a few years ago.  Or maybe Ruben and the owners are just too pigheaded to change, and we'll be faced with a short period of wandering through the desert, after which the owners will leave an unprofitable ship, or fire Ruben, or both, and we'll have a new deck of cards to shuffle through.

The point I suppose I'm trying to make is that, while it's easy to wail and gnash teeth, it is less easy to resist the pull of history.  And the pull of baseball history -- again, potentially for better or worse -- is toward advanced statistics.  To assume that the Phillies alone can buck this trend is to give them far too much credit.  This is a sink or swim opportunity for this front office and for this management group.  Either they get on the clear path that all other teams are following efficiently, or they get bowled over.

I always consider New Year's Resolutions kind of futile.  Either you'll do the thing you've resolved, or you won't; and all the resolving in the world won't keep you kicking forever, sad as it may be to admit it.  But we make resolutions because we truly believe we can weather the storm against tendency and change the world.  Maybe some of us can, I won't rule it out; but there are certain forces we can't just hold our hands up to and halt.  I don't doubt that Ruben Amaro, Jr and the Phillies ownership would like to continue to live in a world where scouting was as easy as looking up someone's production statistics.  But either they realize, or history will realize for them, that they simply cannot keep living in that world.

So don't be sad: whether they know it or not, the Phillies, they are a-changin'.  Happy New Year.

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