On Luck: A Dialectical Analysis of the SABR Debate

[Note by FuquaManuel, 03/29/11 1:15 PM EDT: Obvious frontpage is obvious. Spectacular work Trev.]

I’ve been meaning to write this series of thoughts about luck down into a fanpost for a while now, but I’ve consistently put it off. This is partially because of the time commitment necessary to actually write up anything in even a halfway convincing or effective manner, but it’s also because I’m wholly unconvinced that the topic is at all interesting to anyone but myself. While I’ve found the baseball community to be impressively and widely intellectual about the sport, I think it’s fair to say that most of what I’ve seen has come from a more statistically minded viewpoint, which is to say, in the parlance of the blog, a more left-brained viewpoint. I’m not at all hostile to this, but that focus, as well as my general alignment with a more sabr-slant, does give me pause. If the goal is to provide yet another solution to the stats vs. non-stats debate, then how exactly am I doing any favors to "my side" by ignoring the objective in favor of a more ethereal lens.

And then, of course, I read this frankly brilliant piece by the immortal Joe Posnanski, and this similarly excellent analysis by the inimitable FuquaManuel, both in response to not-really-necessary-to-link pieces attacking advanced statistics in general, and it got me to thinking about what exactly the argument was about. I mean, obviously the argument is about what method is best in terms of evaluating and valuing baseball players, but I started to think about what the actual rhetoric of the argument entailed, why it was so tense on either side. And I certainly don’t absolve myself from this either – I get as frothed and angry at the Murray Chasses of the world as anyone; I love Fire Joe Morgan just about as much as I love anything on the internet; and I participate actively (if poorly) in a fantasy baseball league that uses FIP, which can only be seen as a suggestive middle finger to more traditional W-L or ERA qualifications. But aside from my intellectual commitments to it, why do I, and presumably others, feel that the SABR vs. grission debate is like a literal war of words? This seems to me to be a pretty significant question, and, along with the general right-brained tendencies of TGP, seems to set the stage for a recontextualization of, if not a solution to, the terms of the argument we’ve been having all this time.

As the title of this post suggests, I’m going to go about this task by way of discussing "luck." The main reason I’m focusing on luck has been that, by and large, I see it as the primary point of division between the two camps. In a way, this is an expansion of Posnanski’s main thesis, in which he suggests that non-stat folks presuppose the importance of stats without really understanding the rigor and observational duration (large sample size alert!) behind them. I think this is right, but it seems that one might be even more specific: luck, as in the reason we use FIP, xFIP, SIERA, DIPS, BABIP, etc. seems to be, if not actually the true stake dividing the two camps, then emblematic of said division. In short, we might effectively parrot the position of the anti-SABR using luck by saying "I know, by watching the players play the game, and by enjoying and living and dying with these games, that what happens on a baseball diamond isn’t ‘luck’ or a ‘gamble,’ but actual effort and skill and hard work."

All (very tempting) critiques of the insane valorization (and misconception) of hard work aside, this enunciation brings to the fore a pretty straightforward contradiction: one group sees actions on a baseball diamond, outside of a select few (strikeouts, walks, homeruns) as effectively uncontrollable, and the other sees actions on a baseball diamond as entirely in the control of the players on the field. In philosophical, political, and (entering my wheelhouse) literary issues, when two things dramatically contradict each other, one way to build an inquiry is through the use of dialectical reasoning. This is, of course, the second part of the title of the post – I promise, it does get to baseball, but I figure some background on the dialectic might be helpful. If you’re at all adverse to back of the envelope philosophical explication, though, just skip down, say, two paragraphs.

So, essentially, the dialectic is a philosophical technology by which one collapses two contradictory elements of a system or a phenomenon into a singular resolving enunciation or explanation. The most popularly accessible one (popular here being a loose term at best) is the Marxist dialectic, by which one can collapse the distinction of subject and object into the historical materialism of class conflict. In other words, and in more practicable terms, we might identify contradictions that appear in our everyday lives – say, the lionizing of "blue collar athletes" and the fact that "blue collar" workers, inasmuch as the category still exists unmarred, make a fraction of what any athlete, "selfish" or otherwise might make – and by way of dialectical analysis, work to resolve those two contradictions into the singular observation that this contradiction might be resolved by an appeal to a larger class conflict. From there, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to the larger claim that history is driven by class conflict.

Dialectic analysis does not, of course, have to be resolutely Marxist; while I will admit that I find the Marxist method the more compelling of the bunch, one might just as fruitfully locate and resolve contradictions in the service of idealism, as we see in GWF Hegel. Furthermore, schools as far apart as Platonic and Nietzschean philosophy utilize their own versions of the dialectic. So, with apologies to Marx and, more recently, with apologies to Fredric Jameson, my baseball analysis will not really focus on class conflict at all, though this does not mean that we might not find such analysis political. As Jameson says in Marxism and Form, dialectical analysis, at its core, is an analysis of a system, an analysis we might conceive of as a "form in time, as process, as a lived experience of a peculiar and determinate structure" (307). Or, to paraphrase his further elaboration just a few sentences later, thinking dialectically is, in effect, thinking about thought, a wholly self-conscious and self-aware method of thinking by which we determine significance for the very argumentative positioning that we otherwise take for granted.

So, you completely reasonably ask, what does this actually have to do with the debate that I so openly (and perhaps foolishly) promised to recontextualize at the beginning of this analysis? Let me answer that question by making yet another leap. If luck, as I’ve suggested, is the primary method of understanding the divide between SABR and non-SABR folks, then the most obviously significant moment at which this divide becomes important is during the "clutch" play. This is perhaps a problematic way of thinking about the moment, since the idea of a clutch skill, in and of itself, is anathema to SABR minded folks, as it is a) unrepeatable and b) presupposes a level of control over baseball that contradicts the basic premise of luck-independence in statistics. So, let’s scale back a bit and say that the moment I’m referring to is when one might perceive an action to be either clutch or timely, depending on one’s approach.

What seems completely ignored in any analysis of the argument I’ve seen thus far is that, despite arguments over the meaning behind the moment, these kinds of clutch/timely moments or plays in baseball are uniformly enjoyable for both camps, presuming that it was their team who made the play. This might seem obvious, but here’s a thought experiment: imagine you’re watching Game 4 of the 2009 NLCS with, I don’t know, Bill Conlin, though it could be any of the other anti-SABR guys out there who, if you’re like me, irritate on a pretty regular basis. So, at the bottom of the ninth inning – and this was pretty amazingly enacted on the game thread that night, in a back and forth with FM and CoburnsCuddleBuddy that I’ve cited in the past as a primary reason I started posting here – you’re probably having a bit of an argument with Conlin, who thinks the Phillies have a chance. You, as a reasonable fellow or lass, disagree, as Jonathan Broxton has been a pretty incredible closer through the year. Conlin reminds you of Matt Stairs’ moonshot the year previous, and, after Broxton walks him, assures you that the Phillies are "in Broxton’s head." You once again disagree, and, even as there are two on, you assure Conlin that Greg Dobbs’ lineout was, frankly, what we might expect to happen in this situation. Frankly, the percentage chance of winning is still quite low. Now, Jimmy Rollins is up, and you assure Conlin that Rollins has no chance of picking up Broxton’s stuff; Conlin likewise assures you that Rollins has known to be clutch in the past. You bite your tongue. And then, after all of that, a hit, two runs, and a walkoff win.

What do both you and Conlin do at this point? Well, presuming you both are pulling for the Phillies, you both get incredibly excited about a huge and improbable win. It doesn’t really matter that Conlin was "right" or that, indeed, there was always – regardless of perception – a pretty poor chance that the Phillies would pull out a win: the argument effectively dissolves into a visceral joy over the outcome of the game. And here we finally get to the utility of considering this whole situation in terms of dialectic reasoning – the positions construct a powerful contradiction and then, in one specific moment, resolve themselves into a singular understanding and appreciation of the game. At that moment in our thought experiment (and, if you live with an anti-SABR family member, this may not need too much imagination to concoct) the disagreement dissolves into the systemic truth of baseball which is that, at core, we want the team we follow to win.

Again, this may seem like a truly obvious point, but the moment of excitement surrounding a clutch/timely play is what is fundamentally at stake, or at least perceived to be at stake, in the larger argument. Anti-SABR or anti-stat folks often claim that a more SABR-slanted appreciation of baseball serves as a repudiation of this basic excitement, a tendency that is brilliantly mocked by the great Fire Joe Morgan, a mockery that includes one Murray Chass basically making the very argument I’m suggesting emblematizes the anti-SABR community. But SABR-minded folks will tell you, and I’d tell you this as well, that the basic point of stats isn’t to take the human face out of baseball or to suggest that, as long as there is a huge aspect of luck in successfully hitting a tiny spheroid at 90+ MPH into an appropriate area of grass with a stick, the accomplishments of people on a baseball field mean nothing. Rather, the knowledge of luck and how much of a factor it is serves to do two things that, I think, Chass would greatly appreciate: one, it allows us to really appreciate truly great players, and not just players that are sold to us as great; and two, it allows us to appreciate baseball’s anomalies that much more. How much more incredible is it that Jamie Moyer pitched a complete game shutout at 48 years old when you know that he was riding an unbelievable streak of good luck in terms of BABIP; yes, you can see it as diminishing the value of the accomplishment, but at the same point, as the accomplishment becomes that much more unlikely, doesn’t it also become that much more enjoyable?

But this isn’t meant to absolve the SABR folks entirely, insofar as it’s a misconception to point to folks who do not value stats and accuse them of some sort of luddite ruination of the game. Admittedly, I’m having a hard time defending them, but just because someone repudiates the concept of BABIP and defends W-L record doesn’t mean that they don’t "get" baseball – it simply means that they view the basic narrative differently. Are they wrong? Yeah, sure – the stats prove that luck does exist and that it’s not a factor that you can control, unless you are the White Wizard, Matt Cain. But to be painfully frank, the choice to believe in effort or choice is simply a way to make logical the outcome of a truly illogical, crazy game, to give that game a narrative. To believe in the stats is to say that the game has a clear tendency and can be guessed at and predicted to a point, but that, after a certain point, there is no clear narrative, that there is chaos and unexpected outcomes.

And this, finally, is another outcome of dialectic thinking: the contradictions become their opposites in the space of resolution. SABR-minded folks eventually believe that, in a small enough sample size, a team of David Ecksteins could, in fact, beat a team of Albert Pujolses – in short, they admit that stats do not act as unfailing predictors. Anti-SABR minded folks profess the opposite and, again, in a small sample size, will tell us that the outcome is entirely predictable, that there are appreciable predictors in baseball, like clutch and grit and effort. But in the end, these are simply two worldviews that end up at the same point: a profound appreciation of the unexpected moment. Prior to the moment, they will predict differently, and after the moment, they will explain differently, but in the end, philosophically, we’re after the same basic thing. And the hard truth is that, unless we are GM’s, there’s a level at which the narrative we prefer to see played out is basically a personal choice that affects nothing but our enjoyment of the game.

I do want to note, though, in conclusion, that I do not mean this final statement as a defense of anti-SABR positions. Indeed, I think that the basic resolution of the dialectic of luck shows that taking an "anti" stance, at all, misses the point. I advocate strongly and consistently for advanced statistics, much to the chagrin of my friends and relatives. But that does not mean that I’d attack, say, my dad for goggling over Ryan Howard’s RBI’s – that’s his deal, and it’s how he explains a game that is, at its core, inexplicable. And I think, at core, most SABR-folks are like me – pretty generous and willing to live and let live, while keeping a serious eye on the evolution of how one sees the game*. This attitude is not, however, shared by the mainstream baseball media. The sheer number of articles that ridicule and attack sabermetrics through ad hominems and condescension testifies to this, and I find this terribly problematic.

Indeed, if we take anything from what is, like all but the most rigorous philosophical/theoretical analyses, a roundabout and meandering affair, we might say that a dialectical analysis of luck in baseball shows us one central fact: that the game is built, like most things in life, on contradictions. Furthermore, we might just as easily glean from our use of the dialectic method that these contradictions are not and cannot ever be stable – each gesture or assertion has its own contradiction built into it. It is the very quality of sabermetrics to actually account for and embrace this contradiction that sets it apart from the attacks on the anti-SABR side of things. The simple disavowal that playoffs resist statistical prediction is a self-conscious admission and critique of the limits of sabermetric thinking; on the other side, grit, hustle, and effort can and do account for anything, and there is no self-awareness to go around. In this regard, what we might take finally from this analysis is that the argument ought not to be considered as those who are right versus those who are wrong, because their being wrong (or right for that matter) is beside the point. We ought not even lump all of the anti-luck folks into one boat. Rather, we should argue against the general tendency to disavow self-aware thinking by way of insult. In this regard, sabermetrics is not revolutionary because it’s statistical, though that is certainly part of it; sabermetrics is revolutionary and worth thinking about because it identifies and locates, instead of presupposing, limits to our collective understanding of baseball – it is aware of the fact that part of the beauty of the game is that you cannot know what will happen next. If anything is in danger of being lost, it is that sense of not knowing that so galls people like Murray Chass, Bill Conlin, Alan Hirsch, Mike Tully, or Mike Celzic, or whoever. In the end, and in what is by far the most important sabermetric insight, not everything can or should be made logically consistent, and to try and imagine baseball as simply a series of narrativized sequential moments robs the sport of what actually makes it not only a tremendous game, but also such a potent metaphor for life: the vagaries and uncertainties of luck.

*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.