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De Prophundis: How We Blog and Why

Is aggressively rational pessimism really good critique anymore? Or are we caught in an echo chamber?

"But doctor, I am Pagliacci!"
"But doctor, I am Pagliacci!"

Let's be honest with ourselves for a minute: the reason I'm on the masthead here at The Good Phight is not for my blindingly insightful statistical analysis. Nor is it for my creative shuffling of roster parts in the interest of finding plausible trades. It's neither for my polemic approach to the front office, nor is it for my diligent eye in following Phillies news and updates. Heck, there's a guy who does poetry way better than I do on this site! So what's the purpose of Liz bringing me on board lo these many moons ago? At a guess, it might have something to do with the philosophical verve I bring to the table. This is chiefly a product of my day job, but if my delving into Kant in order to explain the sublimity of the infield fly rule can entertain even one lost soul on the internet, then by god, I'm glad to have done it.

So it's with this in mind that I want to start a (pseudo) regular discussion not about baseball, but about the discourse and thinking that surrounds our appreciation of baseball. More simply, and at the risk of sounding super pretentious, I'm interested in how blogs think. What should we expect and what can we expect from the vast array of voices in the Philly "blogosphere?"

Right or wrong, this isn't a question we're really asking about our friends in the material media. And this is largely due to an issue of genre: as I see it, you can expect much of the same from the Inquirer, Delco Times, and the Daily News because each paper is attempting to produce essentially similar commodities. Even the electronic home of our friends in the mainstream media -- -- has been largely predictable in this regard. These more established media hubs distribute information that is determined by access and winnowed down by the promise of profit: there's nothing really wrong with this, but it's an important limitation to the genre. Along with the ever-present tyrant of the deadline, these limitations produce a tight schedule of content that errs by necessity, if not desire, on quantity over quality: lots of quotes from managers and players; lots of primers for trade and signing speculation; lots of opinion pieces on the state of the team. We tend to expect a limited number of gems (Joe Posnanski, for instance, wrote for years for the KC Star before moving on to CBS Sports), but we can kind of anticipate minimal content and low-hanging fruit greedily consumed in the comments sections. Technological advances aside, this is not hugely different than the sports media of the past 30-40 years: at times transcendent in quality, but generally fairly predictable. Thus the "best shape of their lives" memes and predominance of "good clubhouse guy" as a positive character trait.

And this is why we want to put a lot of stock in the blogging communities of the moment. Whether your focus is on conglomerate groups like our very own SBNation, neo-authorities like Fangraphs, or solo acts like Bill Baer's Crashburn Alley, there's a kind of optimism surrounding the content on the internet. Yes, there are pits that shall not be named, but in general, the lifting of profit, circulation, and strict deadlining as central (if still present) motives has encouraged innovation among a group of writers that are quickly shedding the "amateur" label. Despite a general lack of clubhouse access, blogs are producing new and exciting writing, not just for the sake of content, but for the sake of pushing the discourse around baseball forward. But there is a risk in all of this bliss, namely, the chance that we're all simply gladhanding one another to an uncritical consensus.

To back up for a second, let me urge that consensus is not necessarily the enemy of innovation. Far from a sort of Ayn Randian lionization of "The Individual Genius Against the Deadening Horde of Organization," I think innovation on the internet, due to any bloggers somewhat unavoidable pseudo-anonymity, aligns more with Karl Marx's vision of critique. I realize, if you've read basically anything else I've written for TGP, that this might seem a bit convenient for my own point-of-view, but it holds up. Marx famously wrote (in a not-as-famous letter to his friend Arnold Ruge) that his vision of critique was not only wide-ranging, but also necessarily dynamic. In defining the "task confronting us at present," Marx insists upon "the ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless in both the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be." In other words, Marx sees critique not as a solution that one comes to -- what he calls "raising" a "dogmatic banner" -- but as a continual process of difficult and challenging discovery.

You don't have to imagine that this process leads to the economic utopia that Marx all-too-briefly imagines in his own thinking in order to embrace this version of critique. In fact, you don't even need to imagine that the criticism has to be as wide-ranging as Marx did himself. A group of people, committed to the same basic interest (say, the Phillies), engage in a wide-ranging questioning and critique of every assumption that people have about this interest. This vision of critique doesn't imply an individual against the world, then, but a group of enthusiastic skeptics who question assumptions, both the assumptions of the "general masses" as well as their own. This is the spirit that launched sabermetrics, that is behind much of the technological innovation that we take for granted, and that often finds itself behind the best critical and philosophical thought. We find accountability in our thinking because we know that our comments will be treated as seriously and as critically as anyone else's.

This is the ideal of blogging, as I see it. But the reality is somewhat different, deeply complex and not easily defined. As the nascent exploration of statistical analysis expanded into a more widely recognized ideology -- helped along by excellent work like Michael Lewis' Moneyball; the blog Fire Joe Morgan; and the rise of stat-based communities like Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and others -- the negative response by more mainstream writers created a "Them vs. Us" mentality. This mentality has gradually solidified into a binary of "smart" fan perspective versus "stupid" or "traditional" fan perspective. Thus, we find ourselves tending toward the bad kind of communalism, tempted to reject stringent self-critique in favor of satisfying dogmatism: "Ryan Howard has always been terrible;" "Ruben Amaro, Jr is an idiot;" "The Phillies are going to fail as long as they refuse to employ statistical analysis;" "The team will either sell everything in a failed attempt at relevancy or fail to sell effectively because they just don't understand how to operate in the 21st century."

To be clear, though, my concern is not with the truth of these claims; I have banged the drum against management many a time. Amaro does not seem terribly competent, and the Phillies likely will be operating at a disadvantage until they employ better metrics. My concern is instead with the laissez-faire attitude toward employing these claims as analysis. That articles detailing Ryan Howard's recent hot streak, or lending gravity to Cole Hamels' recent cold streak, or attempting to defend Amaro's handling of the 2012 trade deadline can be shot down, respectively, with "LOL 5/125," "LOL BABIP," "LOL Michael/Delmon Young," suggests not only that we're living in a team-wide dark age, but also that we've allowed our own discourse about the team to suffer as well. To become content and comfortable with easy narratives or pat "sabermetric" identities as "Smart Fans" simply dilutes the discourse and sinks us into the dogmatism we should be trying to avoid with our every intellectual step.

This is the problem I hope to work out further -- a kind of mission statement for the future updates of De Prophundis (the name of which, takes its inspiration from here). I am, however grandiose it might sound, hoping to produce some of this lost ruthless critique in this column. As you'll find, however, the critique will not be polemic, but fairly ambiguous in its judgment. Nor will this be purely Phillies' centric. From the statistical assault of Bill Baer at Crashburn to the almost supernaturally positivist Wendy Thurm at Fangraphs, what we'll find is that there's as much to like about these intelligent, creative thinkers as there is to critique. The easy thing would be to go attack Crossing Broad; the hard thing is looking at our own allies in thought and asking, " this really right?"

If that question sounds simple, it's because it kind of is. But it is also uncomfortable. If TGP has a systemic strength, I would say it's the diversity of our writers, and the necessary-if-collegial disagreement among the masthead. We're not united in ideology, for sure, and this allows for a process of thinking about the team, not a fixed intellectual end-point. To reassert this process would be to intentionally trouble our stable "identity" as smart fans and to acknowledge the work that still needs to be done in considering this complicated and wonderful sport. It would be to go beyond the particular critiques of sabermetrics as "needing better fielding metrics" or "needing a better account of catcher defense" and instead approach the problem systemically, asking not "What can we do to make people smarter baseball fans?" but instead, "What does it actually mean to be a smarter baseball fan?"

Hopefully we'll start to get some hints here.