SABR Dance

I don’t like baseball, I’m afraid.  My relation to all sports is somewhat checkered, however, so it might be helpful to specify which of baseball’s attributes particularly put me off.  I don’t find it terribly athletic.  I dislike the asymmetrical role played by pitchers, particularly when the pitching rotation makes it difficult to compare a team’s performances against common opponents.  And, of course, it’s as boring as watching crows crap.

What raises this dislike from the level of petulant indifference to caustic denunciation—other than having to publicly fund a for-profit baseball stadium, that is—is the thuggish conflation of baseball mysticism with nostrums of national identity that deters one from applying too much analytical rigor to the history of baseball (and America) while at the same time makes one feel accursed for having missed its halcyon days.

It was therefore with grim delight that I discovered the field of sabermetrics, which purports to challenge traditional measures of skill in baseball.  My discovery was occasioned by the recent publication of Moneyball, which studies the application of sabermetrics by the management of the Oakland Athletics.  After reading about it in a critical discussion of Moneyball on Slate, sabermetrics struck me as nothing so much as how a min-maxing gamer would approach baseball.  Indeed, a New Yorker profile of Bill James hails him as sabermetrics’ "founding nerd."

Detractors of sabermetrics lament that its widespread application would make baseball more technical and (somehow) less exciting.  Walks are boring, stolen bases are fun, goes the argument.  Perhaps.  But if the geeks are right and empiricism comes to crowd out hoary notions of "the fundamentals," baseball fans who prefer their arguments untainted by scientific rigor are invited to follow a sport where no meaningful objective standard for comparing player performance exists and where discussions of player merit remain squarely in the realm of visceral froth.

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