Out of reach – context

Ah, fine piece by Joe Posnanski about context in baseball.

It’s this context that we think exists in football, but can’t access.

Some nice quotes:

I think that, in many ways, baseball arguments come down to context. I hear all the time about how baseball fans are “stat people” and “anti-stat people,” but I don’t think that dividing line exists. I’ve never met a big baseball fan who didn’t care about baseball stats. Ever. I’m not even sure how you can BE a big baseball fan without caring about stats. If someone asked, “How many hits did Pedroia have today?” what baseball fan would answer, “Oh, I don’t know, I didn’t count those”?

Of course, it is true that many baseball fans don’t care about ADVANCED stats — any stats that they view as unnecessarily complicated or beside the point — but they still care about stats. The most virulent anti-stat people I know are often the first to reminisce about Ted Williams’ .406 average or Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA, or to rage about the tainting of Hank Aaron’s and Roger Maris’ home run records.

I can tell you that my friends who don’t like the new baseball statistics aren’t anti-stat. They are — and I say this with great affection, because these are my friends — they are anti-context. They like their statistics to be uncomplicated. Palpable. They like baseball when wins express a pitcher’s ability to win games, where RBIs count the audaciousness of a batter with runners on base, where a .300 batting average represents excellence at the plate. They are not especially interested in how those numbers (and the players themselves) are affected by time, place, ballpark, luck, opportunities, the team around them, or anything else. In the words of another e-migo, Glenn Stout, from the Charlie Pierce Facebook thread: “Baseball is an art, not a science.”

But there are those of us who think that baseball has at least a little science in it. We like to poke behind curtains.

An example: PETCO Park in San Diego is probably the toughest hitting park in baseball right now. It’s a big park, anyway, and the sea air and low altitude smother batted balls. It’s a tough hitter’s park. So what? Well, I would argue that as long as PETCO Park is this tough on hitters, it will be very difficult — nearly impossible, really — for a Padres hitter to win the MVP award. They’ve been playing in PETCO since 2004, and one Padres hitter has finished in the Top 5 of the MVP voting (Adrian Gonzalez finished fourth in 2010). As long as that park stifles hitters to this extent, I would guess that a Padres hitter will not win an MVP award.

Now move 1,163 miles east to Texas. The Ballpark at Arlington might be the best hitting ballpark in baseball. It’s certainly right around the best. And since they built the Ballpark at Arlington in 1994, Texas Rangers players have won FIVE MVP awards. Yeah. Five. That’s more than the Red Sox and Yankees combined over that time. I’ll repeat that in case you missed it. Since 1994, the Texas Rangers have won more MVP awards than the Red Sox and Yankees combined.

Context in football is a mess. Every player plays in a certain system that turns him into a certain type of player; some players thrive the better their teammates, others really don’t.  Ultimately football is a team game, which makes it extremely difficult to untangle who exactly is contributing what, especially considering things like positioning, hugely important but difficult for a fan not privy to a player’s instructions to appreciate.

I think we can use stats a little.  Not so long ago Dickson Etuhu was criticised for constantly giving the ball away.  Since we’ve used stats to prove that he doesn’t do this at all, the criticism has moved onto “he doesn’t pass forward enough” which may very well be true but which paints him in a better light.  There are probably a lot of similar examples, but the point remains that we use stats to try to help us understand.  It’s hard, very hard to judge how good a footballer is, and since we all seem so desperate to do this, it seems sensible that we’d use as much evidence as we can lay our hands on in forming these opinions.

Or not.  Sometimes I wonder why we bother with all this.  I don’t go on Coldplay or RangeRover or Lorraine Kelly forums to argue about their merits – why do so with football?   Sadly, I think we’re all in too deep.   Life is not interesting enough to forget about football between matches.  Paul Hayward, the fine Telegraph journalist, recently tweeted a question: “Why do you all follow us for free information if you dislike us (football journalists) so much?”.  He had a point – journalist bashing is annoying – but a wider consideration is that we take these things in simply because we can.   We pass a pretty girl on the street and our eyes wander for a few mili-seconds.  This doesn’t enrich our life but something deep within our biology causes the eyes to drift that way.  In the same kind of way, we devour football content, we argue about silly football things, because we can, it’s there.  If it all went away tomorrow our lives would not be any worse off.  But it’s there so we consume it, over and over and over.  I often think that if I devoted all the thinking time that currently goes on football to something like the financial markets I might well be able to earn some money, but I don’t and I won’t.

Anyway.  QPR away.  Yeesh.

One thought on “Out of reach – context

  1. Posnanski is correct. Really I think that people like what they are used to, and they grew up with RBI and it’s one of the ways they understand the game. But RBI was a controversial stat when it was first introduced, and rightly so, because people immediately saw the ways in which it is flawed. Yet it won. OBP was hardly focused on 2 decades ago, but now even supposed stat-haters use it alongside AVG. I like when people tell me they do not like stats but prefer the human side of the game, as if someone other than humans are generating these stats. I suspect that what they really mean is that they like the myth–the myth more than real, human story. Some of Steven Jay Gould’s baseball writings have always stuck with me and he made the point that a deep understanding of stats can allow you to better see some of the superhuman events that take place. I think the two are the same thing–stats are just a different human narrative.

    And yes, while do we not need sport, or music or books for that matter, in the purest sense–sheesh, what is life without them? I know I need them!

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