Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 6, 2003
BASEBALL/WAR/POLITICS: Bill James, Sabermetrics, Conservatives, and Bloggers

Dr. Manhattan has a great post - with links aplenty -- discussing the influence of Bill James on the thinking of 'warbloggers' including yours truly. I can't agree more - when I first read the 1983 Abstract (I was 11), James taught me how to think critically, a skill I regularly employ in my baseball columns, my blogging on war and politics, and my day job as a litigator. No one outside my immediate family has had a more profound impact on my life.

Two points:

1. Dr. Manhattan argues that "When you consider his methodology and the amount of BS he hacked through, Bill James has a valid claim to be the first “anti-idiotarian.”" I'd agree that he fits the profile, but no way is James the first - while it depends how far back you want to go in your intellectual histories, George Orwell would fit that description to a T, and would probably also be cited as a direct inspiration by many in the blogosphere, most notably Andrew Sullivan. Not only did Orwell take a buzzsaw to cant of all types, but he often used the 'Fisking' modus operandi, quoting and methodically demolishing the foolish notions of even the highest and mightiest (read his assault on Leo Tolstoy's pamphlet on Shakespeare, where he starts off picking apart Tolstoy's reading of King Lear and winds up indicting Tolstoy's entire life).

2. I've long wanted to expand on the parallels between sabermetric baseball analysts and political conservative media:

+Both distrust and despise mainstream media, especially the NY Times and network talking heads and their tendencies to echo each others' smug assumptions.

+Both often refer derisively to "conventional wisdom".

+Both took to the Web early, seeking to connect with like-minded people alienated by the mainstream media.

+Both have a near-unshakeable faith in logic, a suspicion of emotional decisionmaking, and a belief that their ideas will ultimately triumph.

+Both tend to rely heavily on principles of basic economics and statistics, with a little Social Darwinism (not the racial type, but the basic idea that better ideas will invariably prevail) thrown in.

+Both are heavily populated by males age 25-40, who were heavily influenced by ideas that have a long pedigree (ask John McGraw or Bill Buckley) but that came of age in the 1980s.

+Both rely heavily on sarcasm, wit and other sometimes impolitic but entertaining methods common to 'outsiders,' due in part to a lack of connections with those on the 'inside.'

+Both are often denounced by the 'mainstream' on charges of being disconnected from reality.

+The ideas of either are rarely confronted on the merits by mainstream analysts who take them seriously.

Comments

You post some interesting points. It's too bad that so many of them are incorrect. James is not overly sarcastic or derisive. He is respectful and self-deprecating, always admitting that he could be wrong. In this, he differs greatly from idealogues of any stripe. Indeed, he always seeks to find the truth instead of the idealogy. Conservatives are committed to logic? As a part-time logician, this is stunning news to me. The disconnect between either analytic or empirical thought required to maintain a conservative idealogy is close to that of Maoists arguing that they were helping the majority of the Chinese people. Finally, many of the comments about "outsider status" or the main demographic also apply equally well to extreme leftists, hip hop fans, "metrosexuals," and a number of other groups.

Posted by: Bucky at October 1, 2003 2:01 PM

Both have a near-unshakeable faith in logic, a suspicion of emotional decisionmaking, and a belief that their ideas will ultimately triumph.

Yeah, rightwingers and logic, they go together like cigarettes and cheese.

Posted by: Dick Hunter at October 28, 2003 8:52 PM

Came to this blog recently, and to this entry late, so who knows if anyone will ever see this comment.

It seems to me that anyone claiming to be an "anti-idiotarian" will always be popular with college underclassmen, and that this has been going on for years, long before blogs, James, and even Orwell. Young folks who fancy themselves as owning big brains are always on the lookout for someone who promises to show them how to puncture the conventional wisdom. Usually it starts with someone course and ridiculous, like Ayn Rand, and moves to romanticized and shallow readings of Nietzsche. But really, it's been there in the Western tradition since Socrates at least. Socrates was the Athenians' gadfly, and Rush is ours. Oh boy.

The biggest similarity between Bill James and the bloggers is that they're both outside the usual media/publishing industry and that resentment is often a big motivator of fans of both. Bill James didn't have press credentials at first, and didn't subscribe to the conventional wisdom of MLB front offices and newspapermen alike. Bloggers likewise generally did not report their own news, but instead commented on them. They didn't subscribe to the editorial preferences of newspapers and news mags when it came to which stories to draw attention to. That's an interesting development, but both the sabermatricians and the bloggers and prone to inflated views of their own worth and knowledge vis-a-vis that of the traditional sources. If only baseball teams, sports page editors, the NYTimes and politicians would realize how stupid they are and start listening to the sabermatricians and bloggers, there'd be heaven on earth and every team would win the world series every year.

Further, Bill James and many sabermetricians (Baseball Prospectus and many of the contributors to discussions at Baseballprimer.com) are forever tempted by a sort of positivism and the naive view of the social sciences as a discipline on the cusp of being able to predict social behavior, if only they can keep figuring out how to select data. It was my sense that James got away from this as he advanced along his series of Abstracts, esp. when he put out the first Historical Abstract. E.g., player rankings were based largely on votes of respected observers instead of only on the output of his formulae; the opinions of past experts (sportswriters of the past) became valued evidence (e.g., using MVP, Cy Young votes and all-star game appearances as evidence of the value of a career). It seemed with the new Abstract and the Win Shares book that some of James' crankiness and positivism had returned.

So that's a little harsh, as both sabermetrics and blogs have both been positive developments. (re. baseball, the teams that completely ignore sabermetrics are going to have a much harder time competing with the growing number of teams that do employ the new analytical tools.) But there are a lot of obnoxious apples out there.

Posted by: Miko at January 12, 2004 1:12 AM

I'm waiting for Bill James, the self proclaimed genius, to speak on his idiotic support of Pete Rose's claim that he never bet on baseball. Seems to me like logic failed him there. He also owes John Dowd an apology, but people who are convinced they are always right rarely apologize, and ever rarer mean it. Heck, I'm wrong often, and loudly too. I try to apologize even louder.

Posted by: John Lease at January 21, 2004 11:57 AM

Blowhards blow hard.

Posted by: Tom at January 27, 2004 2:34 PM

I don't understand why you feel conservatives are so victimized. Conservatives control all the federal barnches of government. If you feel out of the mainstream, it might have something more to do with you.

Sabermatricians tend to be apolitical, I think. Not being blinded by ideology is kind of the point. Unfortunately, the government we have now doesn't seem to care about the facts at all.

Bill James for president!

Posted by: Ed at February 18, 2004 12:54 AM

You forgot one more parallels between sabermetric baseball analysts and warbloggers, Crank:

+ Both are comprised of scared little moral gymnasts who have hijacked a national tragedy to provide eternal justification for their unravelling kill-fuck explosion in Iraq and God-knows-where-next.

Oh, wait. That's just sabermetric baseball analysts. Didn't mean to impugn warbloggers. Sorry 'bout that.

Posted by: Demogenes Aristophanes at April 14, 2004 9:21 PM

"who knows if anyone will ever see this comment."

Well, here it is June and I saw it...

The progression -- or evolution, or change, however you'd like to term it -- of James's thinking is fairly open. Fo one instance that comes to mind, he first evalued "Tinker to Evers to Chance" as worthy of the Hall of Fame, based on the opinons of contemporaries. The doggerel, he noted, was capturing and describing a zeigeist, not creating such opinion. But at the time, the record of "opinions" was the data at hand.

Later James developed stats to attempt to quantify such matters. The "quality start" became a pitchers "Game Score". He worked out on base percentages. He developed tools to put opinion into broader perspective, and across eras.

As he refined his measurements, he reversed himself about Tinker, Evers, and Chance, among other matters. But then he did so publicly, citing the reasons.

That is honorable, I think.

Posted by: pouncer at June 2, 2004 1:59 PM

"who knows if anyone will ever see this comment."

Well, here it is June and I saw it...

The progression -- or evolution, or change, however you'd like to term it -- of James's thinking is fairly open. Fo one instance that comes to mind, he first evalued "Tinker to Evers to Chance" as worthy of the Hall of Fame, based on the opinons of contemporaries. The doggerel, he noted, was capturing and describing a zeigeist, not creating such opinion. But at the time, the record of "opinions" was the data at hand.

Later James developed stats to attempt to quantify such matters. The "quality start" became a pitchers "Game Score". He worked out on base percentages. He developed tools to put opinion into broader perspective, and across eras.

As he refined his measurements, he reversed himself about Tinker, Evers, and Chance, among other matters. But then he did so publicly, citing the reasons.

That is honorable, I think.

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