Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sentiment and Statistic

I watched Bull Durham last night. Check that: I watched a handful of clips of Bull Durham last night, because I found large swathes of it just totally insufferable. If Bull Durham really is the "best baseball movie of all time," then that's far more an indictment of the truly awful baseball movies that have been produced throughout modern history than it is a testament to Bull Durham's greatness. Bull Durham gave us a couple of iconic characters and a little bit of insight into the "other side" of professional baseball...set against a backdrop of softcore porn, bad 80s music and horrendously unrealistic action sequences. As a movie, it embodies the sentimental 80s-90s Hollywood bullshit I pretty much despise, the kind of writing and storytelling that has forever been put to rest, I'd like to think, by the rise of indie filmmakers around the same time. (I'd even go so far as to say that as far as Ron Shelton sports movies featuring two jocks and a girl, White Men Can't Jump is the better flick. But maybe that's just me.)
Coincidentally, last night was also when I finally got my ass over to FanGraphs to look up wOBA. Until then, I had been aware only that it was an offensive stat that looked a little like OBP. What it is, of course, is essentially OPS, but scaled properly for the value of each outcome. That explanation makes perfect sense to me, and I can easily believe simply from that single-sentence summary that wOBA is a very useful comparative stat.

But even understanding that - even knowing that this stat had perfect utility - I still found the number staring off the page at me foreign in some Luddite way, a disembodied decimal that carried no inherent meaning. I think that's a big reason why throughout my life my submission to newer, and no doubt superior, statistics has been so gradual. I know I'm hardly the first to make this point, but it remains true that numbers like wOBA and FIP exist outside of the game itself. The reason that batting average was the predominant statistic in the first hundred years of baseball was that it involved such a simple calculation: it's easy enough to go back to the dugout after a 2-for-5 day and say, "Hey, I'm batting .400!" On the other hand, could I ever sit in the dugout without pen or calculator and figure out my wOBA?

It's an obstacle of understanding: selfish ignorant pricks like me want to feel like they understand the stat they're quoting - I want to make it my stat, not Tom Tango or Bill James'. For years after I figured out OPS, that was my go-to stat - because, rightly or wrongly, I felt like I understand everything that went into its calculation. Even making the transition to OPS+ was irritating in that it involved deflecting that burden onto someone else's calculator - I understood that a 119 OPS+ was 19% above league average, but that calculation was something that I couldn't discern from the raw numbers, at least not without investing hours of my life into it. And for every inch that I am stuck in my ways, I'm a long way from the forty-year-old ex-ballplayer who's spent his whole life evaluating his career in a certain way.
Like Crash Davis. Who - let's be honest - is pretty much Sal Fasano. (Gotta tie this into the Jays somehow, right?) Kevin Costner may not have grown the Fu Manchu, but somehow you just know Annie would have loved it. And Sally-boy did hit 156 minor league HRs (and 47 major league ones), which doesn't quite add up to the made-up number of 246 in the film but, all things considered, is pretty damn close.

Anyway, I don't really know where this is going. Sal Fasano has his place, I guess, and so does Fangraphs. Or something...

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