In Which Two Canadians Fight About a Sport That is Not Hockey
Earlier this month, Grantland baseball contributor Chris Jones wrote that Barry Zito was destroyed by lofty expectations. Grantland baseball nerd Jonah Keri disagreed with Jones’ reasoning. Below is the e-mail exchange that followed between Grantland’s favorite Canadians.
I hope you’ve been well, my ruthlessly efficient cyborg friend. I couldn’t help but notice that you wrote a story for Grantland earlier this week that used math and facts to contradict my more whimsically incorrect approach to baseball writing — particularly with regard to Barry Zito, a man and a pitcher for whom I have an almost unlimited affection. Your story included many truths — such as the statistically verifiable assertions that I’m both Canadian and a great writer — but I have to confess that I’m growing a little tired of the notion that everything in the universe can be explained with numbers.
For instance, exactly no women have given up their virginity to me, which might suggest I’m physically repellant or simply went through an unfortunate Straight Edge phase during that period in my life when I might have had the best chance to have sex with the previously sexless. And yet I know in my heart that I would have been a tender and memorable lover.
I have no proof. I just have faith. It’s that faith that made me write that Bartolo Colon is on the precipice of collapse (I still stand by that prediction) and that Zach Britton represents hope for the Baltimore Orioles (I now understand that Baltimore is where hope goes to die). And that same faith makes me feel almost certain that Barry’s contract ultimately did in his head. While your work shows that he was already in decline before he put his name on that $126 million contract, I’d also like to rely on the time I spent with Barry and our shared spiritual outlooks to guide my sense of things.
It’s not that I want to dismiss the numbers. I can understand why wins are a flawed statistic — although I would suggest that there have been very few terrible 300-game winners — and I see the value in a reasoned, scientific-based analysis, no question.
But for me, statistics are better suited to providing evidence rather than explanations. They do a good job of underscoring the what without necessarily helping with the how.
Can’t your FIPpiness demonstrate that Barry Zito isn’t the pitcher he once was, and my heart know that’s because his contract pushed him off balance?
Can’t we both be right?
P.S.: I wrote this e-mail while listening to Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper,” because only she can understand my pain.
When we first started batting this discussion around offline, you mentioned you might write a full-on rebuttal to my article, with the suggested title of “In Defense of Romance.” I found this an interesting choice of words. Here’s a passage from the original draft of my article:
Scientific advances, be they in baseball or other less awesome fields, ultimately come down to one goal: eliminating guesswork. That doesn’t mean we’ll know everything about baseball, or that all the fun and romance of the sport will be sucked away by three-dimensional cameras and spreadsheets. It just means that teams will be better equipped to make decisions when trying to build a championship team. And that we as fans will be better equipped to understand what our favorite team’s trying to do, and whether or not they’re likely to be right.
Now, I believe there’s plenty of fun and wonder and yes, maybe even a little romance to be had in gaining knowledge. If you want to go the virginity-losing route, there’s certainly something wondrous about … let’s say, discovering how it all works. Even a basement-dweller like myself would submit that learning stuff about baseball isn’t quite as sexy as coitus. But learning is still an amazing experience. What is life if not discovery? Discovery of new phenomena, or those we love, and of ourselves.
But OK, let’s say that learning is unromantic. And that sports should be about whimsy and good times, about shutting off your brain and letting the magic happen. Duder, I’m right there with you! Give me a sunny day, a couple of brews, and some good friends, and I’ll go nine innings (or four quarters, or three periods, or whatever unit of time they use in Calvinball) without thinking of a single stat. I’ll enjoy the aesthetics of the game, the good company, and, if it’s a stadium that doesn’t suck, a beverage that’s in or near the class of Anchor Steam. I can be all romance. Romance is wonderful. We should strive for it in almost every situation.
Just not in analysis. If you want to make an argument, you need some type of proof. It can be hard proof, or it can be anecdotal proof. Either way, though, it must stand up to scrutiny. You say that statistics are better at providing evidence rather than explanations, that they do a good job of underscoring the what without necessarily helping with the how.
Groovy, I get that. It might very well be that Barry Zito went from Cy Young winner to the fringes of baseball because he’s a sensitive soul. It’s conceivable that a highly trained athlete who had to overcome a lifetime of physical and psychological challenges to reach the pinnacle of his profession arrived at that pinnacle, then suddenly became a basket case. It’s possible that is what turned Barry Zito into a sixth starter who makes his team make up DL diagnoses. That it was not, in fact, the arduous physical process that pitching entails, the loss of velocity every pitcher eventually goes through, and ultimately the loss of effectiveness that consumes all but the very best arms in the game’s history. It’s possible. Not bloody likely, but possible.
The problem in this case is one of timing. The how in your argument is Scott Boras’ blue binder, the one he whipped out after the 2006 season, when Zito hit the free-agent market. Unfortunately, even a cursory look at virtually any number beyond won-lost record and ERA shows pretty clearly that Zito was a couple of years into a sharp slide by then. Those numbers might not have told us the how. But they sure as hell told us a lot about the what. And the when.
If you want to reframe your argument and say that Barry Zito saw The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in December 2003, was bitterly disappointed by Peter Jackson’s portrayal of Tolkien’s climactic oeuvre, and thus fell into a spiral of self-doubt, despair, and shitty curveballs, then good on ya. That would come closer to coinciding with Zito’s eroding results. It would be an argument one couldn’t possibly prove … nor refute.
Sooner than I might have expected, we’ve reached that point in our discussion when we find our hero — that’s me — backed into the Corner of Impossibility: You’re asking me to defend art with science, and I can’t. It’s why science always wins. Art can’t overcome the burden of proof, and I concede that point, absolutely, which is why I’d never claim that statistics are stupid. I understand their importance and their value. But that doesn’t mean I have to love them.
This will sound strange, but stick with me. I’m an atheist, and have been for as long as I can remember. Back in high school, I was asked to debate a minister, in front of my biology class, about evolution. I presented all of my carefully researched and well-documented science, from the voyages of Beagle on down, and made every possible rational argument against the existence of God and every other deity (including the fairly obvious argument that if there is a Higher Power, there can be only one). And the minister’s only Argument Against was that he believed otherwise. He had no real proof, of course. He could not rebut my case with any sort of fact-based evidence. If our debate had happened in front of a purely rational audience of 100 people, I would have won 100 minds.
But people think with their hearts, too.
And after that debate, if I’m being honest, I envied the minister and his allies. I envied his belief. I still do. It’s really hard to be an atheist. It’s hard to believe that life is just a series of accidents, that at the end of it is only darkness. It’s hard to have things go wrong and have only yourself to blame.
So I’ve found my small gods in other things. I see the constellations in one of Norman Mailer’s perfectly written paragraphs. I listen to “Montana” by Youth Lagoon and I believe in something like the divine. I am a man of deep feeling, and when I see people do beautiful things, I feel it in my chest. Barry Zito’s curveball was one of those beautiful things. When I first saw it and wrote about it, I thought for a long time how I might describe it. I ended up writing that “It dropped like a broken heart,” because that’s what I felt when I saw it.
It was his curveball that did me in, that made me a fall-down believer. I loved that he just snapped one off when he 7 years old and didn’t even really know what he’d done. I loved that no one — not even scientists — could really explain the physics of it. I loved that Barry himself had no rationale for his curveball. It just was. It had come out of him perfect and seamless, and that was how it remained. It was like some impossible magic.
I hate the idea that it’s gone, but I hate even more the idea that its vanishing can be scientifically explained. It’s not just that I don’t believe Barry’s arm has given out, the way you’ve argued — he still has a textbook four-beat delivery and he’s never been shoulder-sore and he’s hardly stressed it by throwing heat. It’s more that I refuse to accept that something so ethereal could be eroded by something as mundane as the physiology of the human arm.
Someone wrote a telling Facebook comment on my Zito piece: “Advanced statistics has killed the human interest baseball story.” I saw that, and I found myself nodding, which meant that pretty soon after, I found myself sad. Then I felt defiant. I felt like that minister in my biology class must have felt, immune to reason.
Because while it’s true that art can’t defend itself with science — and while it’s also true that science, by all rational rights, should almost always win — science can’t defend itself with art. You can’t use The Naked and the Dead or Youth Lagoon to prove anything chemical or physical; they’re arguments only on behalf of mystery. Yes, advanced statistics can explain a lot about a great many things, including baseball. But there will always be openings, gaps in the knowledge. Barry Zito’s curveball, when it reached its highest heights, created one of those gaps, and I submit that gap could only have been filled with belief.
My goodness, that Facebook comment makes me sad, too.
Here’s the thing: You have a gift. You’re a terrific storyteller. Your boxing piece about the dying art of the body blow? Tremendous. That was a case in which you used actual events, delved into some analysis, and still let excellent prose drive the narrative. I’m some guy pecking away at a keyboard. You are a writer.
It is a little more difficult to write a human-interest baseball story than it might be for other sports, because baseball is more easily quantifiable than any other sport. But it can absolutely be done.
Josh Hamilton’s journey from no. 1 pick to drug-addicted washout to MVP is extraordinary, and requires no math to tell it. Bartolo Colon’s far more unlikely resurrection still leaves me stupefied. I will grant that Colon’s story can be boiled down to an amazing leap in medical technology, if a writer wanted it that way. But it can still be told colorfully and beautifully, and FIP needn’t soil that tale. Even poor Ryan Vogelsong, whom I lump in with other pitchers about to get whacked by the Regression Fairy, has a story that goes well beyond numbers. Ten years ago, he was the prospect linchpin of the Jason Schmidt trade. He was out of baseball for five years. Now he’s backing Lincecum, Cain, and Bumgarner in the Giants’ quest to repeat as World Champions. That defies belief.
The question is can we marry great storytelling with analysis? Yes, I think we can. You talk to people, get to know them, get them to open up about their hopes and dreams and fears. You get them to reveal an injury no one else knew they had, or a messy divorce they kept quiet from the public, or a personal tragedy that threw their world off its axis. There you have the how. The results are the what. We just need to connect the two to make it work. And not in a post-hoc, doctoring-the-numbers-to-fit-the-narrative (or vice-versa) way. It has to be authentic.
Great storytelling takes hard work and good instincts and patience and perseverance. So does analysis. Do them separately, or combine the two. Just do them well.
Chris Jones is a Writer at Large for Esquire and is a regular contributor to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at @MySecondEmpire. Jonah Keri’s new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Follow him on Twitter at @JonahKeri.
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