Monday, July 2, 2007

Shyster as Guinea Pig

There's a PhD Candidate at U.C. Santa Barbara named Bob Ngo who is doing his dissertation on the social significance of the Sabermetric movement in professional baseball. A few weeks ago I filled out an online survey he was distributing over at Baseball Think Factory, and then took him up on his invitation to be an interview subject. The topic, according to his blog, was:

The motivations and the cultural practices of fans who participate in sports fandom in this way. One of the main data sources for this project will be interviews with people who consider themselves as Sabermetricians. In particular, I am looking to talk to people who spend their leisure time analyzing and creating advanced baseball statistics.

While I don't consider myself a "sabermetrician," and while my employer and my wife may take issue with what I consider to be my "leisure time," Bob didn't seem to mind and still wanted to interview me.

Today we spoke for about an hour about all things sabermetric. Like any good researcher he didn't put all of his cards out on the table for fear of influencing the interview, but I think I got a decent flavor of his research interests. The nexus of sports and culture is certainly the overarching theme, and my sense is that he's obviously interested in how one's appreciation of or participation in baseball is affected by the objective analysis and discussion of the game by what is more or less accurately described as a non-jock subculture. It's Bob's dissertation, but I hope he's also able to pinpoint the exact moment boys stopped wanting to be baseball players and started wanting to be general managers.

Like any good conversation, I think I was able to gain as much insight as I gave. Talking about this stuff for an hour made me realize that, though we scoff at the reductionist "jocks vs. geeks" construction of the sabermetric/non-sabermetric debate, there is an awful lot of truth to it. It's much more complicated than this of course, but it's undeniable that sabermetric guys gain so much of their (our?) motivation from the thrill of being able to gain a level of expertise and status within the game despite never having played it, while the old guard's resistance has an awful lot to do with its fear that their traditional value proposition -- "I played the game, therefore I know it better than anyone" -- is obsolete.

BizBall: Lastly, the Indians recently hired one of my Baseball Prospectus colleagues, Keith Woolner, and I know that Vince Gennaro has worked with the Indians in the past. How do you approach the use objective analysis along with the advice from your scouting department? Some say that it is a black and white area, and it clearly isn’t…

Shapiro: That’s the biggest mistake. I risk the temptation to brand us as one type of organization and just call it a balanced organization. My philosophy has always been: Why limit yourself to one type of data? Why not seek to get the best information in every area? What we start to do is seek out the best objective analysis available and then frame it properly and utilize it. To seek out the best subjective nalysis or scouting information available then frame that and utilize that in decisions. Medical; personality; and psychological; financial – all those variables that exist within a decision making framework. Then with the creative, or when the artistic side of that comes in, that is how you weigh those variables in the decision making process.

Makes perfect sense. His comments also underscores why I find the rhetoric about the sabermetric "revolution" or about it being a "movement" to be quite silly. Movements are for people who smoke thin cigarettes and worry about things like intellectual purity and being co-opted while slurping overly-complicated coffee drinks. While it has brought forth amazing insights and has changed the game for the better, sabermetrics is just a tool in the tool kit, not a movement. It is much smaller than the game itself and will ultimately be absorbed by it, which will redound to the benefit of both baseball and sabermetrics. Rather than poo-poo this co-option over espresso, right-thinking sabermetricians will applaud it over overpriced beers at a ballpark.

But maybe that's just my opinion. Maybe you have a different one. In either case, if you fancy yourself a sabermetrician, Bob Ngo wants to know about it. You can reach him at, or through his dissertation web site. He doesn't seem to bite.