Monday, March 10, 2008

Morrissey Goes Luddite

The Trib's Rick Morrissey doesn't like Baseball Prospectus' projection of the White Sox' season and, rather than register his disagreement in rational terms, decides to turn it into an anti-computer rant:
If you saw the piece about Baseball Prospectus' 1008 predictions in Sunday's Tribune then you know the publication's computer has the Sox going 77-85 and finishing third in the AL Central, and the Cubs going 91-71 and winning the NL Central. I know as much about computers as I do about astronomy, but I believe the computer term for Baseball Prospectus' Sox prediction is "fatal error." . . .

. . . Do feelings count? Or hunches? Where is there room in computers for the inexplicable? Does the fact that it's the Cubs' 100th season since their last World Series title mean anything in the computations? Does it mean anything that the Cubs could be driven by the challenge of a century of dryness or, conversely, that they could cave in under the pressure of it and finish 10 games below .500?
The funny thing about this is that Morrissey (a) agrees with the heartless computer's prediction about the Cubs; and (b) admits that BP's 2007 prediction for the White Sox was "dead on" despite the fact that, at least to Morrissey, their 72 wins was "one of the shocks of the baseball season."

His only reason for disagreeing with BP is that he doesn't think they take the White Sox' "heart" and "pride" into consideration. Even if we are to grant him that those things matter, shouldn't he at least be required to explain why he thinks the Sox didn't have those things last year?

Whatever the case, this sort of ad hominem jazz has no place in a major daily. BP isn't the Oracle at Delphi. They're pretty up front about showing their work and explaining why they come down where they do. If he disagrees with their projections, Morrissey should engage them in rational terms.

But you know, there is a reason why he doesn't, and I have a feeling it has little to do with his feelings about computers or Baseball Prospectus. Rather, it's because he's writing for an ink-and-paper daily that has very strict requirements about word count and column inches. If Morrissey was blogging, he could have simply said in 200 words or so that he thinks the White Sox will turn it around this year, which is really the point of the column. Since he needs to fill space, however, he is required to come up with the whole computers-are-teh-evil! thing, which is where all of the idiocy creeps in.

It's ironic, then, that bloggers get criticized for not having an editorial filter. Seems to me that more often than not, the medium which provides that filter does more damage than a given blogger's typos do.


Chris H. said...

I read "traditional" sports journalists less and less, because it's just not good for my blood pressure. I read articles like Morrissey's, and I just don't "get" it. Obviously their job is not actual analysis, and the more asinine comments about "statfreaks" and "seamheads" they make, the more I wonder if it's all just supposed to be hyperbole and name-calling.

Hell, I'm having a problem even reading FJM anymore. It just upsets me too much. Just take Morrissey and Plaschke and Mariotti and Paige and get them all together. Tell them the Earth is about to be destroyed and that we all have to evacuate, and that it's vital that wherever we end up, we need to be sure we have histrionic rabble-rousing sports journalists there.

Pack 'em all onto a rocket and launch, telling them, "Oh yeah, we'll be right behind you."

Problem solved.

Justin Zeth said...

But then you remember: They're cranky because they're losing, and they know they're losing.

Anonymous said...


I wonder if a lot of the print journalists are looking at the money their brethren are making on the ESPN shout fests and thinking "Hey, if I just start screaming in print, pretty soon I'll be on PTI and be pulling down mid six figures."

Money talks, and the devolution of print journalists has to be caused by something.

Joist said...

Chris is right, all of these hostile, irrational columnists drive me up the wall. Thank God I've found enough smart bloggers and writers to turn to when a piece like Morrissey's or that Cincinnati Enquirer one really gets my blood boiling.

I personally think the funniest part of Morrissey's rant (maybe outside of his concession that the 2007 projection was right on) is his question, "Where is there room in computers for the inexplicable?" to argue that the prediction was...inexplicable?

You would think that he's railing against the very practice of making season predictions, but I don't see him bashing, for example, Sports Illustrated's Baseball Preview issue, which is based on far less empirical data.

What's ridiculous is that, within those same Tribune pages, Dave Van Dyck, one of the Sox beat writers, writes rationally about the PECOTA prediction. He doesn't pretend to fully understand it, so, in an unprecedented act of sports journalism, he actually seeks out one of the people who helped create PECOTA, and then simply asks him what the projections are based upon.

Crazy, huh?

Conrad said...

To be fair to "journalists" (remember Bill James' nugget when "sports writers" became "journalists"), they write for a mass audience that, when you take into account ALL the people who by the tabloid dailies, etc., to read the back pages, aren't very metrically inclined. Therefore, the "journalists" are attempting to connect with that population, where the mass don't understand sabermetrics, and more importantly, don't WANT to. The "journalists," and this is why people, like me who read Shyster and others, consider these "journalists" both "lazy" and "stupid". They are pandering to the lowest common denominator, but pandering to the LCD is their job. Column's like Morrisey's THEMSELVES are self-fulfilling, so I don't let it boil my blood too much. I just think they're stupid.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why we get worked up over the fact that the traditional media covers baseball in a traditional manner.

Ask yourself, who typically signs up to follow a team around the circuit for mid five figures tops? My guess is that thoughtful types by in large are being thoughtful on other topics (like say, working at a large corporate law firm for 200K a year) rather than working the beat. Accordingly, conventional wisdom served by spoon is the order of the day when it comes to baseball coverage.

If, say, Ohio's largest daily paper offered him a job writing about the Indians and other baseball news, would he take it? My guess is that the answer would be "no" unless he was able to moonlight.

The other question is exactly what sort of audience there is for more nuanced analysis. I think that market is well served already by certain traditional media voices like Neyer and Law and the website crowd. Is it a good risk for traditional media to start writing to an audience that makes up the minority of the baseball loving public?

Shyster said...

$200K a year? Man, I need to ask for a raise!

I don't know that "nuanced" analysis is required here. In my mind there's nothing wrong with thinking that the White Sox are going to win 100 games this year or that BP's computers are full of crap, or anything else, really, as long as some sort of evidence can be brought to bear.

Indeed, the idea that an argument should be supported by some evidence -- and not totally contradicted by some evidence as Morrissey's is vis-a-vis BP's 2007 prediction -- isn't exaclty an esoteric notion. I would hope that the Tib's op-ed writers are basing their views re: the latest tax proposal on evidence, not reactionary thinking, so I don't see how requiring Morrissey to do the same places him in some niche market in which only Neyer and Law have room to operate.

Brian said...

anon ~ I would hope that a beat writer wouldn't dumb down his column because his/her perception is that their audience can't handle something smart. I would hope that's not the case, and I don't think it is. Rather, I think it's more likely that they haven't grasped this "new" idea and their way of dealing with it is to ridicule it. And let's face it, ridiculing something that you don't understand is a lot easier than educating yourself.

Jake said...

Don't forget to vote in the "How many wins will the White Sox have?" poll in the linked article!


Anonymous said...

Huh, hasn't TH received the memo on hyper-inflationary associate compensation?

I think Morrissey has explained why he thinks the Sox will rebound:

"I believe the Sox are embarrassed by what happened last season and, not to belabor the point, there is nothing in a computer's innards that can measure the effects of that. But it is one of the great motivators in the human makeup."

His article doesn't even refute that BP's predictive models don't carry weight. His article simply claims that BP's model doesn't account for the eye of the tiger.

In essence, he thinks he can spot a statistical outlier before it occurs. And he think thats "heart" accounts for such outliers. This thought is pretty dumb. Its an argument agaisnt evidence-- not an argument that can be supported by evidence.

I think the more nuanced article would have run along the lines of "the numbers say the White Sox will win 70 games. My heart tells me that they won't lose 70. I don't care what the numbers say. Smart ball rules."

Richard Dansky said...

So by the time Ozzie's through with them, the White Sox are gonna eat lightning, crap thunder, and still lose 90 games?