Physicists spend a goodly amount of time searching for the unified theory of life, the universe, and everything.* I am not a physicist. But that does not stop me from searching for my own holy grail: the unified theory of baseball. To begin, I would like to direct your attention to this quote from a recent Chuck Klosterman ESPN column: “Baseball is mostly about tangible statistics, which drugs skew and invalidate[.]” Don’t worry—this isn’t another steroid column. Our focus is on the first half of that sentence. Now, combine that with a quote from Bill James featured in Moneyball: “...baseball statistics, unlike statistics in any other area, have acquired the power of language.” The implication of both of these quotes is that baseball is, at its heart, a numbers game. This is true, undoubtedly. Baseball’s famous numbers (56, 755, 73) are instantly recognizable in a way that The Stilt’s career point total is not.
It is no coincidence, then, that baseball has largely taken the lead in advanced statistical analysis. While sites like Football Outsiders and people like John Hollinger are attempting to (and in many ways, beginning to succeed) in creating an advanced numerical discussion of football and basketball, they are playing catch-up to the Baseball Prospectuses and Rob Neyers of the world. Baseball is steeped in numbers, even as VORP and EqA begin to take over for RBI and BA.
Unfortunately, we can’t watch the statistics on the field—we have to watch the players. An unfortunate (read: absurd) Murray Chass article in the New York Times a few weeks ago (which can be read here but I think it’s behind a subscription wall) ends with a painfully uninformed and sheltered diatribe against VORP. Mr. Chass took a beating online from sites like FJM as he should have, but his closing line wasn’t totally without merit: “People play baseball. Numbers don’t.”
This is obvious. But it points toward the big bridge left to cross in terms of baseball analysis (no, not defense, although we’re getting to that). We can’t quantify what’s fun to watch. In fact, in some cases that which is fun to watch does not jive with what leads to actually winning ball games. The stolen base is a good example. Anyone with an open mind at this point acknowledges that in many cases, the swiped bag is an unnecessary risk. Not all the time, of course, but playing the percentages you’re better off playing it safe on the bases. That’s how baseball teams should think: their job is to win games.
But we aren’t trying to win games. We’re trying to be entertained. Granted, winning is fun to watch—but only when one has an emotional stake in the outcome of the game. In situations where this is not the case (a random D-Backs-Marlins game, perhaps), we’re watching because it’s fun. And there’s no denying the fact that the stolen base is, indeed, fun. So is trying to stretch that double into a triple, even when Vlad is out in right fielding the ball after one hop off the wall. A lot of the more exciting plays in baseball happen because of plays that are, statistically, bad bets. Baseball, by its nature, is very much stop-and-start, so the more action that takes place while the ball is live, the more viscerally entertaining the game will be.
And then we have defense. There’s no stat for Endy Chavez (unless you draw a little star in your scorebook like I do). Defense is fun, it’s visceral, and it gives us Web Gems. But even with the glove, we have “fun” defense and “not fun” defense. If a defender is well-positioned because he’s got great scouts and only has to take two steps to his left to make the grab, we don’t think of it at all. But if our man ignores his scouts and just stands around, he might have to make some kind of absurd diving scoop. Playing stupid can be more fun to watch.
We’re left with two parts of what should be a whole: what’s entertaining, and what we know in our hearts is good baseball. They’re not always in conflict, but we confront this issue often enough that we must deal with it. Can we have fun watching what we know is bad?
One can more clearly picture this phenomenon on the level of individual player vs. that of the team. As much as we might know how valuable Kevin Youkilis can be, Juan Pierre is more fun to watch fly around the bases making questionable decisions (again, we’re speaking on a visceral, gut-reaction level, not that of the reasoned and rational). This is why the task falls to you: nominations are now open in the comments or via email for two All-Star teams. First, we have the All-Guilty-Pleasure squad. These are the guys that we know are fun to watch, even as we understand they’re killing their team. And second is the All-Unified-Theory team. They are the best of the best: the ones that tie the baseball world together in order to win and entertain at the same time.
We will fill out two starting squads of nine (and maybe a bench for the close-but-not-quites) once all of the votes are tallied. So start submitting your nominees now (again: in the comments, or feel free to shoot me an email at the address below), and we can begin to succeed where science has failed.
John Sharkey welcomes comments, religious objections, moral outrage, and Theory Nominees at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Even though we all know the answer is 42.