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If C.C. Sabathia Wins the Cy Young, Obama’s Up Shit Creek

October 6, 2010

Oh no! It's Mitch McConnell! Kinda.

Last year, Zack Greinke won the AL Cy Young by being the best pitcher in the league. By which I mean, the BBWAA got it absolutely right, signaling a major step forward in dismissing won-lost results as a dominant factor in voters’ minds. Keith Law did a fantastic job (as usual) in detailing why a starting pitcher has minimal control over whether his team wins the game. Unless you believe that a pitcher can use Jedi telekinesis to will his offense to score runs and make defensive plays. Not to mention that “the average MLB start this year has lasted almost exactly six innings.” (Just fer instances, Charles Carsten Sabathia’s very impressive 234.2 innings this year, over 34 games started, comes out to 6.99 IP/start – with two complete games.) Giving a modern-day starting pitcher – especially an AL pitcher, who doesn’t even bat – credit for a team win is like crediting Christine O’Donnell for Tea Party success without looking at where the funds are coming from.

Which is about as good a segue for my point I’m gonna get.

The war between the statheads and the old-timey writers is a strange mirror of the blue state – red state divide. The fringes of both groups dismiss the other as detrimental to the health of the body. Statheads see columnists as relics of a past age that aren’t able to assess accurately the value of players and the game, and who prop up gut-based theories like “Jack Morris was a better pitcher than Bert Blyleven.” Columnists see statheads as reductivist bloggers who take away the humanity of baseball, and who would rather let a computer determine the outcome of games. Liberals see conservatives as red-necked, gun-toting conspiracy theorists; conservatives see liberals as elitist, pencil-necked socialists who hate America.

The exaggerations of each sides’ convictions notwithstanding – I don’t really think Joe Morgan would hire nine David Ecksteins if he had the choice – there is a similarity worth exploring here. Conservatives and old-timey baseball folk are both convinced that their opponents, at their essence, don’t like the institution in question.

Murray Chass might be the standard-bearer for the older writer group who’s dead-set against new-fangled acronyms like VORP and WAR, statistics that try to come up with a ranking/statistical system for ballplayers. (Regardless of the fact that the beloved and “simple” batting average itself does just that, and has been for more than 120 years.) Chass’s tirades – and to be fair, he too has taken a tremendous amount of vitriol from the wily internets – have been going on for a while on his non-blog blog. But three and a half years ago, he ran the following paragraph in a New York Times article that kind of sums up my point about how statheads hate America:

I suppose that if stats mongers want to sit at their computers and play with these things all day long, that’s their prerogative. But their attempt to introduce these new-age statistics into the game threatens to undermine most fans’ enjoyment of baseball and the human factor therein.

Right. See, there’s the assumption that because these people are looking at new empirical evidence to find a player’s value, and banishing non-quantifiable ideas like “guts” and “heart” and “tenacity” and “clutchiness,” they’re trying to undermine the institution. Socialists, all. And who are these people? Statheads, nerds, bloggers who – sigh- “live in their mother’s basement,” which is a nice way of dismissing them as people who don’t have the credentials to really write about and enjoy baseball. Elitist poindexters who throw like girls.

Traditionalism makes sense as part of human character. We grow up used to a set paradigm, and if that shifts – be it because wins stop mattering for pitchers, or the ethnic demographic of a hometown changes – that can be strange and unsettling and oh, I don’t know, reminders that we get older and the world around us isn’t, in fact, static.

Baseball writers and thinkers and bloggers and statheads wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for the fact that they love the game. I want to see the Mets win, and would rather they use the evidence and statistics available to field the best team they can. But at the same time, I have an irrational – well, quite rational, if you know me – love for undersized second basemen whose uniforms are dirty before they leave the dugout. Brilliant Sports Illustrated writer, blogger, and Bill-James-lover Joe Posnanski has been quite vocal about his favorite ballplayer of all-time, the decidedly mediocre Duane Kuiper. I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive.

For Murray Chass to deride the efforts of “stats mongers” as a threat to our enjoyment of the game is as ridiculous as, say, deriding liberals as Nazi Muslim Socialists. Well, maybe less ridiculous, but they stem from the same place, which is fear of a changing world.

So for the statheads, 2009 was a bellwether year. By every metric except wins, Greinke was a superior pitcher to the other AL pitchers. Greinke easily took the award last year, though Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander both received first-place votes. Tim Lincecum, with just 15 “wins,” took the NL Cy Young award. But the conservative backlash against some of the voters – most notably, ESPN’s Law, who left Chris Carpenter off his three-person ballot completely – was vociferous.

So will there be a change in power this year? A reversion back to the values we knew and loved before all this nasty new evidence and examples of a changing world started piling up? By which I mean, will Sabathia somehow get the Cy Young over the much more qualified – by every statistical measure except pitcher wins – Felix Hernandez? Chass has already made his feelings known on the matter, as has equally grumbly Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Some backlash against the statistical thinkers is possible but probably won’t weigh too heavily in award voting. Overall, it seems as if there’s confidence that King Felix will indeed be getting it this year.

But that doesn’t mean the Republicans won’t be taking the House in ridiculous numbers.

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From → History, Politics

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