the end of criticism
it's a great day for enos cabell

update: baseball's "new" paradigm

I put "new" in quotes because it has been 30 years since Bill James published his first book. While James had predecessors, his work was the primary initial impulse to making "sabermetrics" (analysis of baseball through objective evidence) available to the general public. I call it a paradigm just to show off my PhD, but since I've been using the term for some years now, might as well keep it up for continuity's sake. My basic point has been that the introduction of sabermetric analysis has changed the way we evaluate baseball talent, and that gradually, even in a conservative, tradition-bound environment like baseball, the merits of these new methods will push the old methods to the side. An extension of that point is that the change has been excruciatingly slow, although the best sign that this is finally changing is that the Boston Red Sox, who had gone so long without a championship that a curse was named after them, have won two World Series in four years since adding James to their front office. A further extension ... well, not an extension, more just a frustrated rant ... is that my own favorite team, the San Francisco Giants, is doing everything they can to be the last franchise to accept the new paradigm, resulting in a team that is now truly putrid.

The thing about new paradigms is that they eventually "win" because they are successful at helping us understand a situation, and that understanding leads to a larger success that is emulated by others, until no one buys into the old way any longer. And so, to cite one prominent example, more baseball clubs every year understand the importance of on-base percentage, because the teams that do understand this essential point are more successful than the teams that don't get it.

However, there is no impetus for the fan to buy into the new paradigms. We want our teams to do well, but "success" is hard to measure for a fan. Are we successful because our team wins? Are we successful because we are dedicated? Are we successful because we identify and accept new paradigms? I have no idea. The result, though, is a fan base that is generally slower to adapt their approach to the game, fueled, I suppose, by the enormous pull of nostalgia on the average baseball fan.

If the fans are less driven to consider these things than are the owners (due to the lack of impetus and the pressures of nostalgia), then there is another group that is even more intransigent: baseball writers. While a knowledge of the sport is a crucial aspect of a baseball writer's job, it is just as important to have a good writing style. And once you have a job as a baseball writer, one understandable impetus is to keep your job. This leads many to become entrenched in the kind of thinking that got them the job in the first place. It also leads many to be suspicious of the young whippersnappers coming along trying to take their jobs. In the case of baseball, many of those whippersnappers came of age post-Bill James ... the only reason they don't believe in a new paradigm is because they've never known anything other than the new paradigm, so they have no reason to identify it as new.

Toss in the previously-mentioned role that nostalgia plays in the average person's reaction to baseball, and you end up with baseball writers who are quite possibly further away from accepting the new paradigms than any other group you could name. They're worried that these kids will take their jobs, they don't like the kids to play on their lawns, and they love how baseball was back before all these new-fangled statistics started cluttering up their television screens during game telecasts.

All of the above, believe it or not, was just the introduction, although the rest of this post will be relatively brief. The Baseball Writers Association of America is for baseball journalists. Their primary function, in the past at least, has been to work with Major League Baseball on issues of access in the coverage of the game. What most people know the BBWAA for, though, is a side matter: they vote on several annual post-season awards of note, and they vote to decide who gets inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Whatever the original reasons for the creation of the BBWAA, it is these latter functions that are most important, and it is a concern about those functions that makes some people worried about the level of baseball intelligence amongst the BBWAA membership.

It was only this month that Web writers were added to the list of eligible members. The association's understanding of the workings of the Internet in modern life is perhaps best demonstrated by a quick visit to their official website, which looks like it was designed in 1995 by Walter Miller.

But get to the point, Steven. I am going to leave it to you to look up the details of what I'm about to say ... I spent more than an hour getting as much info as I could, if you care, you can do the same using your old friend Google. Suffice to say there are arguments and justifications on all sides of this issue, but from the long introduction above, I think you'll be able to figure out what I think of what follows.

As far as I can figure out (the details are still not completely clear), eighteen web-based writers were recommended for inclusion in the BBWAA. Sixteen of those eighteen were granted membership, including some of the best, most well-known writers around, like Peter Gammons. Only two of the recommendations were denied.

One was Keith Law. Law began writing about baseball in 1997 for the Baseball Prospectus (disclaimer: I wrote for BP for a few years, as well). In 2002, he was hired by the Toronto Blue Jays as an analyst/consultant. In 2006, he left the Blue Jays for ESPN.com, where he writes regularly, specializing in scouting. As you might guess from this brief recap of his career, Law is at the forefront of the new paradigm.

The other writer who was denied membership was Rob Neyer. Neyer got his start working as Bill James's research assistant. He joined ESPN.com in 1996, and has written or co-written several books. Given his entertaining writing style, his intelligent approach to the game, and his quite-visible status on ESPN.com, Neyer is arguably one of the most influential sabermetric writers ever.

This post is way too long already, so I'll leave it to you to chew over the implications of those last paragraphs. To summarize: sixteen of eighteen nominees were awarded membership ... the only two nominees who didn't get in were strong, vocal, well-known proponents of the "new paradigm."

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