The Oldest Mistake

Monte Ward traded [Willie] Keeler away for almost nothing because … he made the oldest mistake in management: he focused on what the player couldn’t do, rather than on what he could.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract



What does an American “leftist” look like? According to academics and the inhabitants of Brooklyn and its spiritual suburbs, there are means of tribal recognition: unusual hair or jewelry; a mode of dress either strikingly old-fashioned or futuristic; peculiar eyeglasses, shoes, or other accessories. There’s a deep concern about food, particularly that such food be the product of as small, and preferably foreign, an operation as possible—despite a concomitant enmity of global warming. Their subject of study at college was at minimum one of the humanities, and possibly self-designed. If they are fans of sports at all, it is either extremely obscure, obscenely technical, and does not involve a ball—think bicycle racing—or it is soccer. And so on. Yet, while each of us has exactly a picture of such a person in mind—probably you know at least a few, or are one yourself—that is not what a real American leftist looks like at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In reality, a person of the actual left today drinks macro-, not micro-, brews, studied computer science or some other such discipline at university, and—above all—is a fan of either baseball or football. And why is that? Because such a person understands statistics intuitively—and the great American political battle of the twenty-first century will be led by the followers of Strabo, not Pyrrho.

Each of those two men were Greeks: the one, a geographer, the other a philosopher—the latter often credited with being one of the first “Westerners” to visit India. “Nothing really exists,” Pyrrho reportedly held, “but human life is governed by convention”—a philosophy very like that of the current American “cultural left,” governed as it is by the notion, as put by American literary critic Stanley Fish, that “norms and standards and rules … are in every instance a function or extension of history, convention, and local practice.” Arguably, most of the “political” work of the American academy over the past several generations has been done under that rubric: as Fish and others have admitted in recent years, it’s only by acceding to some version of that doctrine that anyone can work as an American academic in the humanities these days.

Yet while “official” leftism has prospered in the academy under a Pyrrhonian rose, in the meantime enterprises like fantasy football and above all, sabermetrics, have expanded as a matter of “entertainment.” But what an odd form of relaxation! It’s an bizarre kind of escapism that requires a familiarity with both acronyms and the formulas used to compute them: WAR, OPS, DIPS, and above all (with a nod to Greek antecedents), the “Pythagorean expectation.” Yet the work on these matters has, mainly, been undertaken as a purely amateur endeavor—Bill James spent decades putting out his baseball work without any remuneration, until finally being hired latterly by the Boston Red Sox in 2003 (the same year that Michael Lewis published Moneyball, a book about how the Oakland A’s were using methods pioneered by James and his disciples). Still, all of these various methods of computing the value of both a player and a team have a perhaps-unintended effect: that of training the mind in the principle of Greek geographer, Strabo.

“It is proper to derive our explanations from things which are obvious,” Strabo wrote two thousand years ago, in a line that would later be adopted by the Englishman who constructed geology, Charles Lyell. In Lyell’s Principles of Geology (which largely founded the field) Lyell held—in contrast to the mysteriousness of Pyrrho—that the causes of things are likely to those already around us, and not due to unique, unrepeatable events. Similarly, sabermetricians—as opposed to the old-school scouts depicted in the film version of Moneyball—judge players based on their performance on the field, not on their nebulous “promise” or “intangibles.” (In Moneyball scouts were said to judge players on such qualities as the relative attractiveness of their girlfriends, which was said to signify the player’s own confidence in his ability.) Sabermetricians disregard such “methods” of analysis in favor of examination of the acts performed by the player as recorded by statistics.

Why, however, would that methodological commitment lead sabermetricians to be politically “liberal”—or for that matter, why would it lead in a political direction at all? The answer to the latter question is, I suspect, inevitable: sabermetrics, after all, is a discipline well-suited for the purpose of discovering how to run a professional sports team—and in its broadest sense, managing organizations simply is what “politics” is. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for that reason, defined politics as a “practical science”—as the discipline of organizing human beings for particular purposes. It seems inevitable then that at least some people who have spent time wondering about, say, how to organize a baseball team most effectively might turn their imaginations towards some other end.

Still, even were that so, why “liberalism,” however that is defined, as opposed to some other kind political philosophy? Going by anecdotal evidence, after all, the most popular such doctrine among sports fans might be libertarianism. Yet, beside the fact that libertarianism is the philosophy of twelve-year-old boys (not necessarily a knockdown argument against its success), it seems to me that anyone following the methods of sabermetrics will be led towards positions usually called “liberal” in today’s America because from that sabermetrical, Strabonian perspective, certain key features of the American system will nearly instantly jump out.

The first of those features will be that, as it now stands, the American system is designed in a fashion contrary to the first principle of sabermetrical analysis: the Pythagorean expectation. As Charles Hofacker described it in a 1983 article for Baseball Analyst, the “Pythagorean equation was devised by Bill James to predict winning percentage from … the critical difference between runs that [a team] scores and runs that it allows.” By comparing these numbers—the ratio of a team’s runs scored and runs allowed versus the team’s actual winning percentage—James found that a rough approximation of a team’s real value could be determined: generally, a large difference between those two sets of numbers means that something fluky is happening.

If a team scores a lot of runs while also preventing its opponents from scoring, in other words, and yet somehow isn’t winning as many games as those numbers would suggest, then that suggests that that team is either tremendously unlucky or there is some hidden factor preventing success. Maybe, for instance, that team is scoring most of its runs at home because its home field is particularly friendly to the type of hitters the team has … and so forth. A disparity between runs scored/runs allowed and actual winning percentage, in short, compels further investigation.

Weirdly however the American system regularly produces similar disparities—and yet while, in the case of a baseball team, that would set off alerts for a sabermetrician, no such alarms are set off in the case of the so-called “official” American left, which apparently has resigned itself to the seemingly inevitable. In fact, instead of being the subject of curiosity and even alarm, many of the features of the U.S. constitution, like the Senate and the Electoral College—not to speak of the Supreme Court itself—are expressly designed to thwart what Chief Justice Earl Warren said was “the clear and strong command of our Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause”: the idea that “Legislators represent people … [and] are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” Whereas a professional baseball team, in the post-James era, would be remiss if it were to ignore a difference between its ratio of runs scored and allowed and its games won and lost, under the American political system the difference between the will of the electorate as expressed by votes cast and the actual results of that system as expressed by legislation passed is not only ignored, but actively encouraged.

“The existence of the United States Senate”—for example wrote Justice Harlan in his dissent to the 1962 case of Baker v. Carr—“is proof enough” that “those who have the responsibility for devising a system of representation may permissibly consider that factors other than bare numbers should be taken into account.” That is, the existence of the U.S. Senate, which sends two senators from each state regardless of each state’s population, is support enough for those who believe—as the American “cultural left” does—in the importance of factors like “history” or the like in political decisions, as opposed to, say, the will of the American voters as expressed by the tally of all American votes.

As Jonathan Cohn remarked in The New Republic not long ago, in the Senate “predominantly rural, thinly populated states like Arkansas and North Dakota have the exact same representation as more urban, densely populated states like California and New York”—meaning that voters in those rural states have more effective political power than voters in the urban ones do. In sum, the Senate is, as Cohn says, one of Constitution’s “levers for thwarting the majority.” Or to put it in sabermetrical terms, it is a means of hiding a severe disconnect in America’s Pythagorean expectation.

Some will defend that disconnect, as Justice Harlan did over fifty years ago, on the grounds of terms familiar to the “cultural left”: that of “history” and “local practice” and so forth. In other words, that is how the Constitution originally constructed the American state. Yet, attempting (in Cohn’s words) to “prevent majorities from having the power to determine election outcomes” is a dangerous undertaking; as the Atlantic’s Ta Nehisi-Coates wrote recently about certain actions taken by the Republican party designed to discourage voting, to “see the only other major political party in the country effectively giving up on convincing voters, and instead embarking on a strategy of disenfranchisement, is a bad sign for American democracy.” In baseball, the sabermetricians know, a team with a high difference between its “Pythagorean expectation” and its win-loss record will usually “snap back” to the mean. In politics, as everyone since before Aristotle has known, such a “snap back” is usually a bit more costly than, say, the price of a new pitcher—which is to say that, if you see any American revolutionaries around you right now, he or she is likely wearing, not a poncho or a black turtleneck, but an Oakland A’s hat.        


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