MASTER NOTES: Who's the condescending whiner?

I don’t know if you saw it, but there was an article about exit velocity (subscription may be required) last weekend in the New York Times Magazine. I’m a longtime reader of the Times and I respect the journalistic diligence it applies to most topics. And I’m a little bit familiar with the writer, Jay Kaspian Kang, from his stints at Vice Media, Grantland, and the New Yorker, all pretty respectable outlets. So I don’t get why this lazy and ill-considered article, with its petty and snotty asides, got published.

The piece has an interesting premise. Kang correctly notes a disconnect when it comes to advanced baseball stats—on one side, casual fans and mass media, and on the other, side “top evaluators” (team executives interested in maximizing player production). Oh, and “nerds,” of course.

He notes that “stats like FIP and UZR” aren’t on stadium “Jumbotrons (1)” nor on sports talk radio. And he wonders why exit velocity has captured public interest while other advanced baseball metrics “stagger off into the cemetery (2) of useless acronyms (3).”

He then goes on to explain why. He says exit velo works in the public imagination because it “hasn’t been explained to the public in a condescending whine” and because “unlike catchall measures of a player’s value, whether Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), exit velocity is free of the stink of the actuarial tables (4) deployed by team executives, or worse, fantasy-baseball players” (emphasis added).

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Overall, this seems pretty pointless. Baseball is not alone in having arcana with very low levels of interest to most people. Pick any topic—computers, knitting, photography, Jack Russell terriers, video games, beer, astronomy, books, lazy and ill-considered New York Times Magazine articles, anything—and you will find a small core of people who are very interested and involved, and a vast mass of people who get interested only occasionally and involved only superficially. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I like photography, and I know enough to be able to get a decent shot. But I’m not as deeply interested in it as my brother Rick, a very accomplished amateur who's been deeply involved for more than 30 years. I only get interested in astronomy when there’s an event in the news—an eclipse, the Perseid showers—but I have a friend and colleague Dave, for whom astronomy has been a successful career. I like beer enough to know I prefer a hoppy IPA to a regular lager, but I don’t build craft brewery tours into my vacations like my friend Ross.

But here’s where I differ from Jay Kaspian Kang: I don’t begrudge Rick, Dave or Ross their intense interest in their topics. In fact, like most people, I like to hear such people talk about their expertise. I like to ask questions about f-stops and retrograde motion, and to get recommendation for a damn tasty amber ale.

I like the fact that when I talk to someone who knows more than I do, I learn something—if I choose to.

And if I happen into conversations where I mention my interest in fantasy baseball and advanced stats, the other person does not emulate Jay Kaspian Kang and begrudge me my interest, or call me a nerd. If the person happens to be a casual baseball fan, he or she will almost always ask for more information, not less, about advanced stats. I’ve discussed WAR and FIP and UZR and CoR many times with many people, at all levels of baseball fandom.

And I always managed to convey information people found interesting, without ever consulting Jay Kaspian Kang’s “actuarial tables,” and without lapsing into Jay Kaspian Kang’s “condescending whine.”

And you know what? Ninety-nine percent of the people I talk to appreciated learning a little something extra about baseball, and a few even got into it themselves.

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So what does Jay Kaspian Kang have against fantasy baseball players and other “nerds”? It all adds up to this: He doesn’t find advanced stats interesting, although he likes name-dropping some of them. He’s a casual baseball fan who doesn’t want to engage more deeply or intensely with the game. He doesn’t see the usefulness of any stat he can’t quickly grasp. A 100-MPH exit velocity? He can get that. But he doesn’t see what we learn from 100-MPH exit velo and 22-degree launch angle that we don’t from the plain ordinary home run, which “roughly captures the same thing, plus it tells you the outcome.” A 5.1 Cmd Ratio? a 4.40 FIP? Whoa! Put away those actuarial tables, Edmond Halley! (5) Enjoy the game!

If Jay Kaspian Kang wants to limit his enjoyment and understanding of baseball to recognizing a home run, good for him. Some people go to NHL games for the fights. Where he goes wrong is in assuming that because he prefers to look only at the surface game, the same is true of all normal and right-thinking people, and further in assuming that those of us who take a deeper interest in the stats are "condescending whiners," "nerds" or, "worse still, fantasy-baseball players." And I don't get why the New York Times Magazine chose to allow him to use its pages to offer a condescending whine of his own on that topic.

This is my last Master Notes of the season. I hope you enjoyed them. Thanks to Ray and Brent and all my BaseballHQ.com colleagues for ideas. And to all the readers. See you next season.

NOTES

(1) Modern baseball stadiums don’t have "Jumbotrons." They have Mitsubishi, Daktronics and Panasonic big screens.

(2) The dead don’t “stagger off into the cemetery.” Being dead, they are carried.

(3) First, “UZR” is not an acronym, but an ordinary abbreviation (an “initialism,” if you’re keeping score at home). Second, Kang’s own point isn’t that the acronyms are useless, but that the stats themselves are. Third, he does this after he has correctly noted that the stats are, in fact, incredibly useful for executives and for higher-level fans seeking to better understand the game. Just not for casual fans like... well, Jay Kaspian Kang.

(4) Most advanced baseball stats don’t use actuarial tables, and even if they did, actuarial tables don’t have notable smells.

(5) In addition to discovering the comet that bears his name (speaking of astronomy), Edmond Halley was the first person to show how life-expectation tables could be used to set insurance premiums.

 

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.