“Does Everything Have to be Measured?”

This was an insightful question asked by a friend last month on Facebook, from a longtime mentor and former colleague who is a lapsed baseball fan. He read a review of Keith Law’s book on statistics (I’m patiently waiting for the paperback) and posted:

Why does everything have to be measured? My past delight in the game was fueled by what I understood and didn’t quantify, like understanding that runners didn’t even try to steal on certain catchers.

I’m no math whiz but I have a fair background in baseball statistics, professionally and as a fan. And with those fuzzy credentials I can confidently say: Yes. Yes, we should measure whatever we can. And the reason is that some of those measurements — perhaps even just a few of them — will help us gain a better understanding and appreciation of not only how the game works, but also improve our use of the most meaningful and telling statistics derived from those measurements (more on that later this week).

The big caution here is data overload, and making poor conclusions (or creating poor stats) from the data. We have had a virtual explosion of baseball data over the past 10 years, thanks to in-park telemetry that literally captures thousands of data points every game. And some of that data is erroneous, or missing — remember, this is still new technology — so we don’t yet truly know what all of the data is revealing. But it’s revealing something. The next challenging wave will be, over the years, to separate those telemetry data signals from the noise (using Nate Silver-speak) and produce even better, more accurate statistics.

And just why would we want to do that? Because we love the game. And statistics help fuel that love. It’s NOT an either/or proposition here (scouts vs stats; what I see vs what I compute; analytics vs observation). One part informs the other. I can enjoy a beautiful Clayton Kershaw curveball or a stunning catch by Jackie Bradley Jr or an Aaron Judge bomb … AND I can enjoy using statistics to help discover whether Kershaw is on pace to be the best pitcher of all time, and just how special was that JBJ home-run robbery, and where Aaron Judge’s rookie season ranks on the all-time list. Without the on-field game, the sport becomes a mere spreadsheet. Without the numbers, the sport becomes a repetitive blur, unfocused and without form — 700,000 pitches each season, signifying nothing. I need both.

And even as we have learned so much more about statistics (and thus the game) in the past 30 years, the “delight in what we understand and cannot quantify” will always be there. Despite the millions of data points and the thousands of numbers at our disposal, we’ve merely made a dent in our knowledge of this simple yet complex game, still completely unpredictable, still a sport where the very best teams in history win only two out of three games, and the very worst of the worst go home winners at least 50 times a year.

So measure it. Measure it all, dump the numbers that we discover are meaningless, and let the rest fuel our knowledge, enjoyment, and understanding of this most lovely and most mysterious sport.


Baseball and Father’s Day

18766116_10211736290715591_8267950513853134737_nGenerally speaking, the most passionate baseball fans were baseball fans in their youth. A parent or coach (who were most likely baseball fans in their youth) explained the game, taught it, watched it, nurturing the young fan like a gardener tending a new floral bed. Though I have no scientific data to back this up, I strongly believe that baseball fandom is most easily attained as a kid; harder, compared to other sports, to develop a deep love for the game when starting out as an adult.

So on this Father’s Day I want to thank my dad, again, for not just being a super father for my 49 years, but also for generating the spark for baseball being a big part of my life. My earliest memory (of virtually anything) is watching Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run in 1974, watching with my dad, who I describe as a “medium” baseball fan. He knew it was an important moment, and he knew to make sure we should both be watching. He spent the money and time and took me to Cubs games and even a White Sox game (with the exploding scoreboard!). He taught me how to keep score, which quickly became a standard part of any game experience for me and remains to this day.

And of course he spent countless hours coaching my T-Ball and Little League teams, coaching the RIGHT way, putting the kids first. Even though we rarely talked about it, I remember a vague sense of pride on how he coached when a girl was on our team. I also remember him discussing the team, and skills, and strategies, with just me in the car, asking my opinion and making me feel special that I was on the “inside” and that he trusted me with his thoughts about me and my teammates.

None of this is to diminish the role of my mother, a baseball fan and very supportive of this hobby of mine since I was 5. And with the opportunities these days, the fuzzy nostalgic notion of baseball being a father-son thing has slowly and rightfully been replaced by a parent-child thing. The roles don’t matter; the relationships do. And baseball, more than any other sport, fosters those relationships and becomes the shared diamond on which we play out a part of our lives, a safe and warm link to the past, a known and trusted path to the future.

This was proven to me again just a few weeks ago, when we had a few days together as a family again on the west coast, and several of us went to a San Jose Giants (Single-A) minor league game (that’s us in the photo). I spent many a wonderful summer night with my parents in the late 1970s and 80s at Municipal Stadium, and for a few hours we were there again together, with my wife and my own son and daughter, and nephew, carving out more memories on just another ordinary night at the ballpark. And for a few hours, at least, we were all young again.

I can’t write a better ending to this kind of essay than Donald Hall, the poet, so I’ll attribute and copy it here — picking up the final paragraph from his essay “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” from the book of the same name, published in 1985:

“… He sure would be pleased to see us again. And I him, and my father and my son, and my mother’s father when the married men played the single men in Wilmot, New Hampshire, and my father’s father’s father who hit a ball with a stick while he was camped outside Vicksburg in June of 1863, and maybe my son’s son’s son for baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.”