on rum and baseball

For decades, late February and early March were for me a season of preparation: preparation for baseball. I watched my favorite baseball websites come to life in my RSS reader, I bought some books that analyzed last year’s performances and predicted this year’s, I got excited about new signings and promising rookies.

But not this year.

John Thorn, the great historian of baseball, wrote in November,

The stolen base and the bunt are on the way out. The reasons for the decline in both have to do with analysts revealing that run expectations are radically lessened not only by the unsuccessful attempt but also, in the a case of the sacrifice bunt, by the successful execution. One may blame analysis, knowledge, and science for these outcomes, but it is hard to give three cheers for ignorance.

The dilemma for owners and players and fans may be understood as The Paradox of Progress: we know the game is better, so why, for so many, does it feel worse? I submit that while Science may win on the field, as clubs employ strategies that give them a better chance of victory, Aesthetics wins hearts and minds.

This is more or less precisely what I wrote last summer, when I described the complete victory of the Earl Weaver model of baseball strategy that I cheered on when I was a kid: “As boxing fans have always known, styles make fights. What made Earl’s Way so fascinating all those years ago was its distinctiveness; and that’s what made the arguments among fans fun too…. Strangely enough, baseball was better when we knew less about the most effective way to play it.”

Thorn is exactly right that “it’s hard to give three cheers for ignorance.” Me again:

It’s important to be clear about this: Coaches and players understand the percentages better than they ever have in the history of the game, and are acting accordingly. All of these changes I have traced are eminently rational. Players are giving themselves the best possible chance of success, in hopes of more money for them and more wins for their team. Even when they don’t try to bunt or slap a single into the vast open space on one side of a shifted infield, they’re being rational, because, as noted earlier, Earl was right: those base-at-a-time one-run strategies are highly inefficient.

So you can’t blame anyone for the way the game has developed. It has become more rational, with a better command of the laws of probability, and stricter, more rigorous canons of efficiency. But for those very reasons it’s not as fun to watch.

So it’s hard to see what the solution to this might be. What are the moguls of MLB supposed to do, mandate less rational tactics? In a way that’s precisely what they do plan to do, for instance by requiring pitchers to face at least three batters, even when bringing in, say, a lefty to face only the one left-handed hitter in the other team’s lineup might make more sense. But that kind of thing is just nibbling around the edges. It’s not going to do anything to change the overall strategies that are common today, as when batters are so committed to the long ball that they are content to have created a game in which there are more strikeouts than base hits.

In this context, I keep thinking about a passage from Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a passage that’s relevant to so much in our modern order:

In Martinique, I had visited rustic and neglected rum-distilleries where the equipment and the methods used had not changed since the eighteenth century. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, in the factories of the company which enjoys a virtual monopoly over the whole of the sugar production, I was faced by a display of white enamel tanks and chromium piping. Yet the various kinds of Martinique rum, as I tasted them in front of ancient wooden vats thickly encrusted with waste matter, were mellow and scented, whereas those of Puerto Rico are coarse and harsh. We may suppose, then, that the subtlety of the Martinique rums is dependent on impurities the continuance of which is encouraged by the archaic method of production. To me, this contrast illustrates the paradox of civilization: its charms are due essentially to the various residues it carries along with it, although this does not absolve us of the obligation to purify the stream. By being doubly in the right, we are admitting our mistake. We are right to be rational and to try to increase our production and so keep manufacturing costs down. But we are also right to cherish those very imperfections we are endeavouring to eliminate. Social life consists in destroying that which gives it its savour.

Note that Levi-Strauss speaks of “the paradox of civilization,” John Thorn about “the Paradox of Progress.” It’s the same point. I was right to be rational in cheering on the sabermetric revolution; and these days I cherish the very imperfections I once wanted to see eliminated. But the savor is now gone, and I don’t know how it can be restored.

peak and career value

I think it was Bill James who introduced into sabermetrics the distinction between peak and career value in baseball players. The distinction can be approached by comparing, say, Pete Reiser, who was truly great but (thanks to injury) for only a brief time, with Billy Williams, who was never more than very good but was very good for a long time.

Ever since James made me aware of this distinction, decades ago now, I have found it extremely useful not just for thinking about baseball players but for thinking about many other kinds of achievement as well. For instance, I tend to think of Johann Sebastian Bach as the Hank Aaron of composers: truly great and freakishly consistent for a very long time. Whereas Keats might be the Herb Score of poets, Rimbaud the Mark Fidrych; and, at the other end, Czeslaw Milosz is Walter Johnson: dominant for an exceptionally long period. You get the idea.

But I think the peak/career distinction is exceptionally helpful in the notoriously fraught task of evaluating rock-and-roll bands. To wit:

  • The Clash is the Pete Reiser of bands: meteoric, brilliant, brief. Peak value off the charts; career value much less.

  • The Beatles: Sandy Koufax. Transcendently great over a significant but too-short period of time.

  • Nickelback: Juan Pierre. Ineffectual but strangely long-lived.

  • The Who: Dwight Gooden. Truly great for a short period, then hung on for a surprisingly long (but not especially effective) afterlife.

  • U2: Greg Maddux. Highly professional, amazingly consistent, remarkably long-lived, but always thought of (perhaps wrongly) as just below the very highest level of brilliance.

  • Nirvana: Smoky Joe Wood. Totally dominant early on, then limited and eventually broken by bad health.

  • The Rolling Stones: Fernando Valenzuela. A relatively brief period of true greatness followed by an remarkably long period of being unproductive but still active. A lot like The Who, except great for slightly longer and professionally functional for much longer. (This one is the least-good fit: it would be perfect if Fernando had pitched for 25 years at below replacement level.)

Please feel free to pick up where I’ve left off.