On October 14th, 2003, the Chicago Cubs battled the Florida Marlins in Game 6 of the NLCS. It was the 8th inning, and the Cubs held a 3-0 lead. They recorded the first out of the inning, and victory seemed all but assured. Then, on a pop fly into foul territory, a fan named Steve Bartman reached out and knocked the ball away from Cubs outfielder Moises Alou. Alou screamed at the fan, and in an instant a different vibe came over the game. Where there had been a party-like atmosphere, there was now a palpable sense of desperation. It was nothing you could put your finger on. But it existed, and everyone in the bar I watched the game with knew that the tide of the game had shifted.
It is part of the fun of watching baseball. Even in a society that is driven by science and which laughs at anyone who believes in voodoo, Gods, or miracles, baseball holds a certain hallowed ground. When pitchers are in the midst of a no-hitter, any fan of that team who dares utter, “He’s got a no-hitter going” is liable to get smacked across the head for jinxing it. When the home team falls behind, fans turn their hats backwards. You learn not to predict good things for your teams, because you don’t want to offend the Baseball Gods. When the team is on a hot streak in the post-season, fans stop shaving or even changing clothes. And there is a certain energy to games. You can get a feeling in your spine, and just know that the next guy is going to get on. It’s inexplicable, it’s mathematicial hocus-pocus, but it’s part of what makes baseball so awesome.
The players themselves are just as crazy. Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game. Mark Fidrych talked to the ball. Numerous MLB players, making millions of dollars, refuse to ever touch the foul lines when running on or off the field, under the impression that their luck will run out if they step on a white line.
It is insanity, all of it, but it is part of what makes the game so much fun to be a fan of. It gives these games soul. And sabermetricians hate it. To them, baseball is a game that is determined exclusively by obscure mathematical formulas. If you want to scream “He’s got a no-hitter going!” while the home pitcher is on the mound, go right ahead. After all, he’s got a higher BABIP than average this season, so he’s due to get the next few guys out. If you want to shave your playoff beard, feel free. That beard, according to their calculators, has nothing to do with tonight’s game. There is no energy. E doesn’t equal MC squared. It doesn’t exist. Baseball, you see, happens in a vacuum, and the odds of that no-hitter being broken up have nothing to with what you’re screaming at the pitcher, but with what the current batter does when there are less than two outs and runners in scoring position during a day game.
Baseball, you see, isn’t a magical sport with billie goats or Bambinos cursing teams. The Cubs haven’t won since 1908 because they’ve had a low Pythagorean expectation. That goat thing? Absurd. How can a goat affect thousands of baseball games? According to my equations, goats equal zero!
These are the same people who sit their children down at age 4 and explain that Santa can’t exist because he couldn’t possibly deliver presents to every house on Earth in a single night. They go to cocktail parties and remind everyone that, mathematically, someone in the room is going to die in a horrific accident. They are, quite simply, the kind of obnoxious, know it all clowns that no-one wants to hang out with.
Oh sure, they make some good points. RBIs and wins are overvalued. (Though I learned that the win stat was useless after watching the miserable luck of Mets pitcher Anthony Young in the early 90s, who lost 27 straight games despite having a career ERA similar to Cy Young winner Zach Greinke’s). Yes, WHIP can be a valuable tool for understanding the value of pitchers, and OPS tells us more about a hitter than RBIs. Many of the sabermetrics are really cool, and help show the game in a whole new light. My problem isn’t with the math itself. My problem is with the tools who use it as gospel, and feel the need to prosthelytize it to at every opportunity. Yeah, we get it. It’s great. Now go back to your basement.
I read Moneyball. I thought it was awesome. Taught me to look at the game a whole new way. But it didn’t kill the magic, because more than every algebraic equation ever formulated, the magic is what makes baseball the greatest sport on earth. That is why, in 2008, I wore the same shirt for every game of the World Series. Well, except one. Game 2, which the Phillies lost. Now, according to sabermatricians, my wardrobe choices that week had nothing to do with the ballgame. But if you had tried to steal that particular shirt from me that week we would have fought to the death.
And that’s the problem. The problem is that not only do sabermetricians not think that the shirt had anything to do with the outcome of the game, they are the types of people who have to tell you that the shirt had nothing to do with the outcome of the game. They are the types of people who like to rub it in your face if you think a shirt, or a curse, or an inside out hat has an impact on a game. You see, they’re right. They’ve got the formulas to prove it, and all you’ve got is voodoo. And just when you thought they couldn’t be more obnoxious about it, they got played by Brad Pitt in a movie.
Last night, I dared to remark on twitter that Albert Pujols was clutch (Of course, I may have egged it on a bit with “Sorry SABR Nerds, but Albert Pujols is clutch”). I might as well have stated that that the sun revolves around the earth. One guy wrote, “I love when you can pick and choose when things are and are not clutch.” Another guy wrote, in disbelief, “Wha…what?” A final guy just said, “What a moron.” I am serious about these responses, by the way. These people were outraged by the very thought of something in baseball being clutch, and they were waiting to pounce as soon as someone insinuates that it exists. I see them do this all the time on Twitter. They are some of Twitter’s biggest bullies.
Whenever someone dares bring up the word “Clutch”, they throw their 20-sided die across their mom’s basement and go apoplectic. “Blasphemy! Outrage! Heathen! How could you dare utter something so preponderous? Don’t you understand that Albert Pujols 9th inning hit was the result of 10,000 deductions regarding ballpark size, time of day, his lifetime average against right handers with red hair, etc. etc. all of which I’m going to explain to you right now?”
And so, on October 14th, 2003, they saw a different game than the rest of us did. When Luis Castillo stepped back into the box, his chances to get out were just the same as they were a pitch ago. After all, it was just a foul ball. And when he got walked, Cubs fans started to look at each other uncomfortably, aware that something awful was happening. Sabermatricians had no such inkling. After all, the Cubs still had a 3-0 lead.
Then the wheels fell off. A wild pitch, a single by Pudge Rodriguez and the score was 3-1. A gloom as dark as the night hung over the ballpark. (Though a sabermetrician would have me explain here that “Gloom” is subjective and doesn’t technically exist, and that according to their weather analysis of that night there was a waxing gibbous moon, meaning that it really wasn’t all that dark out in Chicago). Then one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball booted a routine ground ball, and the game was over. Fans at Wrigley knew it, people watching on TV knew it, anyone who knew the Cubs’ history knew it. There were black cats and goats and balls though Leon Durham’s wickets. They were not going to overcome this. Anyone with a soul could see clearly what was going to happen next. The Marlins were not only going to win this game. They were going to win the series.
But not the sabermetrics guys. After all, according to their calculations, the Cubs still had a 68% chance to win after that foul ball, wild pitch, and that error. To them, there was no momentum shift. Which only proves one thing; the sabemetricians know a lot more about math than they do about baseball.
Previously by Bobby Badtimes: Girls basketball team that lost 100-0 is a bunch of losers.
Barry Bonds is good for baseball. (written in 2006)