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Media

September 16, 2008

Stat-heads and Scouts of the World, Unite!

The way baseball writers like to tell it, they are the brave mediators of an ongoing war for the soul of the sport between the old-school scouts and the new-school sabermetricians. According to the scribes, their skills are necessary to parse out the nuggets of truth among the spin emanating from these two diametrically opposed interest groups. In reality, though, writers fervently fan the flames of this supposed feud simply to give themselves something to write about. Nowhere is this more apparent than when they're discussing the career of Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Adam Dunn.

In a column about Dunn on ESPN, Jerry Crasnick wrote:

The best way to start an argument over Dunn is to pit the statistical and scouting communities against each other. Statistical bloggers revere him for his on-base ability and power, but the purists wonder whether he could squeeze more from his game by shortening up and making more consistent contact.

Adam Dunn

Adam Dunn, the abortion debate of baseball. (Courtesy SD Dirk's Flickr.)

Crasnick's statement is almost impossibly stupid, as it consists of little more than empty platitudes and hackneyed, "Here we go again!" clichés. The statement serves no purpose other than to indirectly tip Crasnick's hand as to where he stands on acknowledging that statistics actually have something to say about baseball.

Naturally, those who would be so bold as to invoke a scary metric like on-base percentage are pasty-faced nerds who spend all their time sucking the life out of baseball by reducing it to a series of spreadsheets and graphs and then presenting their research in their blogs. (Author's note: Author sports a healthy brown hue and has been described as a beautiful, golden Adonis.) Conversely, those who ignore mind-bendingly complex methodology such as how frequently a batter reaches base are "purists," noble knights of the fraternal order of baseball who know that veteran leadership and productive outs are what truly win baseball games. Equating stat-spewing young rapscallions with newfangled blogging technology is a nice nugget of rhetoric, I must admit, even though everybody and their dead grandmother has a blog, including Peter Gammons, and, at times, Jerry Crasnick.

The oft-discussed idea of a conflict between statheads and scouts probably originated with Michael Lewis's 2003 book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. While the concept of some kind of great baseball schism made for an excellent story in Lewis's book, it has since led to a rise in sensationalism among baseball writers, especially in mainstream sports media outlets such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the sports page in every newspaper in the country.

The past 10 years may have been as culturally divisive as any period in American history since Reconstruction. The news media would have the public believe that it is impossible for a person to believe that women deserve the right to have an abortion and that people should also be allowed to keep handguns in their homes; nobody at an MGMT concert has a Nickelback album on their iPods (unless they have it ironically; fucking hipsters); and people who believe that religion is a personal matter that should be kept out of public schools are Godless heretics. With all the emphasis the media places on Red States vs. Blue States, church vs. state, and mainstream against alternative, it is only naturally that the trend of pitting seemingly opposing sides against one another would be applied to sports as well.

In the scenario cited by Crasnick, however, there is nothing to debate. Like the examples listed above, the conflict is purely an invention of those charged with presenting information to the public as a sort of plot device in order to make their stories more compelling. Does anyone really believe that getting on base and hitting more home runs than the other players is not an effective method of offensive production? Conversely, does Crasnick really think that anyone disagrees that it would likely be to Dunn's advantage if he could raise his batting average a bit? Consumers of all media should consider the issues at hand before picking sides in any media-driven debate, because more likely than not, the media has much more invested in it than anyone else.







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Comments

- Media
- posted on Sep 17, 08
Rick

"Does anyone really believe that getting on base and hitting more home runs than the other players is not an effective method of offensive production?"

Yes. Many fans make the argument that Dunn's home runs and on-base percentage don't matter, given his low batting average.

"Conversely, does Crasnick really think that anyone disagrees that it would likely be to Dunn's advantage if he could raise his batting average a bit?"

Yes, and in fact, it would not be to Dunn's advantage to try to raise his batting average. He is who he is, and coaches have tried to change his swing before. If he shortens his swing, he'll hit fewer home runs. If he swings at more balls out of the strike zone (driving down the walks, one of his greatest weapons that detractors often villify) he'll only end up striking out more, driving the batting average down.

The point is, there is a very real dichotomy among sports fans regarding the importance of on-base percentage and the importance of strikeouts, especially in regards to Dunn. He's got a chance to be the only man to have a TTO (three true outcomes -- strikeouts, walks and homers) percentage of greater than .500, hence he's the posterboy of the debate. To chalk it up to a media-driven narrative is ignorant at best and irresponsible at worst.

- Media
- posted on Sep 18, 08
Jake Rake

Hey Rick,

Thanks for reading.

"In fact, it would not be to Dunn's advantage to try to raise his batting average. He is who he is, and coaches have tried to change his swing before. If he shortens his swing, he'll hit fewer home runs. If he swings at more balls out of the strike zone (driving down the walks, one of his greatest weapons that detractors often villify) he'll only end up striking out more, driving the batting average down."

You're missing a fundamental understanding of how batting average works. It's not about a player trying to raise his batting average, it's about the degree of luck that is implicit in baseball. There are only so many players like Tony Gwynn and Ichiro who can actively hit singles. For a guy like Adam Dunn (or really almost every player in baseball) it's just about getting lucky and having balls in play fall between fielders. That's why Ryan Howard hit .313 in 2006 and .249 in 2008 and why Freddy Sanchez sometimes wins batting titles. That's why I chose to say that "It would likely be to Dunn's advantage if he could raise his batting average a bit," rather than that he should try and do it. Adam Dunn doesn't need any advice from you or I about how to play baseball.


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