Friday, August 14, 2015

2 comments Frank Deford Equates ERA to the Ten Commandments

I have covered Frank Deford's bizarre screeds on this blog before. He is one of the best sportswriters of all-time and he used to be very good at writing about sports. "Used to be" is the key phrase here, because Frank has lost his fastball. In fact, he's lost his slider, his changeup, and is basically just lofting the ball underhand to the plate at this point. Whether it's blaming statistics for the lack of character coaches, railing against Title IX, discussing steroids and the Hall of Fame, or being sad that kids don't mess around with cars anymore, Frank's writing has gone past "bitter sportswriter who doesn't like how sports have evolved" to "angry grandparent yelling at the television while everyone in the room deals with the awkwardness of the situation." Sometimes I'm not even sure Frank knows why he's mad. He just knows kids don't like tinkering around in a garage with a car anymore and that means something for NASCAR or advanced statistics are confusing and baseball isn't the national sport anymore, so these two things must be related in some way.

Now Frank has taken aim (again) at advanced statistics and again blames them for ruining baseball. In this article is some bizarre taunting of Jerry Dipoto and a mention of the Ten Commandments. Because, why not? Throw Frank Deford's name on something and his legend will bring some pageviews.

Whereas numbers have never been a significant adjunct to the other performing arts,

(Deep sigh) I don't know if I would consider baseball to be a performing art or not. I've never considered sports to be anything more than just sports.

they've been stitched into the very essence of sport. Not just the score, but how fast, how far, how good.

It's hard to keep score without numbers and it's hard to evaluate athletes without using statistics of some sort. But be sure to use the "right" statistics or otherwise baseball will be ruined forever.

And, of course, no sport is so identified with numbers as is our American baseball.

And that's great, but Frank Deford encourages the "right" numbers to be used. Numbers that he understands, aren't new and don't make him feel like he has lost touch with the sport he loves so much. If something threatens Frank Deford's understanding of a sport, then it is obviously a bad thing for that sport. 

But stats — which is a fairly new shortcut word, about as old as the Mets and Astros are —

Holy fucking hell for all that is good in life. The Mets and Astros organizations are 50 and 53 years old respectively. They, and therefore the word "stats" isn't either, are not new. This is probably part of the problem with Frank Deford's perspective on sports. He considers something 50-53 years old to be "fairly new." It's not. It may feel new to Frank Deford, but the word "stats" isn't new to baseball simply because he's old enough to remember when the word began to be used as a shortcut for "statistic."

have proliferated recently, not only in other sports, notably basketball, but to deeper and deeper levels of baseball enlightenment.

Which is not a bad thing. Teams are finding new and different ways to evaluate baseball players for their performance on the field. It may be hard for Frank to understand advanced statistics, but this does not mean advanced statistics are bad or ruining the game.

Today, traditional statistics like batting or earned run averages — righteous measures that were accepted as the athletic equivalent of the Ten Commandments 

Are still used? Haven't in any way stopped by used by Sabermetricians? Are being seen as interesting statistics, but statistics that only tell part of the story and MLB teams want a better and fuller picture?

And no, these traditional statistics like batting or earned run averages are not the athletic equivalent of the Ten Commandments. After all, compared to the Ten Commandments, batting or earned run averages are fairly new words that are used. They have only be used in baseball since the invention of the game in the mid-1800's. So obviously the relevance of batting average and ERA should be in question since they are fairly new.

— are made to seem quaint and primitive.

See, no. These numbers aren't made to seem quaint and primitive, but are made to be numbers that simply don't tell the whole story. There is this defensive attitude from old-school writers like Frank Deford about the use of advanced statistics. They want to make it seem like all older statistics are being wiped off the map entirely, when that isn't true. It's simply that these old statistics like batting or earned run average just don't tell the whole story. Why is more information a bad thing?

Baseball even has its own specific brand of analytics, which is known as sabermetrics.

(Bengoodfella clutches his pearls, turns off the "Diagnosis: Murder" re-run he was watching and then falls down in his sitting chair)

Baseball statistics were further glorified by Michael Lewis in his book Moneyball and then on film by the heartthrob Brad Pitt.

"Further glorified" by Michael Lewis. I can always tell when I am reading an article by an anti-advanced statistics writer, because there will be a mention of "Moneyball" and then a mention of the movie "Moneyball." Most of those who don't like advanced statistics base most of their knowledge of advanced statistics on the book and movie "Moneyball," even if they have never actually read the book or seen the movie. Sportswriters like Deford have a knowledge of advanced statistics and Sabermetrics that extend to, and not past, knowledge of the book and movie "Moneyball" existing.

The same people who have no interest in further knowledge past ERA and batting average also have no interest in further knowledge of Sabermetrics that extends past "Moneyball." So it makes sense on that level. It's like me saying I don't like organized religion because of the movie "The Exorcist."

Imagine on-base percentage being a thing of heartthrob.

Like much in the same way I can imagine batting average and viewing a player through the eyes of a scout being a thing of a tough guy like Clint Eastwood in the movie "The Trouble with the Curve"? Ah yes, a movie that also features Justin Timberlake as a baseball scout that is also fairly anti-advanced statistics. Being self-aware is not a thing of Frank Deford.

Moneyball posited the fancy that revolutionary statistical magic had sprung forth from the brain of the Oakland General Manager Billy Beane, like Athena emerging full-blown from Zeus' head.

Frank Deford allows his lack of knowledge freak flag fly. If Frank HAD read "Moneyball" then he would know Billy Beane gives Bill James credit for inspiring much of the "statistical magic" that came forth from him. I would really doubt Frank Deford has read "Moneyball" because that would require effort and he's not about to put effort into anything "fairly new" like stats.

Deford's lack of knowledge about advanced statistics is one of the many reasons I am glad modern sportswriting is the way it currently is. Writers like Murray Chass and Frank Deford could once posit an assumption on their readers in a column and not hear any negative feedback. They may get a few letters, but would shrug those off as just people who don't understand. Who needs those crazies? The fact people were reading what they wrote and they kept getting a paycheck for what they wrote obviously meant they were writing journalistic magic that sprung forth from their pen/typewriter. In the past, Deford could write something like this about "Moneyball" and not be called on it's fallacy. Now, not so much, and I think Deford (and others) resent this. They want to be able to make their point in the way they want to make their point, without being contradicted or their incorrect assumptions being pointed out.

In fact, other resourceful innovators had found original uses for stats all through diamond history.

Which "Moneyball," the book, acknowledges. Criticizing advanced statistics based on the movie "Moneyball" would be like criticizing General Eisenhower's war tactics during World War II based on what was seen in a certain movie. Hollywood makes shit up and leaves things out. It's entertainment, not fact.

But now there is an absolute sabermetric explosion.

There was a Sabermetric explosion a decade ago. Way to keep up.

Every team has employed nerds, 

I still love how the term "nerds" is used in this text. It's a form of journalistic bullying that I find to be juvenile and hilarious. It's an insult straight out of high school or middle school, but apparently a perfectly acceptable form of criticism when coming from a professional writer.

"Oh, you want to learn more about statistics and try to earn a living being smart? NERD! Being stupid and ignorant is cool. Now let me give you a swirlie, loser."

who are presumably tucked away in secret offices, with computers and green eyeshades, emerging only to hand over new numerical strategies.

This presumption based entirely on having absolutely no fucking clue what these people actually do, how they come by the information they come by and certainly no urge to try and gain a wider knowledge base on this topic. Obviously these are all positive attributes any company should want in an employee.

Any assumption made about what these "nerds" are doing is an assumption based on ignorance and not based on fact. Why is Frank Deford not afraid of presuming incorrectly? Only in writing about advanced statistics in baseball is an incorrect presumption and lack of knowledge considered to be a badge of honor that someone would proudly wear.

(Frank Deford) "I know nothing about the topic I'm discussing in this column and couldn't be prouder of this fact!"

(Editor) "You are getting a raise my good man. I don't know how the employee evaluation and compensation system works at our company and I don't care. I don't know anything about budgets or whether giving you a raise will result in layoffs. Who cares? You get a raise!"

(Frank Deford) "The fact you know nothing and stick to your presumptions about how this employee evaluation and compensation system should work tells me you are a fine man and very much stick to old-school principles. This is a credit to you that you don't seek out more information prior to giving me a raise."

(Editor) "I agree. In fact, I haven't read your columns in over a year. I know nothing but that you are an older writer and that must mean you are still good at what you do and no further information should be required for me to learn. In fact, I will seek no more information for fear of learning something that contradicts what I currently know."

This has resulted not only in the outward and visible sign of infielders being shifted all around the diamond like linebackers in football, but even in covert skulduggery, industrial espionage and power politics.

It's obviously the fault of those who use advanced statistics that the Cardinals hacked into the Astros' computers. If it weren't for advanced statistics and computers then there would be no computers for the Cardinals to hack into. Sabermetricians are eventually going to lead to the downfall of society as a whole. Obviously.

What kind of hack-ass shitty writer somehow manages to talk about advanced statistics and then write, "This has resulted in...covert skulduggery, industrial espionage...," as if in some way advanced statistics and not the actions of human beings (the human factor that the anti-stats crowd loves so much!) are the reason for the Cardinals hacking into the Astros' computers?

Last week the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim general manager up and quit in midseason — something that statistically just doesn't happen — 

Yes, because most of the time a General Manager is fired before resigning. I do like the "statistically happen" comment though, as if because Dipoto used advanced statistics he should be able to predict the future and prevent his own resignation.

because, it seems, his manager wouldn't apply enough of the new metrics that his computer minions were churning out.

The tension between Scioscia and Dipoto went slightly deeper than just that, but the basis of it was a different belief in how to deal with information and apply it on the field. This was an arranged marriage between Dipoto and Scioscia anyway, and statistically arranged marriages between a GM and a manager he didn't hire don't work out too well in the long-term. And simply because Scioscia won this power struggle doesn't mean his point of view about new metrics is the correct point of view. That's important to know. Scioscia won the power struggle because Arte Moreno prefers him to Dipoto.

But wait! Worse than this front-office insurrection, the federal government itself may well bring charges against one or more members of the St. Louis Cardinals staff, nabbed for hacking into the secret files of the Houston Astros. Hacking! Baseball! Like Russians and Chinese. Oh my.

And this has what to do with advanced statistics in any way? Advanced statistics or numbers had no impact on the Cardinals choosing to hack the Astros computer. The Cardinals may have been after information about trades and what the Astros thought about certain players, but if advanced statistics or WAR (the favorite advanced statistic for the anti-stats crowd to pick on because it's the easiest to spell) didn't exist then the Cardinals still would have hacked the Astros' files.

Why must Frank Deford forget about the human element in all of this? These are humans making decisions, not computers or robots who made the decision for the Cardinals. Fans of old-school statistics should never forget the human element of decision-making!

It makes deflating a few footballs look like child's play,

The Cardinals hacking the Astros also has as much to do with advanced statistics in baseball as deflating footballs does.

and it makes baseball the darkest statistical art, even more the place for sexy metrics.

Deford is working under the uninformed assumption that the use of advanced statistics is a dark art that takes place secretly in a basement or somewhere out of the view of the sun and prying eyes. Every MLB team has a person or two (perhaps even an entire department) who deal with statistics and how to use these statistics in the process of evaluating baseball players and improving a team's performance. It shows just how uninformed Deford is that he doesn't know the Sabermeteric explosion is over. Advanced stats are now a part of the game, but because he chooses to ignore those things he doesn't like and prefers to base his opinion on limited knowledge, he thinks advanced metrics are a "dark" part of baseball.

Deford was great at one time, but statistically, sportswriters tend to slow down over time. I think he's past that point now.


Snarf said...

It amazes me that sportswriters can be so determined to not understand advanced statistics and how teams use them. Presumably Frank Deford could call teams up and get some sort of access to see/better understand how some teams analyze/employ advanced stats. This is something I would love to do just for fun as a big baseball fan, so it irks me that he waves his ignorance proudly as a flag like this.

Chris said...

I wish they would Snarf but with most of these writers they have already made their minds up about their opinion and to them they are always right, statistics be damned. That might also be a nightmare if someone like Deford got that kind of access from teams because even then I can still imagine him finding something to complain about statistics.