“Sabermetrics: The Dissertation!”

Bob Ngo, a sociology Ph.D. student at UC Santa Barbara is writing his dissertation on the “Sabermetric Movement in American Baseball.” He`s blogged a few of his notes about sabermetricians:

By this time, I have completed about 24 interviews. I did about 12 interviews at the SABR conference, and the rest of the interviews have been done over the phone, with my most recent one being last Saturday. They have been all with what I’m calling the “rank and file” of the sabermetrics movement meaning that they are just regular people who aren’t necessarily involved with any professional sports franchises or what I’ve been referring to as the baseball institution.

But, their intellectual heroes like Bill James aren`t terribly different in how they think, so the rank and file reflect the movement`s leadership reasonably well.

All of them have been very interesting and great conversations to have. They’ve ranged from age 17 to 78. They’re all males, and they’re pretty much all white. I’ll be scouring the world for a female sabermetrician, as well as one of color soon enough, so if anyone can refer one to me, that’d be great. … 

If you know one, just let Bob know …

Conceptual Chapter #1 – I asked  my subjects about what they thought about the steroid controversy and not surprisingly, many of us talked about Barry Bonds and what he means to sabermetricians.  In fact, when I would ask about why they would write about particular subjects, a desire to quantify barry bonds came up more than once.  for example, one subject wanted to compare how much more valuable bonds was than ichiro in the year that they both won the MVP awards in their respective leagues.

Sabermetricians hate the fact that elegant slap-hitter Ichiro Suzuki beat out beefy slugger slugger Jason Giambi of the Moneyball A`s for the A.L. MVP award in 2001. That Giambi developed a tumor a few years later and almost died, quite possibly from all the weird chemicals he presumably took to become a beefy slugger, apparently remains immaterial to them. The point is that Giambi has an OPS of 1.137 versus Ichiro`s .838 and that`s all you need to know.

Likewise, that same year Barry Bonds was given the N.L. MVP award for hitting a record 73 homeruns, with 177 walks and an OPS of 1.379: a much more satisfying vote than the Ichiro scandal. The fact that this 36 year old man`s skull was visibly changing shape is immaterial. Only the numbers matter!

 now i use the term quantify, but perhaps what they are saying is that they want to be able to “tell the story” of barry bonds.  several disagreed with the general portrayal and analysis of barry bonds.  When I originally conceived of this question, I wanted to get at questions of embodiment, in terms of athlete’s bodies are central to the thinking of most any sports fan, but it really seems that at least for this crowd, the body is of little consequence.  

Great line: “at least for this crowd, the body is of little consequence.”

This reminds me of a general problem I have in dealing with people on the Internet, which is that most people are most comfortable when they ignore vast realms of knowledge. Different people ignore different realms. People with an aesthetic orientation tend to not like logic and numbers, while people who like logic and numbers don`t like to think about how things look. Sabermetricians are sports fans who`d rather ignore the physical.

In contrast, while there`s are lots and lots of things I don`t know, there isn`t all that much about which I like to boast that my ignorance makes me a better person than the unignorant.

For example, numbers and pictures can support each other in helping you understand. Here`s a picture that had some impact on my thinking 25 years ago. In 1987`s world championships in track when Ben Johnson broke the world record in the 100m dash in 9.83 seconds.

O, Buff Ben Johnson!
The article in Sports Illustrated went on and on about Johnson`s brilliant new weightlifting regimen and how it had helped him overtake Carl Lewis (in blue). I could understand why he`d want to have giant leg muscles, but … What`s the deal with his arms?

So, I spent a lot of time over the next decade thinking about track statistics, and, yeah, it turned out that the pictures and the numbers complemented each other to help tell a comprehensible story.

I’m trying to outline an angle of Bonds as the centerpiece of this chapter.  And I think I’m going to go with how sabermetricians contribute to writing the history of baseball.  The official story of Barry Bonds as told by journalists will be about the steroids.  The story told about Barry Bonds by sabermetricians will be a bit different I think. 

The story told about Barry Bonds by sabermetricians will be Aspergery / hero-worshipping lunacy.