Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On philosophies of baseball knowledge and the 2014 WC game

One viewfrom Pat Lackey last night:

And a second, from philosopher Kenneth Burke in 1966:

Admittedly, I lean toward the latter point-of-view. Over the past few years, I've come to reject the notion that logical positivism is the only valid perspective on the world. But currently-dominant paradigms in baseball thought post-Moneyball are such that Lackey- and Wilmoth-style sabermetric analysis is, to borrow a term from a 1981 lecture by Michel Foucault, "dans le vrai." And alternative ways of thinking about the game are now "subjugated knowledges."

I should be very careful to clarify what I am not saying here. I'm not saying that I reject sabermetrics or that such an approach isn't valuable. Rather, I want to suggest that we are permitted more than one way of thinking about baseball... and that the sabermetric mood isn't necessarily the most fun one to apply to a contending Pirates team.

I thought my dad hit the nail on the head earlier today when he problematized the dominant saberhead reaction to Hurdle's decision to pitch Gerrit Cole on Sunday:
And yet, how do you watch Josh Harrison play third base and fail to see something that can't entirely be explained by rational analysis? There were a couple of games this season in which Harrison appeared to single-handedly win the game for the Pirates from the sheer force of his indomitable will.
There was a time in the early days of sabermetrics when a lot of fans actually were smarter and more knowledgeable about how you win baseball games than the people who were directing and making decisions for professional baseball teams. But those days are now long past (with the possible exception of the Phillies). And they are certainly long past with the Pirates. Can any of us still pretend that we know more about what the Pirates should do than Dan Fox, Mike Fitzgerald, Hurdle, and Huntington? That we have thought more about it and have access to information that they don't have? It was reasonable to criticize Bonifay and Littlefield on the basis of the things we learned from sabermetrics. But these guys know what they are doing, and by now they have earned our trust.
Historically, this is a new experience for Pirates fans: questioning whether we — even with the substantial support that Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and PitchFX provide us — are actually better at understanding baseball than our favorite team's brain trust. Just look at this blog's archives to see how convinced we used to be that we knew better. And back then, to be fair, we probably did (or maybe Littlefield and McClatchy knew the same things that we knew but they were acting in bad faith).

In 2014, though, I think that rooting for the Bucs is ultimately more satisfying when approached as an aesthetic or emotional pursuit. Thus, I have to applaud Dejan Kovacevic for some of his recent posts: 1. this one, 2. this one, and 3. especially this one. The latter is an eloquent and poignant recap of the spectacular September 14 home game (which I was lucky enough to attend) when three amazing things happened: Josh Harrison started an around-the-horn triple play, Neil Walker broke the single-season home run record for Pirates second basemen, and the Pirates put up six runs in the fifth inning. In his recap, Kovacevic placed special emphasis on the triple play and what such a rare event might mean to the broader emotional and aesthetic narrative of the team. In the crowd at PNC Park, it really did feel like a transformative moment. But in a post published the day after that game, Lackey didn't even mention the TP. I was offended by the omission, so I somewhat clumsily attacked him for it on Twitter:

As you can see, it's also possible to approach Pirates fandom a little too emotionally. In this case, I was a dick to a writer I respect, and whose work I've cherished for years. But I'm sure Pat knows that I love him, as the amount I mention his name in this post demonstrates conclusively.

I'm hoping and praying that Buctober 2014 is long and fruitful, for so many reasons — and perhaps the biggest is that I can't wait to read what both Pat and Dejan have to say about it (not to mention Charlie, Brian McElhinny, and others). Peculiar outcomes, I would argue, are the one thing that's actually predictable about baseball, and in our discourse about them, we can subject them to both rigorous statistical analysis and rich aesthetic criticism.

Now... is it tomorrow yet?


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