.45 CALEBER: Criticism More Science Than Art

Statistics trump 'intangibles' for this writer, but not for commentators

The counter-revolution in baseball is, unfortunately, being televised.

Despite the remarkable inroads that sabermetrics and the objective statistical analysis of performance have made in the baseball establishment and the public domain over the past several years, much work remains to be done in spreading the analytical bent throughout the national sports media.

Every time an announcer or commentator spouts off on your TV or in your newspaper about a player’s “intangibles,” or calls attention to his grit, scrappiness, or heart as attributes that somehow act to will his team to victory, a blow is struck against the diffusion of quantifiable knowledge that is raising the game to the level of efficiency its fans deserve. It was such a blow that knocked Paul DePodesta ‘95, one of the protagonists in Michael Lewis’s 2003 book “Moneyball,” from his seat as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers last fall.

However, despite the tradition of the old scouting establishment—that which commentators invoke when promoting the virtues of Scott Podsednik’s hustle or the merits of “small-ball”—there is an even older tradition that advocates of statistical analysis can use to combat the Tower of Babel-esque national baseball coverage: the scientific method.

The execution of this empirical method tells us that despite Tony Womack’s 27 stolen bases last year and the potentially immeasurable contribution of his heart, desire, and veteran leadership, his .276 on-base percentage made him a virtually worthless player. It tells us that although the sacrifice bunt might be a sure sign of sound fundamentals and good old-fashioned baseball, in practice it almost always decreases the run-expectancy of an offense.

The scientific method can be used to strike back at the talking heads that invade the national airwaves every night (here’s looking at you, ESPN) with their a priori arguments and baseball superstitions.

And, while the prevalence of unverifiable babble that is passed off as expert baseball commentary might lead one to conclude that the statistical revolution has entered a period of Thermidor, there are some who have chosen to utilize that all-powerful tool to chip away at the credibility of the “experts.”

I am speaking of a group of statistically minded humor writers who operate a blog called “Fire Joe Morgan” (www.firejoemorgan.com). The FJM writers—who go by the monikers of Dak, Junior, Coach, Matthew Murbles, and Ken Tremendous—have done what many of us wish we had done years ago: created a forum dedicated to illuminating and ridiculing the indefensible ravings of the national baseball media.

Fire Joe Morgan attacks so-called baseball pundits with statistical knowledge, sarcasm and a sharply biting wit, leading to some of the funniest and most dead-on analysis of baseball (and baseball commentary) that can be found.

FJM claims it has been “censuring sports commentary since 1931.” In actuality, the blog was born only around a year ago, though its roots stretch back, in all likelihood, to fair Harvard herself. While the authors remain secretive of their identities—none of the quintet responded to an email requesting comment for this column—a look through the FJM archives indicates that at least several of the group matriculated at Harvard. At one point or another in the past year, the Detur Prize, the Winthop House Library, “10,000 men of Harvard,” and The Crimson itself have been mentioned. Ozzie Guillen’s assertion last October that he was smarter than many Harvard students was dissected at length on the site, complete with a reference to a tiger in the Leverett Junior Common Room. As far as I can tell this beast has never been sighted, but one can assume only an insider could know of such a phenomenon.

All of this speculation leads to the conclusion that Fire Joe Morgan is the best thing to come out of Harvard since the forward pass. In a time when the Hall-of-Famer Morgan can claim, during an online chat, that no one that hasn’t played can teach him anything about baseball, and still be taken seriously as an analyst when a GM with little-to-no on-field experience (Yale grad Theo Epstein) has recently constructed a World Series-winning juggernaut, one often needs a little perspective—and humor—to deal with the insanity.

So the next time you’re watching Baseball Tonight and John Kruk, Harold Reynolds, or Jeff Brantley says something that makes you want to jump through a window, resist that urge and log on to FJM—there are people out there who share your pain, and they have finally found their voice.

—Staff writer Caleb W. Peiffer can be reached at cpeiffer@fas.harvard.edu. His column appears every third week.

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