Monday, April 18, 2011

The Language of Degree and Kind in Baseball and Life

This post is also available - with pictures and dancing bears - at Pitchers and Poets.  I lied about the bears.

When we construct our little narratives to explain the strange things we see every day, we tend to lump our world into broad categories.  Actions are "good" or "bad," "smart" or "dumb."  People are "tall" or "short," "happy" or "sad."  Sporting events are "entertaining" or "boring."  Politicians are "liberal" or "conservative."  And so on, a veritable smörgåsbord* of quotated and contrary descriptors.  Here at Nicht Diese Tone, of course, we think this stuff is all hogwash.  Most of the time, when you're confronted with a duality, it's very probable that you're oversimplifying things.  While that oversimplification may be a real time saver - indeed, our ability to do so with such verve and expertise might very well be a key part of our relative evolutionary success - it can also be extremely dangerous.

* Much to my surprise and pleasure, my spell check added the umlaut and the circle thingy over the a.

Much as I'd love to illustrate the point with something profound and socially meaningful, my April-addled mind can't help but turn to baseball as a perfect locus for the issue.  The advantage of baseball over things like, say, politics or morality are numerous.  The chief reasons, however, are only two: 1) baseball is far less contentious than politics or morality* and 2) baseball is much, much, much easier to quantify, which will help to illustrate the point.

* This is not, strictly speaking, true, as the recent Dodgers-fan led assault against a Giants fan - leaving the man in a coma - attests.  Nevertheless, it's much easier for most of us to put aside our sporting-related differences than our political ones.

In particular I want to look at the beloved home of my beloved (and, as of this writing, 12-3) Colorado Rockies, the notorious Coors Field.  Coors Field is, in our dualistic narratives, a "hitter's haven."  It's a miraculous spa where batting averages go to recover and ERAs go to die, a slugger's wet dream and a scrappy, replacement-level slap hitter's salvation.  Otherwise insignificant careers have been forged (Neifi Perez, Juan Pierre), mediocre major leaguers have been saved (Preston Wilson, Kurt Manwaring), over-the-hill sluggers reborn (Jason Giambi), stars made into superstars (Todd Helton, Larry Walker), and aspiring pitchers wrecked (Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Pedro Astacio, Daryl Kile, Bret Saberhagen, Greg Harris, and on and on) by its thin air and its cavernous outfield.  In the popular narrative of Coors Field, it is an almost mystical place, one man's Heaven and another's Hell, a Miltonian paradox.

Until the advent - and advent is exactly the right word - of the capital-H Humidor, playing at Coors Field was like stepping into a video game.  Every decent hitter would hit .350 and slug 40 or 50 homers, as if controlled by some over-obsessive teenager on his X-Box.  It was so easy, scores were routinely closer to football (or even basketball) proportions than proper baseball ones.

The Humidor, of course, changed all of that, transforming Coors Field from Bichette's Paradiso to the upper echelons of Purgatorio instead.* No longer a panacea for ailing bats, it became, instead, a kind of minor boost along the lines of many other so-called hitter's parks.  Suddenly pitchers with mediocre stuff like Jason Jennings and Jeff Francis could throw complete game shutouts, and Rockies 8-hole hitters stopped hitting above .300.  The narrative transformed, enough that Coors Field and Humidor became opposing watchwords, simultaneously an excuse to disparage Rockies hitters for their advantages and mock pitchers for their crude, cigar-inspired handicap.

* I will not apologize for the Dante reference, even though it is also a terrible pun. 

Undoubtedly you can tell what I'm going to say, but I'll say it anyway.  It's all a bunch of sensationalist nonsense.  Because we like to explain the world through clean, discrete, and ultimately meaningless categories Coors Field is painted as a "hitter's park."  And it is.  The problem is, it's only a marginally better place to hit than anywhere else in baseball.  It is, by degree, a better environment for hitters than, say, the Ballpark at Arlington or Fenway Park, but we have created a narrative where it is fundamentally different in kind.  Coors Field is a magical place in that narrative, even if its (post-humidor) Park Factor of roughly 115 means that only 15% more runs are scored there than the average stadium (let alone other good hitter's parks).*

* The pre-humidor PF for Coors was, again roughly, 125.  Big?  Yes.  Infinite?  Not quite.

This "difference in kind" thinking is responsible for the hullabaloo about the Rockies cheating by storing some balls in the humidor, while keeping others in the dry mountain air in case of late-inning emergency.  The difference between the pre-humidor 25% increase in runs and the post-humidor 15% increase in runs is, of course, only 10%.  Since, even at Coors, most teams average less than one run an inning, the difference between using the non-humidor balls and the humidor balls in the final inning of a game comes out to somewhere around one extra Rockies run every month (which, we can assume, would lead to maybe one extra win over the course of the entire season).  That's a real difference in degree, of course, but that's not the narrative we hold dear.

Instead, as last season drew to a close, the Rockies were accused of cheating, their successes at home pinned on a vast late-inning conspiracy.  With humidorized baseballs, the story went, the Rockies were a normal baseball team, capable of scoring runs, yes, but also capable of striking out, hitting into double plays, and regularly stranding runners who reached third with no one out.  Bring out non-humidor balls, however, and the Rockies became unstoppable, a force not merely capable of destroying even the best of pitchers, but indeed destined to overcome any deficit, no matter how large.  To this way of thinking, the difference between the humidor and non-humidor baseballs was not 10% more runs, but rather "win" instead of "loss."  The whole picture became about differences in kind (wins and losses) instead of differences in degree (15% more runs than average and 25% more).

The same, of course, is true about pre-humidor Coors.  That Park Factor of 125 is big.  Really big.  Big enough that the Rockies routinely had one of the worst offenses in Major League Baseball during the early 2000s, and yet were mistakenly believed to have one of the best.  But, even with a Park Factor that large, the difference remains one of degree and not kind.  While the cumulative effect of a PF of 125 leads to the kind of mis-evaluation that makes Neifi Perez look like an actual Major League baseball player, that is only because the baseball season is 162 games long, and because the actual difference between Albert Pujols and, say, Aaron Miles is much, much, much, much smaller than we usually believe.*  Another way of reading, then, that Park Factor of 125 is this: teams that would score 4 runs a game elsewhere scored 5 at Coors.  Suddenly that doesn't seem nearly so insane as the narrative of "hitter's paradise" made it sound.

* While Pujols certainly hits more homers than scrappy middle infielders, and by a long shot, his unreal career high in Wins Above Replacement is 10.9.  That's epically, historically great.  It's also 11 wins out of 162 games, or about 6.8% of the season.  I'll let you decide: difference in kind, or difference in degree?

Once our narratives have been constructed, we reinforce them with the stainless steel of confirmation bias.  When the Mets come from behind by four in the bottom of the ninth at Shea Stadium (or their new digs, Citi Field), we think of it as a great comeback.  When the Rockies come from behind by four in the bottom of the ninth at Coors, we think of it as Coors Field up to its old tricks.  A 12-11 slugfest at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City is the result of bad outings from both teams' pitching staffs.  A 12-11 slugfest at Coors Field is the result of the absurd ballpark.  The special category of "Coors Field" explains and is the cause of all offense in the Mile High City, while elsewhere it's just normal baseball.

Now don't get me wrong, and allow me to reiterate my point one more time.  Coors Field does matter.  It used to inflate scoring by 25%, and now inflates scoring by 15%.  The Rockies, on the whole, will come from behind to win in the bottom of the ninth more often than other teams.  But only very, very slightly more often.  The difference is one of degree: the Rockies will score 23 late inning runs for every 20 that a comparable offensive team scores, thanks to playing at Coors.  The problem is, our narratives, our categories, our confirmation biases all conspire to make every single run we see at Coors a product of the park, and not of the million other things that go on in a baseball game.

But wait, I'm not done yet.  We can apply the same logic to steroids (gasp).  While there may be a categorical difference between Barry Bonds, All Time Home Run Champion and Barry Bonds, Great Hitter, we tend to forget that we don't even know exactly how many extra home runs Bonds hit because he used steroids.  And we can't know.  What's more, we don't know who else benefited, and to what degree.  What we do know, however, is that the easiest thing to do is to look at the picture and to discount any player who had a peak season during the "steroid era" as a "cheater," whose whole body of offensive work is attributable exclusively to his steroid use.  Rather than imagining that steroids help a player become X% better, we see steroids as being the difference between "good" and "bad," or "great" and "good."  We can't even begin to suppose, in our absolutist narrative, that Bonds may well have hit 700+ home runs even without steroids.  No, every single home run he mashed is tainted, cheap, unfair.  They categorically, absolutely, definitively do not count.

Is that right, though?  My answer is no.  Of course the steroids issue is a big deal precisely because we do not and cannot know exactly what the effect is, but to imagine that the effect is categorical instead of incremental is absurd.  Even if players hit twice as many home runs because of steroids, they didn't hit infinitely times as many.  And I think that would be easier to accept if our categories hadn't also been violated.  Barry Bonds is not merely a guy who hit X% more homers, but rather is the Home Run King, both in terms of career and single season jacks.  Those categories carry far more weight for us than numbers do.

To return to where we started, there's a good reason we think in categories instead of increments, kind instead of degree.  It helps us survive.  It's better to assume that the unusual ripple in the tall grass we see is dangerous (it might be a tiger) than to assume that said ripple is only marginally more pronounced than usual.  In nature, nuance leads to destruction.  That's no excuse to turn away from more nuanced thinking, however.  If anything, it's an exhortation towards the opposite.  That we like to see things as either categorically good or categorically bad makes us easy to persuade and, as a result, hoodwink.  If, for example, a politician speaks eloquently to our absolutist moral sensibilities, we're quick to cast our vote in his favor.  In the process, we forget that the difference between him and his opposition might not be categorical, but rather incremental, that there are perhaps a range of (non-linear) possible solutions to any given problem instead of two diametrically opposite ones.

The narrative of absolute, dichotomous categories is an extremely dangerous one exactly because it is beautiful.  Coors Field as "hitter's haven," human beings as fundamentally good (or bad, as the debate goes), politicians as liberal or conservative, such characterizations make it easier to think, easier to live, easier to write.  Poetry may owe itself to complexity, but on some level it also owes itself to simplicity: without a sense of Good and Evil, Joy and Misery, how do we understand No Second Troy?  Without the narrative of great plays or bad ones, how do we appreciate an unrepeatable Tulowitzki play in the hole?*  The possibility that the narrative value of categories is ultimately empty - of a kind of brute, practical use, but devoid of substantial, metaphysical meaning - is what drives the anti-statistics crowd of baseball fans mad.  The reliance upon and manipulation of categories is what makes so many religions so powerful, and - along with hefty doses of confirmation bias - it is what makes Fox News and MSNBC so persuasive to so many Americans.

* Another little pun for which I will not apologize.

Ah, there I go breaking my own rules.  You see, I too am talking in categories, in differences in kind instead of degree.  The notion of diametric opposites, the need for clear categories like Good and Bad cannot be, if we are to challenge it, innately and fundamentally Bad.  To say so would undermine the argument.  The problem is, every single word we read is a category, every single idea a kind of absolute.  We can deconstruct and deconstruct, and then reconstruct and reconstruct, and what we'll end up with is words that stand for something, some category.  Words that can never be truly specific, for true specificity would require a new word every second, every thought, every sentence.  Communication, as much as miscommunication, is built on categories.

So what is there to do?  Uncomfortable though it may be, I believe it remains useful to deconstruct, to analyze, to see where differences of kind actually are differences in degree, even though every difference is, in the end, actually both.  To my mind, we do not need to destroy the narratives of politics, religion, morality, or, most importantly (of course), baseball.  We need, instead, to dive into them, to see where they come from and why, and then to reconstruct them in some new form so that we can once again communicate.  Analysis and synthesis stand together, it turns out.  Like any set of supposed opposites, they actually are more alike than disparate.  Is there an endpoint to all of this analyzing and synthesizing, a point at which narrative and myth turn into Truth?  Maybe, but probably not.  Instead, it seems to me that the very act of trying to understand, of insisting upon being a learner, an asker of questions, a thinker, a skeptic (though we might also insist on being ignorant, a provider of answers, allowed to zone out, and a believer) is at the heart of what it is to be human.

1 comment:

  1. Holy moly Paul, you just solved all the world's problems with baseball! It was sitting there, right in front of us this whole time!