Baseball writers love narrative. It sells papers. It brings people closer to the game. People love stories, and baseball writers abide. They tell us stories of these men and their accomplishments every day in their publications. They weave plot lines throughout the season, making the game into more than a bunch of guys wielding sticks. It adds flavor to a six-month season in which the team plays nearly every day.
While narrative is engaging and seductive, it’s not necessarily accurate. Behind these stories is a reality, and that is of batters wielding wooden sticks and pitchers trying to not let them hit the ball. So when it comes to making predictions — even though no one remembers them — baseball writers would do well to shed the narrative and focus on the primitive aspects of baseball.
Buster Olney succumbed to the narrative this March in making his predictions. He left the Yankees out of the playoffs based not on how the team projected to hit and pitch, but the perceived troubles in their clubhouse. To wit:
But a lot of the reason I picked against the Yankees is because dysfunction had become so ingrained in their clubhouse in recent years, and when spring training opened with Alex Rodriguez sitting in front of reporters and explaining what he took and when he took it, they looked like a team headed for derailment again.
This, combined with a love-affair of the Tampa Bay Rays’ story, led Olney to pick the Yankees finishing third in the East, behind the Rays and Sox, in a second-straight season of disappointment. Thankfully, Buster, along with many others, could not have been more wrong. Not only are the Yankees taking care of the pitching and the hitting and the defense things, but they’re also creating quite a narrative. I mean, when Rick Reilly, who hates the Yankees and seemingly disdains baseball in general, writes a heartfelt story about the Yanks, you know they’re doing something right in the clubhouse.
Like most people, I enjoy the narrative. It allows fans to enjoy the game in an engaging manner. I also like to further my understanding of how the game works. The two are often at odds, and it creates some misplaced tension and complete strawmen*. Each have their own place in baseball lore, but I think it’s safe to say that when making predictions in a widely-read publication, it’s best to leave the narrative out of it. It might entertain the masses, but it doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to what happens on the field.
But hey, at least Buster didn’t write this.
* The first sentence of that linked article is horrendous. Why do people who don’t use statistics (or, more accurately, lean on less revealing stats like pitcher wins) revile stat-heads in this way? Perhaps it’s because stat-heads are a bit pompous in disseminating their knowledge of the game, because they think they’re searching into how the game truly works, while non-stat-heads believe that they already understand the game just by watching it. It’s an interesting dichotomy that would take far more than one paragraph to examine.