When making predictions, beware the narrative

The underappreciated Johnny Damon
A career after elbow surgery

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.

The underappreciated Johnny Damon
A career after elbow surgery
  • JobaWockeeZ

    Oh yeah the “sucka ain’t got no juice” article that Ken Rosenthal wrote.
    Man I really hate him as a sportswriter.

  • http://twitter.com/Hopjake Jake H

    That Rick Riley article was very good. I think the Yanks did amazing things this year with Hope week and also having players greet fans when they come into the stadium at the begining of every home stand. I do hope they keep it up next year.

    • http://leegrantphotography.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/madmax.jpg gxpanos

      “That Rick Riley [sic] article was very good.”

      Interesting use of oxymoron, there.

  • AndrewYF

    That Rosenthal article is one of the most embarrassing pieces of tripe I’ve ever read. Hopefully, it haunts him for the rest of his miserable career. He didn’t even look at the schedule correctly, noting the Royals series as the ‘last series of the year’.

    It would be embarrassing even for a Page 2 article.

    • http://leegrantphotography.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/madmax.jpg gxpanos

      He’s the worst.

    • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

      This would have been great, though:

      July 20: Cashman pulls off the coup of the trading season, acquiring Blue Jays right-hander Roy Halladay for right-hander Chien-Ming Wang, outfielder Melky Cabrera, shortstop Ramiro Pena and reliever David Robertson.

      • AndrewYF

        Heh, yeah. Was that supposed to be an insult?

        • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

          It would have been funny if everybody mailed him day in and day out and asked him if he still thought this trade would go through in July.

    • Mike

      This article reminded me of an article Yahoo Sports wrote (I think) about how life would have been if A-Rod signed with Boston. To sum it up, they would have won a lot of championships, A-Rod would be a post season hero and toast of the town, he would have donated money for every home run he hit to some charity, and the Boston fans would openly welcome him back after admitting steroid use because they were impressed by how nobly he handled the scandal.

      Funny stuff, huh?

  • dkidd

    narratives i’ve succumbed to this season:

    the team will benefit from alex going to colorado for a month
    the new stadium is cursed
    god makes it rain because he/she hates the yankees
    in a post-steroid world, the yankees are too old
    the red sox front office is filled with forward-thinking geniuses
    tex is trying too hard to live up to his contract
    cc is trying too hard to live up to his contract
    aj and jorge hate each other
    joba and jorge hate each other
    andy pettitte is finished
    derek jeter can no longer play shortstop
    brett gardner can’t hit
    brett gardner will win a batting title
    swisher is a saviour
    swisher is a cancer
    melancon is the next mo
    melancon is the next veras
    we’re winning because of cream pies and kangaroo courts

    • http://www.secondavenuesagas.com Benjamin Kabak

      we’re winning because of cream pies and kangaroo courts

      Wait. You mean the Yanks aren’t winning because of cream pies and kangaroo courts? Damn.

      • dkidd

        that narrative is still going strong. check back in november

    • pat

      You forgot a few…

      Arod and Tex hate each other from their days in Texas.
      Everybody on the team hates Joba.
      Phil Hughes is nothing more than a twiddling fuddy-duddy.
      AJ Burnett is Samuel Jackson aka Mr. Glass from the hit movie Unbreakable

      • JobaWockeeZ

        Or Jorge can’t call games.

  • Little Bill

    What exactly was the point of that Rosenthal article? It’s just a timeline of the Yankees missing the playoffs and the whole season turning into a trainwreck. Was it just wishful thinking on his part? It’s basically been the opposite this year for the Yankees which is what Joe was saying. Rosenthal’s article is an embarrassment.

    • Teix is the Man

      i was embarassed to read it…

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

      He was trying to be funny. He failed.

      • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

        He was also trying to be 5 ft. tall and failed at that, too.

      • Zack

        when did predicting that guys will need season ending injuries funny?

        • Zack

          become funny

  • pat

    Here’s one i’ve never heard before…

    Rosenthal, go blow dry your hair with a .38

    • Dayman, fighter of the Nightman

      Nothing but class over at Fox Sports…

    • http://deleted younguns

      +.38

      +.357

      +.44

  • http://www.retire21.org Mike R. – Retire 21

    “Sheets is brilliant, shutting down a collection of Royals backups. But John Smoltz is even better at Fenway Park, stifling the Blue Jays with a complete-game shutout.”

    I wish I could get paid to write drivel.

  • JobaWockeeZ
    • Accent Shallow

      It is? I’m with Neyer, for the time being.

    • whozat

      Too funny because it’s true that it’s looking more and more like the media is going to allow narrative to rob a player of the MVP…again?

  • gc

    The narrative that the John Smoltz signing was brilliant and his presence in the Red Sox rotation come June would be a shining example of their amazing depth and quality that distances themselves from everybody in the American League was one I laughed at all season long, and even more so when it so gloriously blew up in their faces. It seemed like nearly every baseball writer was peddling the same story line…”and look out once John Smoltz joins their rotation!” The funniest thing was that actually seemed surprised when it didn’t come to pass. It’s not like the guy just had major surgery and he’s old……oh, wait!

  • thurdonpaul

    i know im off subject, but, any chance yanks get to .667 winning percent for the year ?

    • Joey

      AKA 108 wins? Chance, yes. Very doubtful though. I think Mike said yesterday in his chat 95-100 sounds about right

    • whozat

      you went off topic to ask an absurd question?

  • Tank the Frank

    Writers and baseball fans alike hate the Yankees with the same passion. That’s why being on top is so sweet.

    I swear if the Yankees win it all, I will have no choice but to constantly rub it in for the next few years…and trust me I have nothing better to do. I know it gives Yankees fans a bad name, but with all the hate the Yankees have been getting the last few years, I won’t be able to control myself.

    • Dayman, fighter of the Nightman

      You can be pretty sure all the fair weather fans will be back, pink Yankee hats atop their heads. The hate will be tempered if they are winning.

      • Tank the Frank

        It’s more about the media for me. I wrote in to the ESPN Ombudsman about John Anderson’s “boli, boli, boli” remark. They won’t be able to do a 360 and start drooling over the Yankees the way they have the Red Sox when they won.

        If we win, it’ll only spark about two-dozen payroll columns.

        • Andy in Sunny Daytona

          Wouldn’t it be a 180? 360 just gets you back to where you started.

          • Tank the Frank

            I hate you. ;-)

          • JMK

            I was told there would be no math.

        • Dayman, fighter of the Nightman

          The media will follow right along with the fans. They go where the money goes. And honestly, does it really matter what ESPN, of all media outlets, thinks?

  • johnny

    If I ever see rosenthal the last thing I’ll do is ask him anything about baseball, since he clearly knows nothing about it. I will however ask him where he buys his LSD.

    • Tank the Frank

      And ask him who fits his wardrobe…besides oshkosh b’gosh.

      • dkidd

        baby gap

      • ShuutoHeat

        he shops with pedroia

        • Rey22

          +1 :D

  • Januz

    Everyone knows that the mainstream media hates the Yankees (You saw no better example than when they were fawning over David Ortiz, and treating Alex Rodriguez like he was Charles Manson or Hitler (And they did the same thing)). I would not be shocked if they found a way to give Morales or Mauer the MVP over Teixeira, this is what they did when they gave a guy who played around a dozen games (Palmerio) the “Gold Glove” over Tino Martinez. I think about how they constantly have written stores about how much better Jose Reyes is than Derek Jeter, or how Citi Field is essentially the Taj Mahal and Yankee Stadium is the Oakland Coliseum. Yankee hating by the media is par for the course.

    • whozat

      Morales would be absurd. Mauer would actually be a better choice, even if the Twins don’t win the division. He’s having an incredible year at a far more valuable defensive position, and he’s great back there.

      • Zack

        even if the Twins don’t finish over .500*

        • whozat

          So, if the Twins don’t have a good supporting cast, we should devalue Mauer’s abilities?

          • dkidd

            they could finish third without him. until the award is changed to “best player”, i personally prefer the mvp to be someone who is the difference between making the post season and not

            • whozat

              You’re tying a player’s value to the guys around him. How is that rational?

              With WAR, we can actually quantify how much a given player is worth, regardless of the guys around him. Why continue to use a metric that has nothing to do with the player we’re trying to evaluate?

              • Zack

                Unless the player on a bad team has numbers so much better than his compettion, its going to hurt him with the voters. you can cry and complain, but does it really matter? every award thats voted on is a joke; MVP, Gold Glove, All Star Selections. we all know Mauer, Tex, Cabrera are great talents, one winning an award thats subjectively voted on doesnt make him better than the person next to him

                • JMK

                  Well said.

  • younguns

    Heh…

    From now on, whenever I see or read Ken “Type R” Rosenthal, I think of this…

    http://pclanparty.com/forum_pix/assclown.jpg

  • dkidd

    right now, tex is absolutely the mvp. the twins played .500 ball without mauer, they’re playing .500 ball with him (a few games under, actually). the yankees have the best record in baseball. without tex, i think they’re neck and neck with boston and texas for the wild card

    obviously, if the award were “best player” then mauer gets it

    • whozat

      Who did they play in the first month? Were those teams hot? Was anyone on the twins playing over their heads that month? Have there been any injuries since then to the pitching staff or the offense?

      • dkidd

        this is just my personal preference as of today. obviously, mauer is having a better season and i assume he is worth more wins than tex. if the twins make the playoffs or even come close, then he’s the rightful mvp. if they hang around in third place for the rest of the year, i’d give it to tex

        • The Fallen Phoenix

          That’s completely idiotic, though. If Mauer is responsible for more wins than Teixiera, he’s more valuable, regardless of what team he plays for.

          Period. End of story.

          • dkidd

            it’s idiotic if you define value absolutely. in 1987, andre dawson was worth more wins to his team than any other player in the national league, but his team finished last. personally, i think a player who takes a second place team and puts them over the top is more valuable than a player who takes a terrible team and help them achieve third or fourth or last place. maybe it’s a steinbrenner way of looking at things, but the only thing that matters is having a chance to win the world series. if you don’t make the playoffs, what does it matter where you WOULD have been without a certain player?

  • Jacob

    I hadn’t read that article before, unbelievable. Ken Rosenthal is a hole.

    • PinstripesForeverDougie

      Indeed he is, Jacob!

  • Steve H

    Part of the Stark article. Does this “scout” still have a job?

    “Smoltz is the key, for me,” said one scout. “I’d be very confident throwing John Smoltz in Game 1 right now, because I know he’ll find a way. His pain tolerance is phenomenal. And you know he’s got something to prove.”

    • Salty Buggah

      Stark always quotes some weird scouts in a lot of his articles.

      • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

        Does he really quote scouts or are those sections totally made up? Sometimes I’m really not sure. He also has these quotes like “an unnamed AL front-office man said…” where I question that he really calls around the league people with real jobs what they think about his bogus ideas.

        • Steve H

          Him and Olney. It’s a way of putting something out there they want to say, but without claiming they said it.

          • gc

            Apparently, A-Rod is nursing a very serious career-threatening ankle injury. According to one anonymous scout I talked to, he said, “My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw A-Rod pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious.”

            (RIP John Hughes)

          • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

            Exactly. Is there anybody who does not take these annonymus quotes with at least a grain of salt?

    • Zack

      It must have been the same scout Olney used to describe Arod as ’40’ and ‘DH/1B’

    • Drew
  • JMK

    Rosenthal is married to Selena Roberts. I’m surprised he was so objective while writing that article.

    • Steve H

      OMG. I never knew that. That explains a ton.

      • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

        WOW, I did not know that either. My mind is blown.

    • AndrewYF

      Holy fricking crap. His life is so much more miserable than I thought it was.

      Wow.

    • Accent Shallow

      Do you have a non-Wikipedia source on this?

  • PinstripesForeverDougie

    Does anyone ever take a step back & observe how absurd & disturbing the media’s hatred of the Yankees, really is? We might have some safe havens here and there, but I worry for Yankee fans Universe world-wide. All this animosity can break many & cause others to succumb to the intense prejudice of those proudly waving the banner of Yankee-haters. Where have all the reasonable folks & journalists gone?
    I figure they have hidden their prejudice behind the allure of the narrative. Here people can shadow their bias behind a sense of kinship with the fans & enhance unfair stereotypes (all yankees fans are cruel & stupid)to suit their hidden motives. The narrative allows certain teams to be portrayed in glowing terms, Boston, and for our team to be made into the evil incarnate team.
    Well, I am sick of it and their will be a day of reckoning for these unprofessional monsters & the rotten fans of other teams. We will reclaim our throne someday & hard time will come to your shores to claim your sinful debt. Don’t worry my brothers and sisters, the Universe will be put back in place and the haters will be struck down.

    In other words, Yankees will win and silence their haters for a good long while. :)

    • AndrewYF

      This attitude of ‘Yankees and their fans are the poor, unfairly persecuted’ may be worse than the attitude that the Yankees are evil monsters.

      • PinstripesForeverDougie

        Waitaminute do you disagree with the notion the baseball media IS NOT strongly against the Yankees. You have seen simply with the inclusion of the supposed articles from the respected minds of Olney, Ken R. & Neyer how fair they are towards the Boys in Pinstripes.

        So, you tell me AndrewYF, how should the Yankee Universe and a fan like myself, act when faced with such prejudice?!
        I’m sick of the abuse that I’m forced to take for being a fan of this incredible team and no one should accept such unfair hatred for any reason.

        • Dayman, fighter of the Nightman

          “I’m sick of the abuse that I’m forced to take…”

          Really? Abuse? Come on, man. It’s baseball, you are a fan of the greatest and richest franchise in history and you want sympathy?

  • PinstripesForeverDougie

    Oh, and on the MVP chase- can someone give Neyer his bottle and then knock some sense into his noggin? The idea of giving a Yankee the MVP award seems to correlate to someone contracting the H1N1 virus.

    Neyer simply can’t compute the fact that Texiera is the MVP right now and, unless something drastic happening, his boy, Mauer is going to lose it. But how did this happen, he must ponder? Mauer was divined in the holy King {Bill} James Bible to win the award or at the very least the Greek God of Dishonor (Pokulis)!!

    How can a few game winning Hrs & gold glove defense alter the master plan?!? It worked out so nicely when Morneau stole, er, I mean won the award in 06′ over Jeter.

    It was supposed to happen again this year but now their plans might be ruined. I say might because we have 40+ games left and those in the corrupt media will do everything in their immense power to influence the vote away the deserving Texiera and Jeter as well. It amazes me to think this but, I would be shocked to see Tex win the MVP. There are too many “obstacles” in his, and every future Yankee’s,way, unfortunately.

    • AndrewYF

      Jesus Christ. A-Rod, the HATED A-ROD, won the award TWICE when he was a Yankee. What the fuck is this attitude that Yankees can’t win MVP awards because no one likes them? Has Yankee success made everyone go full retard?

      • PinstripesForeverDougie

        Woah, calling me retarded? How kind and intelligent of a response you came up with.

        First, off the only reason why A-Rod won the MVP in those years because his numbers were irrefutable better than anyone else. And the fact is a Yankee needs overwheleming numbers to win an award others, like Pedoria did last year,
        only need their baseball media friends to win it. In other words a non-Yankee MVP candidate needs only a B on his exam while a Yankee would usually need an A. This is not fair, in my opinion.

        Also, do you deny Derek Jeter was robbed of this award in 2006? In 2006, Morneau was not even the MVP on his own team!! He was not more important than Santana, Mauer, or Nathan. The only case you can make regarding that argument on Jeter’s team was Rivera.

        Hope you can retort my argument without vulgar insults.

    • Accent Shallow

      Tex getting the MVP over Mauer would be just as bad (if not worse) than Morneau winning over Jeter (and Mauer) in ’06.

      A catcher hitting like Mauer is incredibly, ludicrously valuable. A first baseman hitting like Tex is valuable, but not uncommon.