Sunday, July 3, 2011

Thanks to Tony Botello for noticing, to Anon for arguing, but now's the time to call bullshit bullshit

Last night I snapped. After the second inning I could watch no more. I had had enough. I turned off the television and made more productive use of my life, vowing never to turn the Royals on again, never to read the paper about the Royals, never to listen to the paid talkers squawk about the Royals and never to write about the Royals.

You can see how that went.

Even if I can’t hold to it, I am duty bound to offer it as advice to others.

Actually, watching the game itself isn’t so bad if you appreciate it for what it is… a battle between David and Goliath… a penny pinching minor league team against a major league team. From that perspective, it can be kind of interesting.

What you have to eliminate, for your own sanity, is the commentary. You can only stomach so much bullshit at a time and in a world full of bullshit, every little bit you can avoid helps. As a political scientist of sorts, bullshit is my research interest. As a teacher, I encounter some form of bullshit every day.

One of my favorite little books is “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt. Professor Frankfurt begins his treatise with this:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it…. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves." From there he develops a sophisticated definition of bullshit, which, for a philosopher is something akin to establishing your fastball early in the count.

As Professor Frankfurt soon points out, bullshit is everywhere today. We’re awash on an ocean of bullshit and, as the late James David Barber foresaw, the ropes mooring our boats to the shore are coming loose at a frightening pace.

My impatience with bullshit about the home team is not because I'm a New Yorker marooned in Kansas City and spoiled by winning. I’m no newcomer to losing baseball. I was an A’s fan as a kid. I have a friend who says he became an atheist because he always prayed on Sundays for God to help the A’s win at least one game of the doubleheader. Like Nietzsche, his conclusion was that God is either dead, not a baseball fan, or not listening to boys marooned in Kansas City.

At least then we had Star sportswriter Ernie Mehl to call bullshit “bullshit.” The owner once saddled up a donkey and had him led around the warning track at Municipal Stadium wearing a banner that read: “Poison Pen Award to Ernie Mehl.”

A Henry Wiggen Blog reader took me to task yesterday for my “cheap shot” at Star sportswriter Sam Mellinger. I was reacting to the usually reliable Mellinger’s convoluted logic that somehow Zack Greinke’s 5-something earned run average – when compared to the ERAs of the rest of the starting staff – made the trade for Greinke look like a success for the Royal’s Brain Trust. My argument was that Mellinger failed to mention Greinke is 7 and 3 so far this season for the Brewers and only Bruce Chen, who hasn’t pitched much, has a winning record for the home nine.

Now, in the abstract, Anon was right in criticizing my use of the pitchers’ won / lost records to argue with Mellinger. Anon – who is, b y the way, a pretty darn good writer – reminded me most Sabermagicians have abandoned winning and losing as a measure of pitchers, that my old school approach is hopelessly dated. I agree, to a point.

Whatever the math reveals, it seems the point of the game is still to win. The argument reminds me of the current abhorrence for the ancient runs-batted-in statistic. I agree this yardstick is flawed. It depends in great measure on what the three or four hitters in front of the person in question are capable of doing. But, again, the point of playing baseball IS to drive in runs. Flawed as won / lost records and runs-batted-in may be, it is still better to drive in runs than to not, and winning is definitely better than losing.

My fear is that those who should hold the feet of the Royals Brain Trust to the fire will get lost in numbers describing bullshit like "quality starts" and "pitches seen per at bat".

Today, the Star’s Sabermagician blogger Martin Manley seemed to have had enough as well. His column, though not a direct repudiation of Mellinger’s, makes the case using much more sophisticated number. As I barely understand it, GMSC – game score – is meant to measure what a pitcher adds or subtracts to the game by his presence on the mound for however many innings he lasts. The calculus is more complex than that, adding points for completed innings and strikeouts and subtracting for hits, earned runs, unearned runs and walks. It was created by Lawrence, Kansas, wizard Bill James, of course.

So, if I’m reading this chart right, Royals starters have only added value to 36 of the 83 games they’ve worked. That’s roughly 43 % of their starts, which is reasonably close to what you get if you only look at their won/lost records. And only Bruce Chen has averaged adding anything to a game – and Chen just barely.

Now, as I said before, that is horrendous. As Manley said, it certainly wipes the lipstick off the pig.

Which is what got me going on this subject in the first place. What I’m sick to the point of shouting about is the ridiculous public relations effort (sorry John Landsberg… but you know what I mean) by the team’s talkers and others, to not only put lipstick on this pig but add eye-shadow and blush. I expect better out of the sportswriters and bloggers who cover the Royals. The announcers – well that’s easy to understand. Frank White and Denny Matthews have adopted their mothers’ admonition to not say anything if you can’t say something nice. The others come to the booth well armed with lipstick and eyebrow pencil.

And what’s more troubling is this same ocean of bullshit is everywhere today, from baseball to medicine, to politics, to education. About all you can do now is swim for your life.

--Lofflin… pushing that damned metaphor like an old Volkswagen with a bad starter…

Image courtesy

PS: Joe Posnanski used the dreaded "quality start" statistic to absolutely embarrass the Royals' pitching staff in a great post today.I remain unconvinced about quality starts but the numbers they produce do nail Kyle Davies work on the mound rather well.

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