Philosophy, Sabermetrics, and the Yankees

This is a guest post that I wrote a few weeks ago for the LoHud Yankees Blog, run by Yankees beat writer Chad Jennings and the staff of the Journal News. Here’s the original post: http://yankees.lhblogs.com/2012/02/03/pinch-hitting-matt-hunter/

The job of a philosopher is simple: Strive to discover the truth about humanity’s fundamental questions. In this quest for objective knowledge, the philosopher may be forced to challenge the beliefs and values that are central to his worldview and question the truth of all he had previously assumed.

As a philosophy major I have come to assume this mindset in all areas of life. I have questioned my religious beliefs, my political beliefs, and, most importantly, my beliefs about baseball, all in an attempt to uncover the truth about these vitally important matters. I often end up reaching the same conclusions that I had previously assumed to be true, but through this process of rational thought and thorough research, I have come to have more confidence in what I believe and a better appreciation of opposing viewpoints.

This brings me to what you all came here for: Baseball. I could not leave baseball out of my yearning for truth, so began to question the assumptions that I had always believed: That batting average, home runs, and RBIs determine a hitter’s prowess; that ERA and wins determine a pitcher’s; that there is such a thing as clutch hitting, that sacrifice bunts are useful, and so on. I read a book by the staff of Baseball Prospectus, I started reading FanGraphs, and before I knew it, I was a full-on SABR nerd. I used obscure stats to measure performance, I rolled my eyes whenever anyone cited wins or RBIs or used small sample sizes, and I obsessed over sabermetric articles and studies.

You know what happened next? I began to love baseball, and the Yankees, more than ever before. Because I grew up as a Yankees fan in California, I never had the experiences that a lot of you likely had. I only watched the games during the playoffs. I didn’t have any friends that were Yankees fans, and the ones who cared about baseball hated the Yankees as much as I loved them. I looked at the box scores in newspapers and followed the games online once I had internet, but I rarely saw the players play outside of highlights.

I still cared deeply about the team, which made it that much harder to follow the team closely. However, my discovery of sabermetrics gave me an appreciation of baseball that went beyond watching Yankees games and talking about them with my friends. I felt like I had been following the game naively all these years; I started to understand the complexity and sheer volume of variables that go into every game, and how those variables can be modeled and predicted. It sounds incredibly nerdy, yes, but it reinvigorated my love for the team.

This is not the way that most fans follow baseball or the Yankees, and there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with loving Derek Jeter for his clutch hitting and intangibles, or hating A.J. Burnett for the utter frustration he causes us. When I see Derek Jeter, though, I see a fantastic player – my childhood role model in fact – but a player who has always been overrated and is in serious decline. And when I see A.J. Burnett, I see a pitcher who doesn’t deserve the criticism he gets and actually has a pretty good chance of significant improvement.

This is not what many fans see, and that’s not only okay, but completely understandable. Sabermetrics is only one of many ways to be a baseball fan. It is not a blind attachment to obscure stats and an ignorance of scouting and intangibles, but an approach towards baseball that, like philosophy, focuses on discovering the truth above everything else. Also like philosophy, sabermetrics carries a negative stigma because of its tendency to throw away many of our intuitions. It doesn’t do this just to be different or because of a disdain for traditional stats, but in order to gain a better understanding of all aspects of baseball.

This is how I follow the game, and I love every minute of it.

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