Statistical Romance

This evening, Cardinal Nation saw the debut of Brock Peterson when he pinch hit in the fifth inning for Lance Lynn. Peterson immediately got a standing ovation when he came to bat and, after working the count and having a strong at-bat against Edinson Volquez, he grounded out to short, driving in what turned out to be the last run the Cards would score on the night. Peterson got another loud ovation as he left the field.

On Twitter, though, someone thought that was significantly overblown. I can’t find the tweet now, because I’m apparently hopeless when it comes to finding a Tweet from just a couple of hours previously, but it basically stated that a groundout to short deserved a mild fist pump, not an huge crowd response.

Now the Tweeter, El Maquino, is a sabermetrically inclined writer. He’s usually got some good information either on his feed or on his blog. We worked together while he was a member of the United Cardinal Bloggers and I know that he is a fan of the team, even if he’s a bit more cynical and cocksure than I ever could be. You could say that’s a function of youth; you could say that’s because he knows and understand the game better than I do. I don’t know that I’d argue either point.

So before I get into the rest of this post, I do need to extend an apology. I commented that he seemed to be started down the Straussian path and, honestly, that’s a label you really shouldn’t throw at anyone, even when it’s a Tweet that would seem to go right along with some of those #bfib tagged outings from the Post-Dispatch columnist. Even if I disagreed with his point, I should have been more circumspect in how I stated it.

But that does seem to be the way of some, not many or all, followers of the sabermetric approach to baseball. Now, this is not a screed against those who calculate the stats and use them to appreciate the game. That’s not what I’m saying in the least. The use of spreadsheets and formulas has done a lot to enhance our knowledge and enjoyment of the game and if front offices and other folks aren’t using them, aren’t pushing those statistical boundaries, they are missing out. I’ve often appreciated that the St. Louis front office tends to merge that side of things with the more subjective view of players and in a manner that seems to be working quite well for the club.

There seems to be a tendency for some, though, to try to go too far, to take all the romance out of what we are seeing on the field. Recently, we saw this on Twitter when Brian Kenny, the MLB host who is noted for his analytical leanings, argued that no-hitters weren’t anything special. They were lucky flukes and unrepeatable events, so why pay any attention to them? Who cares if the pitcher gave up no hits but had four or five baserunners on? If it’s not perfect, to Mr. Kenny, it really doesn’t matter.

Like it or not, baseball is about people. It’s about the guy that’s been a Cy Young contender, only to fall from grace and be beat around like a punching bag, rising up for one night and doing something that few in the game have ever done. It’s about the minor league journeyman who toils for 11 years in the minors without ever getting that cup of coffee. He keeps pressing on, though, even playing independent ball. Then, one year, it all comes together and suddenly he’s in the bigs, getting that one moment that, honestly, most of us would give a lot to experience just that once. The result doesn’t matter that much. It’s the journey to that spot that matters.

Does that give Brock Peterson any sort of free ride? Of course not. The fans aren’t going to be giving him standing ovations in a couple of weeks if he still doesn’t have a hit (though they will the first time the baseball nestles into the outfield grass and he stands on first). It’s all about the moment. The moment that shows the soul of the game, the soul of humanity in general.

Without those moments, without those stories, without the feelings and emotions that come along, there’s no reason to watch baseball. There’s little reason to play baseball. Plug in the formulas and simulate the season. Why root, why cheer, why invest yourself in anything related to the team if these sort of moments don’t touch you and make you cheer those players that make them happen?

Again, I’m not trying to slam anyone here, but if the fact that perseverance was rewarded on a ballfield in St. Louis in July didn’t make you want to cheer, maybe there’s more to this game to tap into. Spreadsheets and formulas have their place–and it is an increasingly large place–but so do the stories. So do the people. As the late Jack Buck said, “Pardon me while I stand up and applaud.”

 EDIT: El Maquino and I had a good back and forth over Twitter. He clarified that he was happy for Peterson. He just expressed it a way that his audience was used to but that didn’t quite come off the same for everyone else. I understand that and while the principle still holds, perhaps the example doesn’t work as well as I initially thought.

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