This one was written by our friend Larry Parsley.
Brian Kenny, the popular sports anchor for the MLB Network, has penned a delightfully polemical take on baseball stats in Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution. Kenny is definitely on the side of the geeks. He sets his book up as a battle between the unsung heroes (baseball stat guys, ostentatiously referred to as ‘sabermetricians’) and the rubes (old school managers, retired ballplayers, and members of the Baseball Writers Association of America). As far as Kenny is concerned, the old school baseball people adopt a “purposeful ignorance” when it comes to the superiority of new school stats like WAR (Wins Above Replacement), OPS (On Base Plus Slugging), and WHIP (Walks Plus Hits Per Innings Pitched). These new stats are said to be vastly more effective in predicting baseball success than the ones on the backs of old baseball cards (a pitcher’s wins, for example, or RBI’s).
But the book often ventures beyond mere statistics. Kenny seems to play the role of armchair social psychologist, suggesting that so much decision-making in baseball follows “the herd.” Those who sacrifice an out by bunting to advance a runner have the tradition of the herd behind them, but the numbers reliably predict fewer runs scored through this traditional maneuver.
Yet the most startling section of the book for me had little to do with numbers. Kenny spent an evening at Fenway with the “Godfather” of sabermetrics — Bill James. James’ Baseball Abstracts have been devoured enthusiastically by everyone from rotisserie league owners to general managers (most famously, Moneyball’s Billy Beane). James was even hired as a senior advisor by the Boston Red Sox in 2003, and today owns three world championship rings produced by that once cursed franchise.
But James’ current (if controversial) acclaim was hard-fought. We learn of his gloomy childhood in 1950s Kansas. His mother died when he was four, and his single father struggled to care for James and his six older siblings. “In this bleak existence grew an angry child, with an intellect all but buried.” James admits he was “not a likable kid” nor was he highly esteemed by his teachers. The absence of a mother, the limited emotional support from his father, the alienation from schoolmates and teachers alike — all this combined to produce a troubled kid. Yet James’ early exposure to ridicule somehow fortified him to set his face like flint against the baseball orthodoxies he would eviscerate in his books. He found strength to fight through the professional rejection, in part because he had dealt with such resistance his whole life. As James himself put it, “I should stress I’ve tried to learn not to be rude. I mean, I have my whole life tried not to be, I’ve tried to learn not to offend people but…we were…at the bottom.”
Kenny concludes that this “anger, isolation, and search for order in a random, cruel universe forged a brain that would transform Major League Baseball. The rude kid at the bottom of Kansas society would continually see things that had gone unnoticed for nearly a century, things we might never have seen without him.” Brainiacs, like athletes, can also find deep motivation from the ‘bulletin board material’ of another’s disrespect.
But ultimately, this American success story did not exactly warm my heart. As much as I admire the psychosocial alchemy that turns disdain into Copernican resolve, I remain haunted by those words: “we were…at the bottom.” How much professional success does it take to putty in the absence of a mother’s existence and a father’s warmth? In such a world, where else can we turn, but to the One who came deliberately to the bottom, to embrace motherless sons and face down the herd on our behalf?