Monday, January 25, 2010

A Biblical Guide to Baseball Prophecy

This post may very well be of no interest to anyone, which would hardly make it the first of its kind. If I could call any subject matter my niche, it would be things no one cares about enough to read. But to be more specific, in terms of sheer volume, the two topics I've written the most about are probably baseball and the Bible. The audiences for both are small enough, but the overlap between the two is impressively minuscule. But despite the almost nonexistent intersection of the disparate groups, this post is born out of their improbable similarities.

What I've noticed is this: there's a big similarity between biblical prophecy and baseball statistics and the way both have been received, dispensed, and interpreted.

Since I'm posting this on a Cubs blog, I'm going to focus on the baseball side of things, particularly the statistical realm. But since I know next to nothing about statistics, I'm going to weigh this sucker down with Bible talk. If the verbose introduction hasn't served as warning enough, I should also caution you that I'm not exactly a Bible scholar either. I mean, in the general community of Cubdom, I probably know more about biblical prophecy than most . . . but certainly not all. And among the people I know who would be most eager to discuss the translation of Isaiah 7:14 in the Septuagint, I don't know that any would give two craps about Fielding Independent Pitching.

So, chances are I could talk about either topic to the other audience without ever being exposed as a fraud. I'm okay with that. Now, on the off chance that anyone is still reading, I'll press on to something resembling a point.

Most people, biblically inclined or not, equate the term prophecy with the foretelling of future events. But the fact of the matter is, most of the content of biblical prophecy had less to do with judgments that lay ahead and more to do with sins that had already transpired and wayward beliefs and practices going on at the time. Sure, virtually every prophet predicted something about the future, but many of those forecasts were fulfilled in multiple manifestations separated by many hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. And some predictive prophecies are spelled out in fairly precise terms, while others leave room for infinite speculation and varying interpretations.

The big problem comes in the way people handle what they know, what they think they know, and what they don't care to know. Some scholars obsess over the minutiae to the contempt of the faith and the division of their ranks. Many well intentioned people project historical anecdotes onto completely unrelated current situations and future speculations. Others focus so intently on the future that they become myopic to their current travails or joys. And the masses just want to know enough Bible to feel good about themselves and roll their eyes at the mention of prophecy. But, whether any such people exist or not, the best among us have the wisdom to learn from past declarations, draw conclusions from clear predictions, and allow for the uncertainty of peering into the great beyond.

If you've yet to see a correlation between all of that and the way baseball fans view their stats, I applaud and pity you for making it this far. But I've observed a similar phenomenon among Cub fans and sabermetricians the world over.

In a debate taking place far above my level of understanding, there are statisticians on many sides of many different arguments about concepts I can hardly begin to understand. I won't go into them, I just know that there's a lot of projecting and computing and regressions and standard deviations and . . . hell, a lot of stuff I don't know. But the people who do know it can get pretty heated about their methods to the point you wonder how a game can cause smart people to act so foolish.

On the plane where commoners like me reside, there are old-school, lowbrow minds who devoutly swear by stats like Wins, ERA, batting average, and fielding percentage, and they'll tell you that the basic triple-crown stats tell you everything you need to know about a player's performance and his potential. They don't see the difference between the stats that describe the past and the ones that predict the future. Like a close-minded pastor using Habakkuk 3 to tell you rock & roll is of the Devil, they'll tell you that any stat invented after 1908 was contrived for the sole purpose of polluting young minds with the perverted rites of the cultic Epsteinian overlords.

Then there are the occasional saberlovers who are so infatuated with advanced stats that they look with disdain upon conventional numbers. If they had their way, games would no longer be decided by a statistic so rudimentary as runs but by a park-adjusted comparison of  team xBABIP, xFIP, EqA, and UZR or a sum of each player's Win Probability Added. Keith Law comes to mind. He got publicly lambasted (called an idito more than once, if I recall) for valuing FIP above ERA in his Cy Young balloting, and I can understand why. FIP is designed to ignore the factors of luck and the defensive skill behind a pitcher—but baseball isn't so kind to pitchers. Should the batting title go to the hitter with the highest xBABIP?

Crap, I'm afraid I've lost my last interested Bible reader. If you care for an overview of some of these stats . . . ugh, look them up. It's 4 in the morning, I can't post every link in the world. Or go here.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Of course, Wrigley Field welcomes plenty of visitors who have no intention of examining stats beyond finding just enough to confirm the positions they already hold about players, managerial decisions, and player acquisitions. They're mad. They're happy. They love a guy. They hate a guy. Find a stat that helps you feel better about that feeling . . . or don't. Whatever. You're definitely not reading this.

But the thing that I've learned from everything I read about baseball statistics is that some stats are really good at predicting the future and evaluating talent, even when they paint a different picture than the old-school stats that tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt what happened in the past. The typical stats are determined by tons of luck and teammate-dependent factors, but baseball is hugely affected by those factors. The advanced metrics may tell you who the best man is, but the old stats will tell you who wins.

But that doesn't mean you can dismiss the prophets who understand the stats better than you. I'll admit, most statistical methods give me a headache. I understand what's going on to some degree, but I will always need help knowing what the numbers mean, how they're computed, and where they're headed. I do know that no matter how good they are, they won't stop strange things from happening. You just hope that eventually, they'll stop stupid things from happening (cough, Aaron Miles, cough).

Prophecy, stats . . . they have nothing and everything to do with each other. Neither is necessarily predictive. Neither is necessarily relevant. But both of them will tell you the truth in a way you can't otherwise understand.  And I'll say this for sure: in life or in baseball, if you ignore the truth, you'll more often than not find yourself walking into big piles of suck left and right.


  1. Very well written. I have only one argument. I'm not so sure that the traditional stats tell us "beyond a shadow of doubt what happened in the past." I'll use just one game as an example. Aramis Ramirez comes to the plate with the bases loaded 4 times. In the first 3 plate appearances he hits line drive rockets that the 3rd baseman leaps to catch. In the 4th PA a LF makes a circus catch deep in left-center. Ryan Theriot comes to bat 4 times and has 3 bloop singles just out of reach of the 2nd baseman and an infield dribbler that the 3rd baseman pockets. Each time he came to the plate there was a runner at 3rd base and he finished the day 4-4 with 4 RBI. Ramirez, on the other hand, was 0-4 with no RBI.

    It would be easy to look at the box score and say Theriot had a better game, but he really didn't. He had better results, but I don't think those results tell us exactly what happened. Ramirez couldn't hit the ball any harder and there were 4 great defensive plays taking away at least 8 RBI. Theriot got lucky and probably only deserved 1 RBI.

    Over the course of a full season games like that don't even out, but they don't stand out as much as an individual game like I just mentioned. Over many seasons I'd agree with your comment for the most part.

  2. Thanks, mb, and I see what you're saying. "Beyond a shadow of a doubt" was the wrong way to say it. It probably would have been better to say "without prejudice or precision." You're really making the point I intended to make, that a pitcher's win total or a batter's hit total tell you about end results that often completely defy what a player actually did to achieve those results. Other stats that won't ever show up in a box score will give you a better idea of how well a guy's playing--but you still have to give Theriot his RBI . . . his bloops and dribblers still resulted in runs. I wouldn't say those stats even out, they just ignore the merits of the means and cut straight to the ends.

  3. No doubt. What happened is a matter of record. The runs count and so do the RBI. That's one issue I have with those so upset about the steroid era. Fine, all the great players used. So what? Barry Bonds is still the all-time home run leader. The ony thing that will change that is if someone passes him.

    That doesn't mean we can't put what he did into some kind of perspective. I read an article a few years ago about how Ruth would have hit more than 800 home runs had he played in the same era as Bonds. This assumes that Ruth takes advantage of the access to trainers that weren't around when he played and was just in as good a shape as today's players are.

    For what it's worth, I do think over a large sample those things even out. One of the reasons the advanced stats are so important is that any one season is a small sample. One standard deviation in wOBA over 500 PA is about 25 points, which means a hitter like Ramirez could post a .325 wOBA and it would be well within the range of his true talent level.

    xFIP and FIP become nearly identical the more innings a guy pitches and for that matter, FIP and ERA tend to even out as well.

    You said it well when you said that the advanced stats help us predict what will happen. They take out the luck and other factors that an individual has no control over. And when you do that, you've found the value of that player. Everything out of his control is attributed elsewhere, but runs are still runs. Wins are still wins.


Spill it.

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