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.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Remembering Sosa When It Meant Nothing (ACB)

I had the privilege of posting over at Another Cubs Blog last night, adding to a series they had done last summer in honor (yes, honor) of Sammy Sosa. One of these days I'll get the hang of this blogging on multiple sites, but my rampant disorganization and random motivation have ganged up on me lately—so I'm just now getting around to linking to that post. Here it is, in all its slow-developing glory.

I'm working on a few other posts, so those should be coming up in the next few minutes hours eons days, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Random Cubs Facts, Opinions, Fabrications, and Outright Diversions

Firing Jim Hendry is a bad idea.

Jay Leno is not as unfunny as people give him discredit for. He's also not as funny as Conan.

1998 was the best year of my adult life. The home run race was a part (nowhere near all) of that. I wouldn't change a thing.

If the Cubs win the World Series this year by cheating, I will celebrate until I collapse in an unethical heap of exasperation.

If the Cubs win the World Series this year through methods of interrogative torture that cross lines even Jack Bauer wouldn't step over, I would have second thoughts.

I do not endorse cheating, torture, illegal steroid use, or the designated hitter.

Wrigley Field is unique and one of my favorite places in the world. So is the house I grew up in, but I'm glad my parents remodeled.

If Wrigley had a JumboTron that could replay controversial calls, they'd have to stop the game every other inning to rid the playing field of angrily discarded beer cups.

Everyone's at least a little racist.

Ryan Theriot isn't getting any better.

Put an @ before someone's user name to make sure they read your tweet. Use @@ to attack them with a giant 4-legged robot.

Going two-sies in the Wrigley troughs is a breach of etiquette.

The best Cubs-related movie of all time is Die Hard.

Dick Stockton will be the play-by-play guy for every Cubs 1st-round playoff game from now until the end of time.

I looked up the word curse in the dictionary, and I don't see a single definition that doesn't apply to the Cubs.

I love the Cubs, I hate the Cardinals, but to each his or her own.

Former players are entitled to their opinions about steroids, but I expect them to be no more objective than they were when they argued with umpires.

Parking at Wrigley has the exact same cost-to-pain ratio as getting a root canal.

Just once I'd like to catch a foul ball at Wrigley Field.

Alfonso Soriano will be great again.

Carlos Zambrano is the best Cubs pitcher, and he's worth every penny.

The Cubs will win it all in my lifetime.

I am not to be trusted.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Shady Acres: Wrigley's Rundown Retirement Village

This is just a quick note on the whole Dawson number retiring blah blah blahness.

The way the Cubs retire numbers is really odd. Ernie Banks entered the HOF in '77, but they didn't retire his number until '82 (the year after the Trib bought the team). At that point, it was pretty clear they didn't take the ceremony very seriously. Not because Banks didn't deserve it, but because it made it look like he was the first player worth recognizing after 100 years of Cubs baseball.

They didn't go back and honor Gabby Hartnett or Hack Wilson, the only two primarily Cub HOF'ers who actually had jersey numbers—though Hack was lucky to get in via the Veterans Committee and Hartnett didn't have enough clout on his own team to keep his jersey number (he had three). My point is, the recognition wasn't based on entry into the Hall of Fame. They just singled out Banks as Mr. Cub. Okay.

Then in 1987 when Billy Williams was inducted, they retired his number almost immediately. That made it look like HOF entry was the main criteria. Gotcha.

Four years later, Jenkins got in. Nothing. They waited another twelve years . . . and retired Santo's number. This signaled a change in policy: the Cubs would now retire jersey numbers based on the likelihood the player would die. Fair enough.

Meanwhile, the Cubs honored Fergie's HOF entry by letting Maddux take #31 to the Braves. Then they let Kevin Foster, Bobby Ayala, Brad Woodall, Mike Fyhrie, Donovan Osborne, and Mark Guthrie all don the should-be-retired digits. Oh, and then Maddux brought it back in style from '04 to '06.

But when Maddux retired, the Cubs retired his number in a joint ceremony with Fergie. I loved both pitchers, but it just didn't make much sense to wait this long after Jenkins entered the Hall or to act this immediately after Maddux left the game. Is the number retired upon Hall entry, upon the player's retirement, or just whenever the crap the Cubs feel like it?

Now, apparently it's just contingent on the hat Hawk will be wearing. Thus far, the criteria for jersey retirement are as inconsistent as Rich Hill. The best thing for the Cubs to do is completely reform the process. Andre's number is the least of their worries.

One thought: completely renovate the outfield wall. Figure out a system to plant ivy over padded wall sections surrounding the wall. Cut out sections in some panels that display the outfield distances and some that display retired player names and/or uniform numbers that are more representative of the Cub greats throughout history. The wall would look just as magical and ivy covered, but you'd have more flexibility to recognize the greats, advertise in a few more spots, and not kill people who run into the wall. Just a thought.