clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Telling the tale of baseball in new ways

It will soon be baseball season. In a way, we already know what will happen. But that doesn't mean we have to keep talking about it in the same ways.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

April 3rd. That's when the lights come back on. That's when baseball comes back in its purest form and sheds the husk of the fragmented practice sessions that whet our appetite for a month and a half.  First the Pirates and Cardinals will play, and then the Blue Jays and Rays. Then the lights will come to life at Kauffman Stadium, the banner will be raised, and then the Mets and Royals will remind us why the World Series captured our attention and simply refused to let it go.

We'll pull up the statistical leaderboards on Baseball Prospectus, and on FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference after a few days and amuse ourselves when we see that Johnny Giovatella is leading the league in all offensive categories and Bryce Harper is languishing near the bottom of the list. We'll marvel at how Tommy Milone is leading the league in DRA and Jake Arrieta has briefly morphed into something resembling the Baltimore version of Jake Arrieta. Our fantasy drafts will immediately punish us for being foolish and we'll get our first hints at who the breakout and collapse players are. Then the season shall wear on and on.

All-Star speculation will begin, and many prognosticators, including some at this very site, will begin to say why this particular player is more deserving than that player. The debate will work itself into a fine lather through all manners of media, citing everything from FRAA to Wins to good old-fashioned dirt-on-the-uniform sheer force of will. Once the season finally reaches that four-day caesura, all the king's horses and all the king's men will assemble to construct narratives to reflect on what has taken place, and therefore, what will occur in the second half.

We'll read about it in a variety of different ways. Baseball writing is perhaps stronger today than it ever has been before. Sabermetrics provide a more accurate window into what happens on a baseball field than the statistics that have appeared in newspapers since the Triassic Period.

The goal of sabermetrics was never to supply an alternative narrative for baseball. Sabermetrics came about as a way of more accurately depicting baseball. Why should a writer who explored the world outside of their favorite team by reading FanGraphs and BP use 'pitcher wins' in his or her writing? We know by now that Wins are a generally awful statistical yardstick and an anathema on our understanding of the game. When this hypothetical writer sets out to create a depiction of baseball, they'll likely use DRA or something of that kind to talk about pitchers. The writer probably won't think of what they're creating as sabermetric writing. To them, it's just baseball writing.

What baseball writing yearns for now, more than ever, is a fierce desire for something more. Theorems of the nature of the coming years of baseball storytelling have been discussed of late, and they are brilliant in their own ways. Rian Watt's article speaks of "intersectional" baseball writing that focuses on social issues. However, Meg Rowley claims that while baseball is a worthy medium through which to view the world, it "need not suffer delusions of grandeur." She is completely correct. A willingness to plunge into the socio-political mire that lies just beneath the surface of the infield grass is a noble quality to possess in the 21st century. There has been yeoman's work done in this field, and the best is likely yet to come. Watt isn't wrong that intersectionalism will become more and more important. But at the end of the day, sports is about having fun and enjoying the show.

Any kind of discourse, be it about social injustice or Andrew Miller's slider, is bettered by the inclusion of individuals who come from varied backgrounds and life experiences. Baseball is no different, and it is especially true when it comes to writing and reporting. Fans come from all walks of life and every background and gender. Why should those covering the game not be the same? Just as Babe Ruth was unseated by Hank Aaron, so too shall the aging white male corps of the industry be phased out. The Internet is a marvelous tool for inclusion, and it is the key to upping the number of people participating in the dialogue that aren't white males. Of course, this requires a willingness on the part of site editors to bring women and people of color to the table. Progress is being made there, and we can only hope that the trend continues in that direction.

There still seems to be a running narrative that the old and new guards of baseball analysis are entrenched on the Western Front and waging war. If there is a war being waged, it is the last dying breaths of a war that lasted for a relative nanosecond. Its soldiers are stranded on islands in the Pacific, clinging to barely-functioning rifles and taking aim at any plane that dares to pass overhead. They take potshots on radio shows and in columns that serve only to collect dust and ridicule. And it is ridicule that they reap, and then life moves on until the next shot rings out and is met with a collective groan.

What now matters most is not the battles between Bill Plaschke and the steady march of enlightenment. That is a battle that is over and won. What matters is the new generation of writers that are stepping up to the plate, keyboard in hand, and dissecting the game for themselves. There is a generation of writers (or soon will be one) that came to a deeper understanding of baseball not through newspaper box scores but through FanGraphs, BP, and hopefully through Beyond the Box Score. For these writers, WAR and DRA and wRC+ will not be newfangled madness that surely sprung from the minds of some Billy Beane-worshiping nerd camping out in his mother's basement. They're simply going to be the statistics of the game. They'll also carry with them a 21st century perspective on the world outside of sports, and hopefully a frame of mind that is not so very tarnished by traditionalism and a pessimistic perspective on what sports can and should be.

The 2016 season has not commenced, yet we know what we will read about it. We'll read about Mike Trout's continued brilliance. We'll read about the fledgling signs of youth in Philadelphia and Milwaukee, and even in the Bronx. We'll read about a pitcher bursting out of the void to throw 100 brilliant innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates. We'll read about who the Phillies are going to take first overall in the draft, and why the monetary shenanigans that go into drafting a player need to be changed. We'll read about Yasiel Puig making people angry, and we'll read the things that those angry people write. We'll read about torn UCLs, traded stars and heartbreaking defeats. We'll read about soaring triumphs and walk-off home runs, no-hitters and blowouts. We'll read about the truly awful things that bubble to the surface in sports every now and then, and we'll valiantly crusade and advocate for change.

All of it will be blissful, for baseball will have mercifully returned from the cold time of despair known as winter. Yet we're going to read about these topics in new ways and from new perspectives. We'll do the same in 2017, and again in 2018, when all those marvelous free agents are released upon the world to wreak havoc on payrolls. With each passing year there will be more and more new ideas and new voices. There's no question that baseball writing is undergoing a slow but steady philosophical change ----- creative destruction, if you will ---- it's not about numbers, and it's not about politics, though it often will be about those things.  It's about the voices that tell the stories.

The most important thing about any story is the plot. The second most important thing is the author. This is a time for a new cast of voices to speak their minds about the game we all love so much. Some of those ideas may be controversial, and some of them may question the accepted statistical dogma. This has happened before, and this, too, shall pass. We will all be better for it, fans and writers alike.

Baseball is a place for people to come together. Across its various levels, affiliated ball boasts players from places are far flung and varied as Japan, South Africa, Germany, Cuba, Australia and Brazil. The world is becoming smaller and so is the baseball community. It deserves to have its tale told by as diverse a cast and in as many ways as possible.

...

Nicolas Stellini is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also covers the Yankees at BP Bronx. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.