What sabermetrics originally promised, I believe, was a way to shine the light on the undiscovered, to take something shrouded in superstition or mystery and turning it into an actual, scientific explanation of what happened and what could happen in the future. It’s taking things like clutch, or the closer mindset, or lineup construction, and actually drawing out the math to see what’s actually behind the curtain.
This is all well and good at the beginning; when the orthodoxy is so inscrutable but the math is basically back-of-the-napkin, it’s easy to slay these dragons in short order with wit, until slowly but surely, just like every field of study, each subsequent study has diminishing returns, and we get to the point where we’re all, at least in the analytical community, dealing with a similar set of premises and assumptions.
Where this goes awry is when it merely becomes a tool to use... the exact same subjective arguments we were before. If you’re using the idea of grit and the will to win to justify why a player is great, and then you replace that wording with better, sharper analytical tools, but to under-gird the exact same ideological argument, then you’re just back at square one.
Which brings us to a smattering of conversations we’ve had early on this season. The first of which has been the now-nauseating Mookie Betts vs. Mike Trout discussion. I could go into the homer-ism, or the obvious math that Trout is and has been a better player on paper; but, again, that’s not the point. If Boston, a pretty exciting team with a generational talent, is collectively loving the performance of Betts, then so be it. The idea of fan policing, even if we’re trying to “correct” someone else on their analytical woes isn’t improving the discourse.
The nexus of all of this has been a much larger discussion, spawned by Bill James’ argument over what defines a “superstar” in baseball writ large. He comes up with six criteria for what he defines as one:
- Players must be considered a star over a span of years, and not inconsistently.
- It is unclear what to do with bad players who have name recognition, and it is unclear if Miguel Cabrera, for example, is a superstar.
- One must determine when you decide they “became” a superstar, and whether you would backdate it to that point is also unclear.
- There is a difference between a great player and a superstar.
- There is no consensus as to what percentage of players should be superstars.
- A superstar transcends the sport.
This is, as usual, a reasoned, well-thought-out understanding of all the ways in which the phrase itself is conceived and applied. Yet, as I said, it’s missing the all important meta-analysis of... why do we need to define superstars at all?
He does issue a mea cupla on defending the “Bryce Harper isn’t a superstar” position, which was essentially that he shouldn’t have taken such a strong stance to defend it. I’ll be up front and say that I think Harper is a superstar, largely for the exact points he himself laid out. Yet, again, this isn’t point.
This discussion takes me back to the age-old Jack Morris Hall of Fame debate, which ultimately ended in a Veterans Committee induction regardless. The divide is and will always be this: there is how the numbers rank the players, and there is how people feel when they watch and experience a player’s career. We’re never going to be able to tell someone who watched Morris that, ‘Well, actually, he wasn’t as good as you thought he was’, because—why are you trying to convince them of that? Sabermetricians shouldn’t be in the business of making people just adjust their own player leaderboards, but to merely look at the game from another angle or through a new tool.
If we “elect” another superstar, they don’t kick another one out of our consciousness. Each of us are permitted to admit as many or as few superstars into our lexicon, and I’m always going to fall down on the side of allowing more superstars than fewer, if we even take the bait. We’re not pulling a fast one on people if we tell them Harper is a superstar and he “actually” isn’t, or that Cabrera is “no longer” a superstar because of his age. If we’re playing the subjective game, then we should fight it in purely subjective, philosophical terms. With all the talk of baseball and the “marketing of its stars,” it’s not a bad thing if people are captivated by a player, full-stop.