The Kansas City Royals shouldn't be in the World Series.
They aren't the best team in the American League. Hell, they weren't even the best team in the American League Central.
Ned Yost is their manager, for God's sake. And Dayton Moore, the butt of any good general managerial joke, is their architect.
They have no power. They never take walks. Their pitching staff is patched together with improbably good seasons, unwise free agent signings, and an ace that was acquired in a widely criticized trade -- a trade that many still see as a panic move made by Moore in an effort to save his job.
But they are in the World Series. They won the games. They own the pennant.
Clearly, Baseball is in a statistical golden age right now. The research and analysis being produced in certain circles has been beyond interesting. It continues to be something that sets baseball apart from other sports that can only attempt to have the same kind of an emphasis on numbers. After several years of theorizing, almost every team in baseball has -- in some cases, like the Royals, quite slowly -- adopted sabermetrics and the results are beginning to take the field with the players. Infield and outfield shifts are commonplace now. The Astros' Decision Sciences department isn't a quirky aggrandizement anymore.
But in a time when information is at a crescendo, it's hard not to become entrenched in these ideas. The traditionalism that opposes sabermetric analysis seems to have caused some of the best statisticians to begin despising improbability itself, rather than the people that use it as a talking point against the logical use of advanced information.
Baseball Prospectus' Zachary Levine made a clever comment in response to a story written by Yahoo's Jeff Passan entitled -- on Twitter -- "The Royals are America."
Loud and obnoxious, taking advantage of the system and owned by Walmart? RT @JeffPassan: The Royals are America. http://t.co/FSWcROZbvy— Zachary Levine (@zacharylevine) October 16, 2014
Good point. The "loud and obnoxious" part is really just an opinion, but the rest of Levine's tweet is apt. The Royals are where they are because of the system put in place by the league's collective bargaining agreement -- specifically revenue sharing, draft slotting and international bonus pool regulations.
And the Wal-Mart part, that's just true.
A lot of people around the baseball community seem to be reluctantly admitting that Dayton Moore must've had a pretty good plan all along. After all, Kansas City is a small market with a cheap owner, and again, they have Ned Yost managing a largely sub-elite group of players.
Some people are calling this state of bewildered reconsideration revisionist.
I'm thinking about this stuff only because we're going to hear a lot about the #Royals' great plan, and it already feels revisionist.— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) October 15, 2014
In some cases, it probably is. Some people are going back on everything they said for the first seven years of Dayton Moore's tenure with Kansas City and rewriting that Cahokia mound of antiquated strategy that led to prolonged and unquestionable failure from 2006 to 2012.
But something that seems to be missing is a shrugging embrace of improbability.
Basing strategy and analysis on the most probable outcome is clearly the best way to approach baseball, but when a toddler accidentally colors outside the lines and makes something much more beautiful than the cartoon drawing of Olaf the Snowman, you don't tear it up and demand that they start over inside the lines.
The Royals run to the World Series is great precisely because it has been utterly improbable.
Baseball history is profoundly highlighted by moments that shouldn't have happen. Kirk Gibson should' have hit that homer in the '88 Series. Roy Halladay-- as good as he was -- had "no business" pitching a perfect game in the regular season only to follow it up with a no hitter in the playoffs a few months later. The examples go on and on. Babe Ruth shouldn't have been able to -- and possibly, didn't -- call his shot in the 1932 World Series. The odds on that are probably incalculable, but if someone put them together, it'd have to be something like a billion-to-one.
Sabermetrics have made baseball a better thing, but the improbability that advanced stats delineate is also an amazing part of the game.
Other than its relative triviality, the SABR-traditionalist debate not entirely unlike the argument between theology and positivism that has been raging for about 250 years or so. One side is hesitant to change and the other embraces new information as a doctrine in and of itself rather than vehicle for description and explanation. Things are clearly much more nuanced than that in both arenas of thought, but on some very basic levels, the two debates are similar.
Enjoying the Royals' postseason run doesn't have to be revisionist. It isn't destiny, either. They aren't magic.
Sometimes, things just happen when they probably shouldn't.
Baseball reactionaries don't seem to like sabermetrics. Most of them would rather make sarcastic remarks about some guy in a cubicle playing with a computer than learn what RA9 is -- it's not hard, Mitch ... and it's better!
Guys like Mitch Williams and Harold Reynolds like to discount the opinion of those that haven't played the game or people who don't buy into momentum, grit, clubhouse chemistry, and stick-to-itiveness.
Most of those recitals are obsolete hokum, but sometimes, the SABR community seems too quick to dismiss things they can't put into a formula.
To the traditionalists Ned Yost is successful this season because he's a good clubhouse guy. The players like him. He trusts his boys. Whatever.
To some stat-heads, none of that matters. Yost uses antiquated tactics and he should be replaced immediately despite the team's recent and unlikely success.
Those opinions seem to be at the polar ends of a Psych 101 "seesaw battle." While traditionalists seem to dismiss basic math, the hardcore stat guys -- not necessarily Levine or Sheehan -- seem to dismiss the fact that the players are human being rather than cogs in a deterministic wheel of metrics.
Yost is, pretty definitively, a bad manager -- whatever that means. But he might not be a bad guy to have around in a clubhouse -- as a bench coach, maybe? -- for players who have been coached by men like them their entire lives. (There may be more of them now than ever, but most high school baseball coaches are more like Charlie Manuel than Joe Maddon.)
The players are people, not numbers. People do improbable things all the time. Numbers don't.
For example, during a brief stretch of about a week this season, the Royals own Alex Gordon threw a wrench in the sabermetric march toward adorning the best player in baseball -- Mike Trout -- with an MVP award.
Jeff Passan -- far from being a traditionalist himself -- began a critique of fWAR in response. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron responded.
August 20, 2014
It was an example of how improbability tends to cause problems.
Gordon wasn't the best player in baseball at any point this season, just like the Royals aren't the best team in the American League right now. But there's a conclusive paradox there that really puts a lid on the entire debate in those two examples.
On one hand, you have the SABR crowd claiming the Royals probably shouldn't be where they are while simultaneously defending Alex Gordon's brief and improbable reign as the best player in the game -- or more specifically, a stat category meant to amalgamate the total contributions of a player -- simply because that's what the numbers said. (There's also a slight hint of cognitive dissonance when someone compares Gordon's WAR leadership to Nelson Cruz's league-leading RBI total since WAR is meant to be a more evaluative stat rather than a descriptive one, but that's another debate entirely.)
On the other hand, the traditionalists decry WAR and Gordon's brief run as the top player while, at the same time, embracing the improbability of the game as a crutch in their debate with staunch sabermetricians.
It's pretty clear that improbability is being selectively championed and bastardized.
It makes sense that statisticians would oppose the embrace of improbability as a strategy. Who would? If you did, you end up succeeding at an insanely inconsistent rate -- something like once ever 30 years or so, maybe? I dunno.
However, the debate between baseball reactionaries and the SABR community can cause a sort of partisanism to develop and crystallize.
Advanced stats do a great job of showing us how the odds on how likely something was or could be, but when those odds are defied, it isn't an indictment on those stats or the statisticians who created them. Those numbers can be used to describe how unlikely -- and therefore, how awesome -- those anomalies can be.
Sabermetrics add to the excitement of improbable events. They don't establish an ethos that views improbability as a bad thing -- or at least, they shouldn't.
Most people probably don't completely prescribe to one side or the other, and that's a good thing. Stats are a great part of baseball, but if you identify with them on a personal level or despise them for being too cold and deterministic, they fail at fulfilling their purpose -- which is to describe and explain the game that is independent from the stats themselves.
Another good thing about improbability is it's definitively limited nature.
In other words, this debate isn't likely to pop up again for another 30 years or so.