If you spend any time working as any sort of designer or engineer, you quickly discover that human beings are absolutely horrible at explaining what they want. A client will come to you and insist on some crazy feature (“We need a big photograph in the middle of this web page”) which to an expert is just obviously a bad idea for five reasons you can think of right away, and another couple dozen reasons lurking beyond, and so you have to delicately steer the conversation to dig down beneath the surface of this seemingly stupid request to find the real reason they suddenly want this change. You ask dozens of questions and pick apart what they say until you discover that the problem has nothing to do with a lack of photographs at all, they just want the page to have more three-dimensional depth. So you simply add a drop shadow to the border, and all is well.
The human mind is like that. We’re very good at sensing when something isn’t quite right, but we’re really awful at consciously understanding what the problem is and how to solve it. Still, that doesn’t stop us from guessing. Weirdest of all, we convince ourselves that our guess isn’t a guess: this really IS the problem, and we really DO need this solution.
So when Murray Chass goes rambling that these newfangled statistics are ruining the game, I thought, I recognize this pattern. It’s an obviously preposterous statement. But this isn’t coming from some ignorant blowhard message board troll, it’s coming from a Hall-of-Fame writer. There probably is a real problem here, but the problem is not VORP, and the solution isn’t to ban it.
Here’s the key statement:
But their attempt to introduce these new-age statistics into the game threatens to undermine most fans’ enjoyment of baseball and the human factor therein.
The idea that statistics can undermine the enjoyment of baseball is obviously preposterous. It’s easy to provide plenty of counterexamples to prove that statement false. The real problem, if I can read between the lines a bit, is this: Nobody has any friggin’ idea why fans enjoy baseball.
When we ask the question, “Why do teams win?”, we can respond with precise measurements like OPS and WARP and VORP. But when we ask the (IMO) more important question, “Why do we watch?”, we fumble around for answers like, well, design clients.
Baseball is a sort of Age of Enlightment when it comes to understanding why teams win. The Bill James, Nate Silver, and Tom Tango characters of this era are transforming our understanding of how teams win, just as Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton transformed our understanding of how the universe works.
But when we try to understand why we’re so fascinated by this sport, we’re still in the Dark Ages. Sure, we’ll make guesses, but our guesses are pretty much the equivalent of describing the sun as a burning chariot traveling across the sky. We talk not in measurements, but in vague terms like “the human factor.” Basically, when it comes to why people watch baseball, we’re primitive barbarians who still believe in magic.
Never get between a barbarian and his magic. I’d explain why, but it’s a long, tall tale.