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5,805 Characters About Baseball

by on April 29, 2015 6:30 AM

To enhance your enjoyment of this column, I offer the following information:

I began writing at 4:27 p.m. on Monday. The temperature on my back porch was 57 degrees. My typing speed was 50 words per minute.

At 4:42 I walked into the kitchen, poured a cup of lukewarm joe, nuked it to a temperature of 160 degrees, and was back at my keyboard in 3 minutes.

I worked on this column for an hour on Monday, thought about it when I couldn't sleep between 3 and 4 a.m. on Tuesday, returned to it between classes throughout the day and sent it to my editor at 3:22 p.m.

All told, it took me 5 hours to generate 838 words, which works out to a column-writing speed of 2.79 words per minute.

So what, you say?

Get with it. This is my column as analyzed by Statcast, a tracking system designed to quantify "how hard, how fast, how far, how high, how long" everything moves on a baseball field. I have adapted it to measure the intricacies of professional journalism.

I stumbled upon Statcast while indulging in my one daily guilty pleasure – perusing box scores and watching highlights. One highlight featured the Atlanta Braves' sensational shortstop, Andrelton Simmons, backhanding a ball in "the hole" between short and third and then throwing it in the opposite direction of his momentum with enough oomph and accuracy to beat the batter to first base.

Statcast deepened my appreciation of this gorgeous play by informing me that:

  • It took Simmons .11 seconds to start moving toward the ball
  • He attained a top speed of 14.7 mph
  • He threw the ball at 68.5 mph

That's a long way from Phil Rizzuto saying, "Holy cow, what a play!"

At moments of seismic cultural shifts such as these, one turns to the sages of the ages for the eternal verities. John Winston Lennon and Paul James McCarthy offer this perspective:

I read the news today oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.

What can I say? As a baseball fan, as in my professional life, I'm a "qual," not a "quant." It's not that I don't see the value of numbers. Too often, as a website called Confusion Road mockingly put it, we'll read a "trend" story in the news that uses "vague expressions like 'more and more' or 'increasingly' to disguise their lack of actual data quantifying the supposed increase."

Just as often, though, you'll see a quantitative study that does little more than confirm what already seemed perfectly obvious – say, that newspaper readers are more interested in crime news than international news. The confirmation is nice, but the "why" questions that such studies raise are rarely addressed.

Baseball has always been a numbers game. Any fan could look at a player's batting average, home runs and runs batted in and know whether the guy was an all-star or a bum. Then, in the 1980s, Bill James and other statheads showed that the traditional "triple crown" stats were misleading and insufficient measures of a player's value. And so they developed an alphabet soup of new ones: BABIP, FIP, UZR, VORP, etc.

Such "metrics" have been useful to the Billy Beanes who assemble baseball teams, but as a fan who isn't in a fantasy league, I prefer to experience the game on a literary level. That is, I like reading about it.

Forget speed or spin rate. This quip from Jim Murray, the great Los Angeles Times sports columnist – "Sandy's fastball was so fast, some batters would start to swing as he was on his way to the mound" – would have told me everything I needed to know about the great Koufax.

Compare Murray to this typical passage from a recent piece on ESPN.com:

"This season, he has put 68 balls in play and 28 of them have gone to the opposite field (41 percent). More notable is the payoff. He has 14 opposite-field hits this season, including three on Monday. He totaled 18 opposite-field hits in 140 games last season. He's also excelling with two strikes. His two two-strike hits against Kluber raised his batting average in two-strike situations to .355."

Reminds me of a mock sports report George Carlin used to do:

"Here are some scores from around the league: 3-2, 6-0, 7-3, 4-1, and here's a partial score, 5."

The non-baseball fan might think game and metrics are made for each other: Stupefyingly boring meets numbingly dull. So let me end with the best articulation of the game's appeal I've ever heard, from a writer named Jim Miller:

"It's the stillness at the heart of the game that I love. The empty space out of which motion and grace emerge -- the pregnant nothing that gives birth to the artful something. And baseball, like art, is gorgeously useless and inefficiently slow."

Note the lack of stats.

 

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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