Sabermetrics vs. Story-Driven Writing – A Continued Debate
J.A. Happ is my favorite pitcher in baseball.
Sabermetricians just snickered. J.A. Happ? The guy with a FIP a full run over his actual ERA? The guy who almost stole a Rookie of the Year award on the basis an unsustainably low BABIP and unsustainably high strand rate? The guy recently dubbed by Fangraphs as “The Most Overvalued Pitcher in the National League?”
Let me explain.
J.A. Happ was a 3rd round pick out of Northwestern in 2004, hardly a college baseball powerhouse. He toiled in the minors for 4 seasons before finally getting his shot in 2007 in a game versus the rival Mets. It was a disaster – he gave up 5 earned runs in 4 innings pitched. Immediately sent back down to AAA, Happ struggled the rest of the season. Scouts had never thought much of Happ and his low fastball velocity, and despite his dominant minor league statistics, they had never rated him highly in prospect lists. Now, he was finally justifying their evaluations.
Happ persevered. In 2008, he finished second in the AAA International League in strikeouts, re-establishing himself as a future Phillie. He made two starts for the big club in July, and two starts in the heat of the pennant race in September. The Phillies won every game he started. He even made the postseason roster, earning himself a World Series ring as a reliever on the Phillies’ first championship team since 1980.
Expected to finally take hold of a spot in the Phillies starting rotation in 2009, Happ pitched well in spring training, posting a 3.15 ERA, but was beaten out for the job by veteran Chan Ho Park, who had delivered a ridiculous 25:2 K/BB ratio in camp.
But after Park proved to be a disaster in the rotation, Happ took his spot in late May. And from then on, Happ had one of the best seasons by a rookie starting pitcher in Phillies history, finishing with a 12-4 record and a 2.93 ERA.
But it wasn’t just his success that stood out. It was how he was succeeding that was truly impressing me and my fellow Phillies fans. Not blessed with fastball velocity (it usually hovered around 88-91 mph), or a devastating breaking ball, Happ seemed to succeed on pure nerve. His “out pitch” was a high fastball – the type of pitch that screams “500 foot home run.” If a pitcher is going to throw a high fastball, it better be hitting at least 95 mph on the radar gun, or else he’s going to be holding his breath on every pitch.
It takes guts to use that as your strikeout pitch.
Happ had been perpetually underrated by scouts, underrated by the fanbase who had only remembered his terrible start versus the Mets in 2007, and underrated by the organization that repeatedly tried to find an upgrade for him even as he was delivering Rookie of the Year-caliber pitching statistics in 2009. He was gawky-looking, already balding, old for a rookie pitcher, and yet he was still flourishing.
Now let’s contrast Happ with Cole Hamels.
Hamels was drafted in the 1st round in 2002, straight out of high school. He was a California kid through and through: flashy, attractive and a little cocky. He also dominated the minute he hit the minor leagues, posting a combined 1.34 ERA across two minor league divisions in 2003.
Unlike Happ, however, Hamels was recognized by scouts for his performance, mainly due to his devastating changeup. He was rated the 17th best prospect in baseball in 2004, and never again fell out of the top 100.
It took Hamels four seasons to make it to the big club, but he never once struggled in the minor leagues. Repeated injuries, not performance, delayed his arrival until 2006. He finished his minor league career with tons of hype and a career 1.43 ERA.
Hamels made his presence felt immediately in the majors. He delivered a decent 4.08 ERA in his rookie season, but his 9.9 K/9 ratio showed that he was having no trouble dominating major league hitters. By his 2nd season, he was an all-star, and in his 3rd season, Hamels won the MVP award in the World Series, leading the Phillies to the championship.
So why I am comparing Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ? It’s a result of 2009 – the year their two careers converged.
While Happ was having his dream season in the Phillies rotation, Hamels was a mess. Following his spectacular 2008 playoff run, Hamels hit the banquet circuit, and by his own admission, was not fully physically prepared for spring training. He dealt with elbow tightness, missed a large chunk of camp, and when he returned to the rotation in early April, the on-field results were simply not there.
Hamels posted a career-worst 4.32 ERA during the regular season, and an atrocious 7.58 ERA in the postseason. But what was most troubling to Phillies fans was his attitude on the mound.
Hamels, who had never in his entire pitching career had a bad season, was apparently having trouble dealing with his struggles. He would be become noticeably irritated by poor calls from the home plate umpire. He looked exasperated when giving up home runs. And most troubling to fans, he would show disgust and dissatisfaction on the mound when a fielder would commit an error, essentially showing up his teammates.
Once the picture of California cool and collected on the mound, Hamels appeared to be falling apart. And fair or not, Hamels was often contrasted with the rookie phenom Happ, who always seemed to escape jams and exhibited an unflappable demeanor on the rubber.
Enter sabermetrics. While many fans blamed Hamels’ 2009 struggles on laziness and a lack of composure, sabermetricians made the point that Hamels was striking out just as many batters as he had in the past, and was not walking any more either. His inflated ERA was more a result of bad luck – an inflated BABIP and poor strand rate, they argued. Happ, on the other hand, was receiving the opposite effect. He really wasn’t this good – he was just getting lucky.
Lines were drawn. You had the sabermetric Phillies fan crowd on one side, championing Hamels and lampooning Happ fans and Hamels haters as dumb and misinformed. The fairly entertaining parody account FanSince09 on Twitter is the best place to look for an example of how this crowd viewed Happ fans.
Then you had the WIP and “I watch the games” crowd on the other, relishing in Happ’s brilliance and becoming increasingly frustrated and annoyed with Cole Hamels’ poor pitching performances and immature mound antics. Those who supported both pitchers were few and far between. By no fault of either Happ or Hamels, they became the symbols for a debate that rages in every fanbase.
As a Happ fan, I found myself defending my new favorite player on a regular basis. However, I wasn’t an “I watch the games” person and certainly not a WIP listener. I am a full-fledged sabermetrics supporter. I’ve used advanced statistics to win two straight high-stakes fantasy baseball leagues, collecting $5400 in the process and paying for two epic college spring breaks. I often get into debates with the owner of this particular site when he implores me, “Stop overusing sabermetrics!”
So why then? Why did I find myself driving the J.A. Happ bandwagon, despite the fact that I knew his success was likely unsustainable?
One main reason: his narrative was extremely relatable.
On one side, there’s Cole Hamels. Blessed with all the talent in the world, capable of dating models, and never had an unsuccessful pitching season in his life. And for first time, he was having a little bad luck, and he didn’t know how to deal with it. On the other hand, you have J.A. Happ. Disrespected his whole career by the baseball world, mediocre stuff, average guy looks, getting by on pure courage but knowing that it could all come crashing down at a moment’s notice. Essentially, the anti-Hamels.
You tell me which one feels better to root for. You tell me who you relate to.
I bring up this two-year old debate because of an article written by John Thorn today on Bleacher Report. Thorn is the new historian for Major League Baseball, and was previously thought to be a sabermetric supporter. However, in his article, he makes the case that “For a whole generation of fans and fantasy players, stats have begun to outstrip story and that seems to me a sad thing.”
In his mind, baseball writing and thinking is becoming too objective, and losing the narrative-driven style is making for a more boring game.
While I don’t completely agree with his argument entirely, he makes a very legitimate point. There must be a balance between stats and narrative in sportswriting.
The best baseball writers understand this. Joe Posnanski and Jayson Stark, in my opinion the two best writers in the business, are both well versed in sabermetrics, and use them in their objective analysis of players and teams. But they have realized that statistics without a narrative are just dull. A sport is not just a set of numbers – it’s something that we devote our lives to for months on end, getting to know our favorite players, finding reasons to hate our rivals, using team success as an allegory for our own personal success.
Many sabermetrically-inclined fans disagree with this line of thinking, however. Will McDonald, a blogger at Royals Review, recently wrote this.
The game can never just be about the game, because we've all got to imbue an essentially meaningless activity, really no different at its core than an episode of Real Housewives or any other form of entertainment, with all manner of emotional, cultural, political, and psychological importance. For some reason we have to pretend that it actually would make sense for a baseball player to be "a warrior" or whatever else we want to call him. All that myth, which has seduced just about every supposedly literary account of sports, is hands down my least favorite aspect of being a fan.
With all due respect to Mr. McDonald, usually a very talented and knowledgeable writer, I could not disagree more. Sports are not just a game, and certainly not meaningless. Sports inspire, they provide storylines that mirror everyday life, they provide cautionary tales for average people, moral tales. Sports breed cynicism in people who have gotten used to their teams always failing, and then inspire optimism when a long awaited title finally appears. To rip away the intangible element of sports, as McDonald unwittingly notes, would be to turn sports into simply an episode of Real Housewives – and no longer something that grown men cry over and bond over.
This is not to say, of course, that sabermetrics do not have their place. The work by statisticians is invaluable in helping fans gain a better understanding of the game. I read sabermetric sites every day, and am often amazed by the conventional wisdom that I find debunked.
But sports needs engaging stories as well, and sabermetricians would be well advised not to lose sight of that fact.
In 2010, Cole Hamels not only regained his pre-2009 form, he actually improved, posting a better strikeout rate and the lowest ERA and FIP of his career. The complaints regarding his on-field demeanor subsided, and he regained his status as popular member of the Philadelphia Phillies.
J.A. Happ spent most of the season injured, and soon after returning, was dealt to the Houston Astros in a package for pitcher Roy Oswalt. The sabermetric side of me knew that the trade was intelligent. Happ was still probably overvalued due to his fantastic rookie season and now he was developing a reputation for being injury-prone. Plus, in return the Phillies received Roy Oswalt, one of the ten best pitchers in the National League.
But the baseball fan in me was sad, sad that I would no longer get to see my favorite pitcher in white and red. Because watching Happ pitch was sort of like watching yourself try to succeed when you feel the whole world is against you. Which made every strikeout, every shutout, every victory more meaningful than any Cole Hamels gem.
Nothing against Cole Hamels, of course. I enjoy watching him pitch, and while he’s not one of my favorite players on the team, I don’t dislike him in the slightest. But while he’ll likely always be a better pitcher, he’ll never be J.A. Happ for me.
And in my opinion, that’s the way sports should be.