The Most Unforgivable Sin of Baseball Writing

Old School Google

There are many reasons that sabermetrically inclined writers and fans are frustrated with their old school counterparts. The Hall of Fame voting debacle is probably Exhibit A, in which the very same people whose job it was to report on issues like steroids but failed to do so for decades now sit in self-righteous judgement of the “cheaters” who ruined the game by increasing attendance and inflating revenue. But for me personally, their most unforgiveable sin is their intellectual laziness.

Consider modern metrics such as FIP or WAR. As combinatorial, and more importantly – evolving – metrics, there are legitimate questions to be asked about their relative importance, design and efficacy. Handed down by God to Moses, these were not. And if the legacy sportswriters had considered them carefully, and discarded one or all for failures they perceived after studying them in detail, few if any in the sabermetric world would complain. These types of criticisms, after all, are relatively standard in sabermetric communities, where debates still rage on the merits of Baseball Reference’s WAR versus Fangraphs’ version.

Instead, however, the old school (with notable exceptions like Peter Gammons) treats them with disdain, undeserving of legitimate consideration – where they will deign to acknowledge such measurements at all. The origins of this attitude are variously attributed to fear, ignorance and arrogance, but whatever the cause the manifestation is laziness. A failure to study the latest research in your field – whatever field that might be – is nothing more or less than an intellectual failure. This is bad enough.

What is worse, however, is that many long tenured baseball writers don’t seem to be motivated to do even basic research – forget the advanced metrics. The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, an unfortunate successor to Peter Gammons’ Notes column at that paper, is a case study in this behavior. Here’s Fire Joe Morgan, six years ago, on a piece of Cafardo’s:

Would like to just make note of some ordinary, run-of-the-mill shoddy research in a major metropolitan newspaper, The Boston Globe.

If this was a one time event, so be it. It’s a bit unexpected to see at a major media outlet, which has editors in place to catch such things, but mistakes happen. This is, however, something of a habit for Cafardo.

  • In September his Sunday column suggested that BJ Upton could be a trade candidate this offseaon. Upton was, in fact, a free agent, and eventually signed with the Braves. A simple check of Cot’s Contracts provides information on current contractual status for any player in the league.
  • In this past Thursday’s mailbag, when questioned about potential pitching project signings to complement the major league staff, he answered with “You have guys like…Ben Sheets out there as well.” Which would be fine, except that Ben Sheets retired in October after a brief comeback attempt with the Braves. A Google query of “Ben Sheets” returns the retirement story in the top five results, assuming one missed the announcement at the time.

But it was an answer about Rick Porcello that grated the most. In the mailbag, Cafardo was asked about a potential Detroit/Boston swap involving Andrew Bailey and Porcello. And in the interest of full disclosure, this was a trade I myself had proposed:

Detroit is rumored to be willing to trade the young starter, who has been negatively impacted by the club’s poor defense, and having lost Valverde to free agency they’re currently projected to enter the season as a division favorite backed by a rookie closer who throws hard but has little idea of where the ball is going. Match that to our current bullpen surplus, which includes two capital C closers, and it would seem that there’s at least the basis for a conversation between the two teams. Which, to his credit, Cafardo agrees with. But then he went on to say:

Don’t know how good Porcello will be as he seems to be declining.

Declining? Based on what? Here are Porcello’s FIP numbers for the four years he’s been in the league:

  • 2009: 4.77
  • 2010: 4.31
  • 2011: 4.06
  • 2012: 3.91

So, the exact opposite of a decline. What about his strikeouts (K/9)?

  • 2009: 4.69
  • 2010: 4.65
  • 2011: 5.14
  • 2012: 5.46

Low enough to be concerned overall, but certainly not indicative of a decline. Maybe his walks are spiking? Here’s his BB/9:

  • 2009: 2.74
  • 2010: 2.10
  • 2011: 2.27
  • 2012: 2.25

That’s not it: he didn’t walk that many his rookie year, and he’s never again walked even that many. And as far as declines go, this year was better than last. Has he become home run prone, perhaps? How many is he giving up per nine?

  • 2009: 1.21
  • 2010: 1.00
  • 2011: 0.89
  • 2012: 0.82

So he’s been given up fewer home runs on a rate basis every year he’s been in the league, in other words. Not that Cafardo would trust it, but what do Porcello’s WAR numbers look like?

  • 2009: 2.0
  • 2010: 2.0
  • 2011: 2.7
  • 2012: 2.9

According to the advanced metrics, then, Porcello’s value is climbing rather than declining. As a traditionalist, however, Cafardo is probably most concerned with ERA. Maybe that points to a decline?

  • 2009: 3.96
  • 2010: 4.92
  • 2011: 4.75
  • 2012: 4.59

It is true that Porcello has never again equalled his rookie ERA (which advanced metrics indicated was unsustainable), but it is categorically untrue that his ERA indicates a decline. It’s evidence of the contrary, in fact. After a sophomore slump, Porcello has improved in every year since, in nearly every measurable statistic. Which you would never know if you read – and relied upon – Nick Cafardo. Undoubtedly, there are conversations being had in Boston right now about how it would be unwise to trade for Porcello in light of his “decline.”

This to me is a fundamental violation of the trust journalism depends on. Shouldn’t a reader be able to trust that a simple declarative statement from a senior writer at the newspaper with maybe the best history of sports journalism in the country roughly corresponds to the known facts? How can readers take anything Cafardo says at face value at this point, when his history demonstrates conclusively that neither he nor his editors are doing even basic research? This seems to be the definition of contempt for the reader.

When old school writers claim, then, that newer fans or writers are angry about being stuck in the proverbial “mother’s basement,” then, don’t buy it. We’re frustrated because the people charged with informing the public about the game of baseball – and who style themselves as its gatekeepers – have become too lazy to even use Google, and are proud of that.

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