Close friend and faithful reader Big House Dawg emailed me this morning to comment on how much he dislikes the New York Times sports columnists. He singled out a really lame portion of a Murray Chass column, about Chass' disdain for the new-fangled baseball statistics (the column is framed around "things I don't want to hear or read about anymore"):
Statistics mongers promoting VORP and other new-age baseball statistics.
I receive a daily e-mail message from Baseball Prospectus, an electronic publication filled with articles and information about statistics, mostly statistics that only stats mongers can love.
To me, VORP epitomized the new-age nonsense. For the longest time, I had no idea what VORP meant and didn’t care enough to go to any great lengths to find out. I asked some colleagues whose work I respect, and they didn’t know what it meant either.
Finally, not long ago, I came across VORP spelled out. It stands for value over replacement player. How thrilling. How absurd. Value over replacement player. Don’t ask what it means. I don’t know.
I suppose that if stats mongers want to sit at their computers and play with these things all day long, that’s their prerogative. 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.
People play baseball. Numbers don’t.
If I have said it once, I've said it 650,000 times - no one who covers baseball, and that includes Chass, whose typical columns are replete with - yes- numbers, is seriously arguing that stats aren't central to our evaluation of baseball players. The only real debate is about which stats best illuminate a player's contribution to his team. In fact, VORP really gets to the heart of what we, intuitively, think is valuable about a baseball player. It answers a simple, crucial question: what would happen to a player's team if that player got hurt and had to be replaced by a typical bench player? The fact that it makes this evaluation not merely by recounting someone's batting average or RBI total is entirely irrelevant to to the false juxtaposition Chass creates here between people on the one hand, and numbers on the other. People put up numbers. What we want to know is which numbers tell us the most about those people.
But, not only is Chass affecting a pointless anti-intellectualism in this little rant. He's also displaying the kind of laziness I mentioned the other day in relation to Dan Shaughnessy. The fact is that more and more organizations are using exactly this kind of data in their analysis of talent.In fact, J.P. Ricciardi, the Toronto Blue Jays' GM recently singled out VORP as the best of the new measures for evaluating players. If Chass doesn't know this, or doesn't want to know this, he's just not doing his job.
In my exchange with Big House Dawg, I mentioned that I did usually like Harvey Araton. This was before I read his column today, which nails it about the national reaction to the NBA All-Star weekend in Las Vegas. In a column titled "Stain of Racism Feeds N.B.A's Renegade Image." Araton writes:
You can argue that Las Vegas was not the ideal site for an event that traditionally attracts thrill seekers hoping to attach themselves to celebrities and their posses. But the casting of the weekend as a lawless referendum on the N.B.A. product has become exaggerated to the point of being imbecilic...
Noting the delicate balance Stern has to strike between defending his league's image and not seeming too defensive about it, Araton suggests:
He may yet ask why nobody blamed Nascar for the death of a motorist who was shot in a road-rage encounter during a traffic jam after leaving the Daytona 500.
He may have to point out again that no N.B.A. player was involved in any Las Vegas transgression, compared with a number of N.F.L. players who over the years have turned Super Bowl week into episodes of “Miami Vice.”
He may crunch crime statistics relative to other sports events and large gatherings like New Year’s Eve that, he said, would prove that All-Star weekend was no behavioral aberration.
To his credit here, Stern takes on the race issue squarely:
“The subject is just so delicious that everyone from Imus to Letterman thinks it’s just hilarious to dump on the ‘hip-hoppers,’ ” Stern wrote. “Of course, race plays a part in the perceptions. Do you doubt that there were more African-Americans in Las Vegas last week than at any time in its history, and some people felt threatened by that simply as a matter of culture?”
In what has become an entirely commonplace point of argument, Araton notes the disparity between perceptions of the NFL and NBA, despite the NFL having a very bad year in terms of players' involvement in criminal activity compared with the NBA. While "football pays the bills for sports media in every NFL city," according to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Araton notes that the NBA presently lacks comparable economic clout:
Americans respect selling power, benevolent or not, and no athlete wielded more in the 1990s than Sheriff Michael Jordan. But not long after the Bulls’ dynasty crumbled, the N.B.A. was being characterized as too young, too edgy, too scary — code for too black — as it was said to be in the late 1970s, pre-Magic and Bird.
Now it’s also the hip-hop capital of America, Thugs R Us. As if what was possibly the worst N.B.A. disturbance ever, the Pistons-Pacers brawl in November 2004, wasn’t at least half the responsibility of a largely white crowd at the suburban Palace of Auburn Hills.
Talk about drunk, about lawless. And in that case, we do have the video to prove it.
At his best, Araton is one of the most insightful columnists there is. He's at his best today.
Unrelated to the New York Times, I am watching the end of the Florida-Tennessee game, with Florida headed to another loss. A couple of minutes ago, Dick Vitale, noted football expert, asserted that Brady Quinn would be a great player, a "winner" and the "next Tom Brady." Does Vitale know something we don't?
In 2006, Quinn put up huge numbers - except when he played anybody good. The last three ranked teams Notre Dame played in 2006 were: Michigan, USC and LSU. One game was at home, one on the road, and the third was a bowl game. Notre Dame lost each game, by the following scores: 47-21, 44-24, 44-14. In those three games, Quinn managed eight TD passes and five interceptions, but completed fewer than fifty percent of his passes for terrible yardage (under six yards an attempt).
Just out of curiosity, how does this make him a "winner?" And, what evidence is there that he's anything like Tom Brady? There's a somewhat more interesting comparison to be made between Quinn and Peyton Manning, the latter of whom also put up huge numbers in his college career but had a penchant for coming up small against top opponents. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to like to say that people are "entitled to their opinions, not their facts." Vitale's long on the former, short on the latter. So is Chass, for that matter.