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“Narratives” vs. analysis: can’t we all just get along?

Oct 15, 2012, 9:35 AM EDT

source:  Let’s talk about narrative.

It’s a word that has come up a lot in baseball writing recently, in everything from the AL MVP debate to the Red Sox meltdown and now to the Yankees listless ALCS performance.  In response to most baseball stories in which, well, stories are told as opposed to a focused analysis of game action, it is not uncommon to see comments dismissing the storyline angle as “narrative,” with the implication that it should be ignored as something superfluous or even fake.

What has me thinking about this is a Twitter exchange between two smart people who, though I’ve never met them personally, I consider friends in that way you think about people you have interacted with on the Internet: Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan and Baseball Prospectus’ Colin Wyers.

The exchange was prompted by that Passan article I linked a few minutes ago about the bad crowds and angry fans in Yankee Stadium. It broke down like this:

This prompted Colin to tweet a link to one of my absolute favorite cartoons ever. Yes, the one to the upper right of this post:

Jeff took exception to this:

Colin responded by, correctly I think, noting that a debate about that is not well-suited to Twitter. I hope he does address it at some point. In the meantime, I’ll opine that both of them are right to some extent and I think they’re kinda talking past one another.

There is nothing wrong with telling stories about what happens off the field or, in this case, the stands.  I know there are people who care nothing about anything that does not take place on the actual diamond — people who are not interested in clubhouse controversy, gossip, off-the-field news and stories about the politics of fandom — but that doesn’t mean these off-the-field stories are meaningless for everyone.  A lot of people want the flavor and the drama and stuff.

Where it becomes dicey, though — and where I think both Colin and the XKCD cartoon are rightfully focused — is when writers believe that the storylines they identify and write about, however legitimate in and of themselves, have a significant impact on the actual baseball being played. Or that said storylines must necessarily impact how a given person should interpret what occurred on the field in the way that the story teller would have it go.

By way of example, it’s legitimate and interesting to write a story about how Miguel Cabrera accomplished a rare and cool feat in winning the Triple Crown.  It is specious reasoning — and the imposition of unnecessary narrative, however — to say Cabrera carried his team into the playoffs by virtue of doing something cool and rare, without actually assessing those contributions.

It is legitimate to note just how poorly Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez are hitting right now and to talk about how it is killing fans’ enthusiasm.  It is specious reasoning — and the imposition of unnecessary narrative, however –to say that Yankees’ fans lack of enthusiasm for poor play means that the Yankees are an awful train wreck of an organization or  that the poor offense is a result of the hitters choking, being complacent or uninspired because the team has a big payroll and the crowd isn’t cheering them on (not that I think Passan is necessarily making all of these points).

Miguel Cabrera is a great player who had a great season and people should totally talk about that. When they do, they can and should use every literary device and express their every emotional reaction to it.  They should not, however, claim that their emotional reaction to it makes the feat something that it is not.  Likewise, people who empirically analyze Miguel Cabrera’s contributions and find them to be less than the prevailing narrative suggests should not claim that their empirical value should affect how people feel emotionally about him and his game.

It is news — and people should totally talk about — that the Yankees fans are pissed, booing former heroes and are not selling out their games.  They should not, however, use that as data for their analysis of what is actually happening in the ALCS or use that legitimately interesting stuff to oversell how bad off the Yankees truly are. Likewise, people who empirically analyze the Yankees’ poor offense and find it to be a less than dire thing than the prevailing narrative suggests should not claim that it it illegitimate for fans to be angry as all hell that Robinson Cano and A-Rod can’t hit.

There is a place for analysis in baseball writing. There is a place for prose. There is even a place for poetry.  And as long as people aren’t confusing one for another and claiming that their preferred means of understanding the game should necessarily be adopted by others, it’s all good and it can and should all exist.

  1. charlutes - Oct 15, 2012 at 9:47 AM

    How is this not sports writers jerking each other off, pretending to have an impact the game?

  2. stex52 - Oct 15, 2012 at 9:48 AM

    Actually the problem with both is that they are only really understood in retrospect. You can analyze current data or you can compose your story line. Neither one really tells you about what is going to happen tomorrow. For instance, there is no big reason to believe the Yankees won’t start hitting in game 3 (although, with Verlander, I wouldn’t bet too much).

    Whichever you choose, it involves a lot of speculation to project it forward. But that adds fun to the whole fan-boy experience.

    • paperlions - Oct 15, 2012 at 2:08 PM

      Exactly. That is the point Wyers was making…..post hoc narratives that are twisted to fit what happened and then used as if they are insightful or explain both what happened and what will happen are the narratives people make fun of.

      If this same Yankee team won each game scoring 8+ runs/game, Passan would STILL have to consider them frauds and STILL have to think Yankee fans recognized them as such for his narrative to work (i.e. be true). Of course, if the Yankees had scored 8 runs/game and were up 2 games to none, Passan wouldn’t have said the Yankees were frauds and Yankee fans wouldn’t have sat on their hands all game long….meaning his narrative is post hoc huey.

  3. craggt - Oct 15, 2012 at 9:48 AM

    I’m for anything that involves XKCD. And for as many articles as possible that point out that the Tigers are ripping the Yankees guts out.

  4. zzalapski - Oct 15, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    Starting with Passan’s breathless exposition of Derek Jeter’s bathroom break in Game 1 against Baltimore, I’ve been underwhelmed with his writing this postseason. I’m half-expecting him to blame A-Rod for the economy before the postseason is through.

    • urdoingitwrongreds - Oct 15, 2012 at 9:56 AM

      I blame Arod for Passan’s inability to blame Arod for the economy.

  5. urdoingitwrongreds - Oct 15, 2012 at 9:54 AM

    This story is fitting tweets to its narrative.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Oct 15, 2012 at 9:55 AM

      Damn. Busted.

      • natstowngreg - Oct 15, 2012 at 1:10 PM

        Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

        The thing about narratives is not so much that they’re “superfluous” or “fake.” Rather, that they’re simplistic and made for the lowest common denominator. The Yankees’ narrative is about A-Rod because his huge salary and poor production makes him an easy target. Or, about how the team can’t function without Derek Jeter. Generates more newspaper sales and TV ratings and blog views. Such is the way media work, whether it’s about jocks, politicians, or actors.

  6. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Oct 15, 2012 at 9:56 AM

    It’d probably also help if people weren’t taking the worst offenders on each side and holding them up as beacons for the respective positions. Many of us on the stat side could use an adjustment in tone when educating those who want to genually learn about new information. For instance, there’s this thread(1) on The Book Blog between fangraph’s Dave Cameron and UZR creater MGL. These are two of the top people in the SABR world, and look how they treat each other? Then on the other side you get the Bill Plaschke’s and Maury Chass’s of the world, who look down at the SABR guys like little kids who “just don’t know any better”?

    How about we all just try to act a bit more civilized and not like 5 year olds.

    1 – http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/index.php/site/comments/is_side_arming_darren_oday_a_lefty_killer/#comments

  7. nategearhart - Oct 15, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    I think a lot of the issue stems from the Hall of Fame debates. The importance of narrative runs deep in many voters’ minds (the case for Jack Morris, for example, is probably around 80% narrative, while Blyleven took so long to get in because he had virtually no narrative whatsoever). Younger voters/interested parties are looking for more concrete facts in the debate. It gets quite passionate every year. And because the stakes are so high, those opposed to almost exclusively using narrative have developed a severe distaste for it, so much so that now you sometimes see people lashing out against any stories being told whatsoever.
    I’m with Craig; tell the stories! Just don’t let them explain what is happening on the field blindly.

  8. willclarkgameface - Oct 15, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    That exchange between those 2 dudes is ALMOST as bad as listening to Ernie Johnson kiss “Iron Man” ass for 4 hours a night. And yes, he referred to Cal as Iron Man. Who does that?

    I so want everyone on mute while I watch these games. The shitty announcers. The sabermetrics geeks. The sideline reporters. I just want the games. The games have been pretty decent and it’s really just all about that, right?

    • mazblast - Oct 15, 2012 at 12:19 PM

      If you think the “Iron Man’ reference is bad, you should listen to Reds games when the Brennemans are both on. Idiot son Thom calls his father “Dad” on the air, reinforcing the view that Idiot Son has never gotten a job in his life without the help of “Dad”. The good news is that Idiot Son spent most of his time on the TV side this season; the bad news is that when Idiot Son is on TV, we get Jeff Brantley on the radio, someone whose every statement about baseball is a crime against common sense. An example from this year–“When you’re standing still, you have no momentum”.

      I’m with you about the announcers. I try, I really do, but there comes a point at which it is necessary to preserve what’s left of one’s sanity by turning off the sound. We can always turn it back up if anything happens for which “analysis” is desired.

      • wretchu - Oct 15, 2012 at 2:58 PM

        You should hear Mike Shannan on our broadcasts. He would probably give Brantley a run for his money.

  9. historiophiliac - Oct 15, 2012 at 10:06 AM

    The amusing thing here is that some people still think humans function outside of narratives. Annoying.

    • paperlions - Oct 15, 2012 at 2:16 PM

      The problem is the perception of cause/effect. Event happen within the context of narrative and DRIVE narrative….but many act as if the narrative created post hoc is the REASON for the event.

      For example, teams that win have great chemistry, because winning is fun. When was the last time there was an article written about a losing team with great chemistry? Chemistry is more of a result of winning than a cause of the winning, though you can not completely dismiss either direction of the effect.

      • historiophiliac - Oct 15, 2012 at 3:03 PM

        I’m not even gonna argue with you, but I don’t think you can even understand the event until after the fact…when you put a narrative to it.

      • stex52 - Oct 15, 2012 at 3:34 PM

        Philiac, I think you are going a little deeper, to the fact that to be human is to compose narratives. Then we sit around the fire and tell those narratives because they are an attempt to define who we are. And then we must fit ourselves within that narrative to find our place in the world.

        Am I correct?

        If so, then I also agree with your observation that the narrative must be told in the past tense. Close to what I said above. It can be used as a parameter for future actions, but narratives change. But the narrative only changes when observed in retrospect.

        And the historian analyzes the narrative to determine whether it conforms to fact. But again, only in retrospect.

      • historiophiliac - Oct 15, 2012 at 4:21 PM

        And, of course, we carry narratives we’ve already developed forward with us, so we insert new happenings into that as we go along (so that it seems invisible — the construction) — or modify the narrative, if it no longer works for us (or start a new one, if the new seems unreconcilable with the past story).

  10. chill1184 - Oct 15, 2012 at 10:12 AM

    I got a nice laugh out of the cartoon that Wyers posted and that mental midget Passan took exception to it because it describes his “journalism” to a T. As with most MSM hacks err I mean “writers”

  11. lazlosother - Oct 15, 2012 at 11:07 AM

    No. We cannot all get along. That’s my narrative and I’m sticking to it.

  12. beelza - Oct 15, 2012 at 11:14 AM

    Sabr metrics could not stop Verlander from being awarded the AL MVP last year. Sabr matrics will not stop Miguel Cabrera from being awarded the AL MVP this year.

    • bmh9500 - Oct 15, 2012 at 2:03 PM

      This is the worst narrative of them all, right now.

  13. mazblast - Oct 15, 2012 at 12:13 PM

    Where I have a problem is in announcers and reporters putting The Narrative ahead of The Game. It’s as if everything is decided in advance, and anything that doesn’t fit The Narrative is ignored. Sometimes I wonder if the announcers are watching the same game I’m seeing–or paying any attention at all.

    • Roger Moore - Oct 15, 2012 at 7:42 PM

      I think a worse case is when they have a long-running narrative that they feel compelled to force-fit every piece of evidence into. It can be about anything, but is most often about players’ character. Two different players can do exactly the same thing but have it interpreted completely differently because of their established narrative. If a popular player gets angry and breaks something after striking out in a key situation, it shows how much he cares about the game; if an unpopular one does the same thing, he’s throwing a tantrum. If a popular player goes meekly to the bench after striking out, he’s showing quiet professionalism; if an unpopular one does the same thing, he’s proving that he’s indifferent. Worst of all, fitting those actions into the narrative just strengthens it, so there’s practically nothing a player can do that will undermine the narrative.

    • historiophiliac - Oct 15, 2012 at 7:45 PM

      Um, The Game is a narrative…

      • Roger Moore - Oct 16, 2012 at 12:42 AM

        The game may have a story, but nobody really knows what the story is until the game is over. That’s why the play the game, right? The problem comes when writers decide they know what the story is before the game even starts. They fit the events of the game to their preconceived story, rather than basing their story on the events of the game. That kind of fitting the real events to the preconceived story is what people mean when they talk about The Narrative* (note capitalization).

        *This is not at all limited to sports. It happens with lazy reporters in any branch of the news. If you’re a political junkie, you can see it happening all the time.

  14. Uncle Charlie - Oct 15, 2012 at 12:18 PM

  15. rbilotta - Oct 15, 2012 at 1:47 PM

    My problem with Passan’s piece is that is conclusory. As people have noted, it just supposes things based hindsight. Anyway when you click to Passan’s piece, the funniest thing is under his name is the designation “Expert”. That provided me some good laughs.

  16. paperlions - Oct 15, 2012 at 2:18 PM

    Wait a second….Passan took exception to something and got snippy? I’m shocked!

  17. historiophiliac - Oct 15, 2012 at 7:47 PM

    Upon reflection, I would like for Old Gator to run down the next Stankees-Tigers game, Slaughterhouse-Five style.

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