Ranking Ruth

I recently unfairly baited the great baseball statistics thinker Bill James into responding at vast length to one of my snarky tweets, which got me thinking about what we could learn from baseball history about how the media often gets The Narrative wrong.

The intellectual rigor of baseball discourse, a formerly overly sentimental field, has improved dramatically over my lifetime. Unfortunately, discussion of many other more important subjects, such as immigration policy, has gotten schmaltzier.

You might think, for example, that the success of new baseball stats suggests we should use “Moneyball” techniques to pick the best immigrants, the talented few whose presence will most benefit existing Americans, out of the 7 billion non-Americans, in much the way that sports teams today carefully draft the most promising young athletes.

And, indeed, after three years in office, the Trump administration has finally managed to get into effect this week a new, improved “public charge” rule to better screen out immigrants likely to wind up on welfare. But this seemingly simple concept of America trying to more intelligently select promising immigrants and keep out ill-omened immigrants has outraged and baffled the great and the good. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $10.00 (as of 08:25 EST - Details)

Baseball statistics has become a Safe Space for white guys who like to engage in acts of pattern recognition ever since a boiler-room attendant named Bill James began revolutionizing the study of baseball stats with his first self-published Baseball Abstract in 1975.

Over the past 45 years, the progress in baseball analysis has been testimony to the value of intellectual freedom. There has been a revolution among baseball intellectuals because nobody has gotten canceled for saying something deemed immoral. The old order was overthrown because, mirabile dictu, they lost a long series of arguments, and eventually jobs. Mr. James, for example, was hired by the Boston Red Sox front office, from which he recently retired after seventeen years and four world championships.

On the other hand, as with any historic change, the victors are likely to exaggerate the backwardness of the defeated. Hence, I like to tweak advocates of the triumphant advanced analytics (or “sabermetrics”) by pointing out that many of their findings about who were the best baseball players in history were anticipated generations ago by little boys. So I tweeted that the glass hadn’t been half empty, it had been half full:

Sabermetricians congratulate themselves for noticing in retrospect what fans in the stands noticed at the time. E.g., Advanced Analytics has determined that the greatest baseball player of all time was…Babe Ruth! Who was also the most popular player ever.

I went on to point out that the eight highest-achieving careers, according to the composite Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric for estimating the best all-around players at the popular Baseball Reference website, belong to Ruth, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, and Roger Clemens, all of whom were extremely famous during their careers among fans who had never heard of WAR or James’ own rival composite statistic: Win Shares.

Interestingly, James avoided creating an all-around statistic for rank-ordering all the players in baseball until 2002 due to the inherent difficulties in doing it right, long feeling that it was more useful to answer many small questions well than one big question badly.

Even today there are multiple versions of WAR that mostly but not always agree.

Read the Whole Article