March 22, 2013 at 10:00 am by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
One of the questions students used to ask me was, “What’s so important about history? It’s all in the past, and it doesn’t matter if I remember certain dates and people.” It’s actually a really good question. If you can’t answer the essential question of “Why?”, then it’s probably not something worth doing, and “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” is the worst answer – it doesn’t explain anything. My response to the students was always that you don’t know who you are until you know where you’ve been. Each one of us has led a certain life and experienced certain events that have had an impact on who we are. We can argue nature vs. nurture all day, but to ignore nurture would be idiotic.
More generally, we can’t truly understand who we are as a society until we know where we’ve been and what we’ve experienced societally. Why is Santa Claus the way he is? The original St. Nicholas didn’t always wear red, probably wasn’t fat, and definitely didn’t have reindeer. Odin (where “Yule” comes from) traditionally had a long beard and rode on horseback, but there was no red and no sleigh. Sinterklaas wrote in a book about who was naughty and nice, had a long beard, and wore some red, but he wasn’t particularly nice and rode a white horse. Father Christmas was a nice man, but he wore green. It actually wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the modern image of Santa Claus came to be, and it wasn’t really until Coca-Cola popularized the image in the early 1900s that it became a national image.
Over the years, we’ve changed, adopted, and twisted the image to fit our needs. Santa’s a fat, jolly man with a beard because we don’t want kids to be afraid of him, but he’s still got that book with everyone’s name in it because he can’t give gifts to everyone! We need some way to make our kids behave! The point is that Santa doesn’t really have to the be fat, jolly old man with a long, white beard who wears red and sits on a sleigh. It’s not an objectively correct image. It’s just the one we have. Understanding history and where we come from helps us understand that the society/government/ideology/etc. we have aren’t necessarily “correct”. In most cases, they came into existence and gained acceptance for certain reasons pertinent/important/available at the time, but knowing why and where they came from help us understand how “correct” they may be. This theme holds true for more important ideas, but we’re not here to talk about those. We’re here to talk baseball, which has its own form of historical influence.
I doubt many of you know who Henry Chadwick is. For those who don’t, Chadwick is one of the Fathers of Baseball. As one of the first national baseball writers and a member of the rules committee, Chadwick had an undeniable influence on the game. He was even one of the first statisticians in the game, having worked on Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player (one of the first guides to baseball) and creating the modern box score. He played a significant role in the early tabulation of statistics and the keeping of records. It was during this time – the mid and later 1800s – that many of the traditional stats we know came into existence. Though they weren’t necessarily the creation of Chadwick, he probably had a say in whether or not they remained in the lexicon.
Whether or not Chadwick is responsible really isn’t the point. The point is that a select group of men created and popularized these statistics, and the public came to accept them. This includes such statistics as batting average, RBI, pitcher wins, and ERA. There was nothing really wrong with what they did. The game was new, and keeping track of these events was pertinent and important. They did what they could with what they had, and these came into existence.
Over the next century, the public came to accept them and use them. Box scores repeatedly flashed them across newspaper pages, then radio waves, and eventually TV and computer screens. They even shifted in meaning and usage. The original intent of most statistics was simply to tally them as a record or to help tell the game story. Over time, these statistics came to be used in analysis. Baseball fans spent 100 years talking about and evaluating players with them, thus reinforcing their place in society.
This is, of course, where we come to the crux of the issue. In the 1960s a man named Earnshaw Cook began looking at statistics in a different way, and in the 1970s Bill James took that to another level. Over the next 30-40 years, “sabermetrics” and advanced statistics have pushed their way into the baseball lexicon because they asked the “Why?” question. It wasn’t meant in an intentionally antagonistic manner, but when a strategy or idea didn’t jive with someone’s hypothesis, someone did some digging and came to several discoveries, which we don’t really have to get into now.
Going back to the beginning of the post, the most important question one can ask is “Why?”. It gets to the very purpose of an idea or action. Why does batting average have to be how we measure a hitter? Why do we use pitcher win-loss records? If your answer is “Because that’s what we’ve always done”, you need a new answer. Yes, there may have been a reason for them. Yes, people did accept them for a time and for a reason. But new ideas arise. New technologies are invented. If they surpass their ancestors in might or right, they replace them.
The only constant through history is change.
This doesn’t mean the old ways or those who led them should be forgotten. Chadwick should be revered as one of the Fathers of Baseball. And the journalists who followed in his footsteps should be lauded for their efforts to inform the public and popularize the game to the best of their abilities. But that doesn’t mean everything they did was exactly right, and that one cannot improve upon what they did. How could they have known or done any different?
But now we know … or at least we’re closer to knowing … we think. Improvements in statistical research made possible by the improvements in technology have changed what is possible. Armed with new weapons, we can ask why and come to answers closer to the truth than our predecessors. While they may need further advancement and better technology to further uncover the truth, the advancements really are advancements. “Why?” depends on the metric or model, and any of us would be happy to point you toward an article with an explanation.
All of this doesn’t mean we are better than our ancestors. To use some sabermetric terminology, our replacement level has simply shifted up. To borrow some relevant clichés, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” and “With great power comes great responsibility.” We have more to work with now, so we should do more. It’s not a question of better or worse, and it shouldn’t be about power. It should be about knowledge and the ability to critically think for ourselves. It should be about evaluating new ideas and accepting the good ones while discarding the bad. It’s those skills I hope history teaches its students.
Newer metrics aren’t the final say, and they’re simply a step on the road to enlightenment. This isn’t the “end of history”.
Because the only constant throughout history is change.