July 12, 2016
Ahead of the Curve's Revisionist History
"If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works." -- inscription on the statue Ozymandias
In 1817, Percy Bysshe Shelly started his famous poem "Ozymandias," a reflection on the impermanence of dogma and its artifacts in the face of the withering golem of Time. About two centuries later, Brian Kenny began writing his own artifact, albeit one intended to strike a blow against dogma and advance novel baseball concepts. This book, "Ahead of The Curve," is neither novel nor non-dogmatic and had me wondering for whom, exactly, this book was intended.
The answer depends on how you and I and each potential book-buyer responds to the first sentence of the book, which begins in the unambivalent sports-shouting style that sums up Brian Kenny’s on-air work: “Somewhere along the line, we just stopped thinking.” That’s a hot take, to be sure—the arc of the moral universe bending toward stupidity. The next 353 pages aspire to prove it.
Take Chapter 1, which intends to show the breadth and depth of dogma’s cost by citing a jumbled ragout of examples from the past 15 years: Boston’s closer-by-committee fiasco in 2003, the Yankees’ annoyance at the Rays’ shifting early in this decade, a perceived institutional bias against singles hitters in the Ichiro era, and so on. Each, he writes, serves as object lessons as to how “The Herd” shuts down valuable thinking. He detours to Korea, where a Dutch soccer coach succeeded because he was immune to cultural boxes, then to Malcolm Gladwell anecdotes, and finally he ends the chapter by citing evolutionary psychology research claiming people are inherently lazy and don’t want to learn. One senses Kenny on the brink of telling us to watch the Mike Judge film "Idiocracy," that cautionary tale about how "stupid people" will eventually turn Starbucks into a fellatio hut. It’s smug internet atheism turned to 11, but for baseball, and leads to tone-deaf comparisons so hamfisted that they’re Honeybaked—as, at the end of Chapter 2, when he claims white privilege can be equated to baseball managerial privilege, where “ex-catcher with a jutting jaw” stands in for “centuries of systematic oppression.”
It takes only until page 34 before Kenny proclaims that he would do just as well in the dugout as any other strong-jawed manager out there right now. This is red meat for a certain type of reader, the pseudo-wonk who loves tilting at windmills, gleeful contrarianism, and lecturing Twitter eggs and blue-checkmarked pundits on the superiority of “data journalism.”
Of course, this reader was also the type who helped grow sabermetrics into what it is today, the one present in all the early high points of our founding myth, which Kenny covers: Branch Rickey in Life in 1954, Frank Deford's Sports Illustrated articles about Earnshaw Cook, Mike Gimbel & Bill James, Moneyball, and so forth. Kenny writes as many of us would have written back then (or continue to do today), railing against sportswriters as a brain-dead, backwater cadre of maniacs conspiring against the heroic. We can appreciate his defense of our very own VORP against Murray Chass' angry blogging.
But that infamous blog post (and Fire Joe Morgan's merciless torching of it) came out in 2007. It’s not just the fact that such a defense feels wholly unnecessary nearly a decade later, but that in recreating these rec.sport.baseball message board arguments, Kenny characterizes the sabermetric movement as wholly virtuous and falls into every old, lazy trap he himself decries. He creates a new dogma with new unassailable figures and new (unquestioned) metrics. It is with this overconfidence that, in his look ahead to the future of analytics, he claims that somehow this movement won’t be splintered by internecine conflicts (especially with Statcast in the mix!).
Twitter provides the most immediate counterexamples to Kenny's proclamations; I leave it to you to find them. But no accounting of sabermetrics can be complete without acknowledging the gradual (and very much necessary) withdrawal from the cocky surety that once (perhaps necessarily) propelled it. In short: Smarter baseball writers than I have already shown that making ballplayers realize their peak in season is more complex than taking burger orders through a clown’s mouth[i].
Kenny’s preferred style of baseball analysis naturally flows from his experiences. I can't verify exactly how anti-intellectual his hometown on Long Island was—though an infamous Supreme Court decision about banning books gives some clue—but, he writes, it was enough to make him whiplash 180 degrees in the other direction, becoming a self-made pariah, fighting against “the ignorant.”
Kenny's epiphany on sabermetrics came from buying a copy of Total Baseball, a book I had when I was a kid. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the real reason a hagiography on current sabermetric thought bores me is because it’s been permeating my consciousness since I was 7 years old. Palmer, James, etc. were presented to me as The Way Baseball Was, and I don't think it occurred to me that people thought any differently in the front offices. It is undoubtedly different for those who, like Kenny, found out much later they had been indoctrinated into an overly simplistic view of the sport.
But while he, I, and Bill James all “discovered” this stuff in different ways and at different times, none of us has an excuse for settling on one mode of critical thinking, or on one era’s scientific revolution. Kenny tucks into this text a mini-biography of James, his hero. Married with a entertaining account of his own “Dinner With Andre”—along with a blow-by-blow reconstruction of the 1941 MVP race, this is the strongest section of the book— Kenny delves into James’ difficult history, peppered with James' thoughtful comments about himself. James put the challenge of being “smarter” than “the herd” into uncomfortable perspective: He’s reaching his time to be orthodox, locked into his personal beliefs, “always questioning” but through a lens that he set up and struggles to question. That is to say, he is just as susceptible to bias as any other chump he derided. It just happened at a later time and in a different way. James’ awareness of this aspect of human frailty shines through.
Now lay over that over Kenny’s long assault here on errors, wins, saves, and batting average, a timeworn target that is little more these days than a broken-down dunk tank. “Tyranny,” he says. But, given a megaphone, hours on air and a book deal, can one really justify the position that rehash-tagged debates like Trout vs. Cabrera are really the most pressing problem in the game today? That the dogma to challenge is The Win, and not the league selling out every single minor-league ballplayer in the halls of Congress? Not the power imbalance between teams and 18-year-olds, one of whose career-altering injuries is played here as celebration of those smart, analytical Houston Astros? Not that the league’s teams have, in the interest of penny-pinching and clubbiness, staffed their front offices with something like 99 percent men? Nor the $1.16 billion the league made by selling 1/3 of its technology base to Disney, one of America’s most enduring symbols of dogmatic thinking?
And, even if the win, the error, the bad MVP vote were the defining issues of baseball in 2016, can it be argued that the argument must come from the bomb-throwing-“outsider’s” position that was considered outdated at least a decade ago? Because that’s really the most significant whiff of this position: Nowhere along the way did we just stop thinking.
“There’s some geek at every team who’s read our paper,” the founding father of behavioral economics, Richard Thaler, said recently. “Think of the Jonah Hill character in the movie Moneyball. And nobody pays attention to that guy.”
Except that the Jonah Hill character in the movie Moneyball is a real person, who was the assistant general manager of a major-league baseball team. A book about him sold more than a million copies. “The movie Moneyball” was nominated for Best Picture. He became the General Manager of the sport’s second highest-profile team. After he lost that job, he was hired by two other teams. He gets paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak to the nation’s elites. An entirely different sport hired him to run one of its teams. Everybody pays attention to that guy!
It’s not just that Kenny’s causes in this book aren’t important—that they’re hot takes generating endless content for a world that demands endless content from its media figures. It’s that Kenny’s premise, the one that he states in the very first sentence, is entirely contradictory. Brian Kenny is the face you are most likely to see when you turn on the league’s official channel. His book has admiring blurbs by a number of the sport's titans, from Buck Showalter to John Smoltz to Bob Costas to Tom Verducci to, yes, Billy Beane. He is orthodoxy. The outsiders are now the insiders, and they’ve forgotten what was valuable about them being on the outside in the first place: humility, perspective, and the freedom to care deeply about what really matters.
Sean O'Rourke is a member of the Baseball Prospectus stats team. Brendan Gawlowski reviews books for the site.
[i] Something that itself seems rather challenging, even from the other side of the drive-thru.