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Sportswriters, Stats, and Journalistic Standards
[Opinion] Is there any level of bad writing that won't be tolerated?
Timothy Savage (yamanin)     Email Article  Print Article 
  Published 2007-02-28 18:11 (KST)   
The last week of February must be a boring time to be a baseball writer. With the Hot Stove League over but Spring Training games yet to begin, there's not much to write about other than which player tweaked his hamstring during fielding drills and which minor leaguers are still stuck in the Dominican Republic due to visa problems.

Thus it's hardly surprising that Murray Chass, the venerable baseball columnist for that most venerable of journalistic institutions, the New York Times, should choose to devote his allotted column inches to a list of subjects he hates talking about. This is the sort of curmudgeonly article that old sportswriters like Chass like to pen when they have nothing else to write about and feel like being, well, curmudgeonly.

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After listing the usual suspects -- Roger Clemens's ongoing retirement soap opera, pending free agents angling for contract extensions, etc. -- Chass pulled out the favorite bete noire of the cigar-chomping, plaid jacket set: statistics, in particular, the newly developed stats that make up the field known as "sabermetrics," after the Society of American Baseball Research.

Chass went after Baseball Prospectus, a prominent online baseball analysis site that also prints an annual book previewing the coming season. [In the interest of full disclosure, one of the founders of BP, Christina Kahrl, is an old college friend of mine, but I myself have no financial interest in the project.] The particular object of his wrath was a statistic known as VORP, which Chass dismissed as "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," Chass admitted. After asking some colleagues who didn't know either, Chass finally "came across" the full name of the stat -- value over replacement player. "Don't ask what it means," Chass concluded. "I don't know."

VORP is actually a stat developed several years ago by another friend of mine, Keith Woolner. The idea behind it is that there is a certain level of performance which can easily be provided by the average minor league veteran trolling around AAA. Thus the value that a major league player provides to his team is the degree to which his actual performance exceeds that of the hypothetical "replacement player."

See, Murray, that wasn't so hard, was it?

The usefulness of this statistic stems from the well-known fact that players at more difficult defensive positions (catcher, shortstop, center field) tend to be worse hitters than those at the easier-to-play spots (first base, left field, DH). By contextualizing a player's offensive contribution according to the standard for his respective fielding position, it allows us to compare the value of players at different positions. So, for instance, VORP believes that Joe Mauer (66.9 VORP) was a more valuable player for the Twins last year than AL MVP Justin Morneau (52.0 VORP).

Of course, such stats are not for everyone. Some people would rather just sit back and enjoy the sunshine, the smell of fresh cut grass, the cries of the hot dog vendor, and the sound of wood meeting horsehide. Which is, of course, a fine way to enjoy the game of baseball, and one that I indulge in whenever I can (although always, of course, with my scorecard open across my lap.)

Why not, in the words of Chairman Mao, "let a thousand flowers bloom"? Surely America's great National Pastime has room for all kinds of fans?

Not according to Murray Chass. The statmongers' (as he calls them) "attempt to introduce these new-age statistics into the game threatens to undermine most fans' enjoyment of baseball and the human factor therein."

Come on! As if legions of fans would drop their beers and run screaming for the exits if scoreboards at major league stadiums started flashing a players' VORP instead of just his batting average, home runs, and RBI.

Chass's crotchetiness is perhaps understandable. He has, after all, been doing his job for a long time, and it's not surprising that he would resist the young whippersnappers who are coming in with all their newfangled computer stuff and taking attention away from the old time beat writers like himself.

What is shocking to me is the level of editorial oversight that would allow a column like this to be published, particularly in a paper that presumes to contain "all the news that's fit to print." Here a writer attacked an idea which he admitted he didn't take the time to even try to understand. Now, I realize that Mr. Chass is very busy these days watching Scott Proctor run wind sprints, but surely he could find five minutes to visit the BP website to find out what this statistic actually is that is making him so apoplectic.

As an editor, I would never allow an article that attacks something without bothering to find out what it is, and ends on a sweeping generalization that purports to speak for millions of other people while providing no evidence of what they actually think. Sure, covering baseball isn't as important as, say, reporting on the White House's plans to attack Iraq, but doesn't the New York Times hold its sportswriters to any kind of journalistic standards? Is there anything Murray Chass might write that his editor wouldn't print?

People worry, and rightly so, about the journalistic standards of citizen journalists. This is something we, as writers and editors, need to keep constantly aware of. But at least when it comes to sportswriting, the traditional media doesn't seem to have set the bar too high.

- Sportswriters, Stats and Journalistic Standards by Timothy Savage (read by Claire George) 

©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Timothy Savage

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