Home > baseball, pop culture, satire, stats > Is Straw Man Bill James Baseball’s Harold Camping?

Is Straw Man Bill James Baseball’s Harold Camping?

Today is May 22, 2011 — a great day to be alive in general, but particularly for the bevy of baseball traditionalists out there.

It doesn’t take much thought to realize why it’s generally great to be alive. In this case, however, the allusion is to the fact that in recent days, weeks, and months, speculation began to run amok that the rapture would occur on May 21. It was said that God’s “select people” — a cross section comprised of around three percent of the world’s population — would be invited into His kingdom, leaving the remaining 97 percent of humanity to await their and earth’s inevitable demise five months in the future.

Fortunately for the wicked, this doomsday scenario did not pan out. The void of devastating earthquakes sweeping the globe at each time zone’s 6 p.m. local time was surprising to some, but most had discounted, if not ridiculed, the notion that any man could successfully forecast earth’s destruction. Still, when someone makes this type of prediction — bold as it may be — he or she should be held accountable when things don’t turn out as expected.

The individual responsible for the May 21 rapture alarm was Christian radio host and author Harold Camping, who has surely already taken his fair share of abuse following his missed prediction. Yet, a quick review of his resume — specifically the area detailing prior hunches about the end of the world — revealed that this wasn’t his first would-be-rapture rodeo. Camping had his first swing-and-miss on the issue back in September 1994, a failure he chalked up to spotty math.

Math? That’s right. Camping, a civil engineer with a degree from Cal-Berkeley, arrived at his two failed predictions of the rapture through numerology. He contended that he had discovered a way to quantify various prophecies within the Bible, and used the data to extrapolate the date that the Earth would end. Nefarious as this all might sound, many chose to believe Camping’s calculations and prepared for May 21 by taking drastic measures such as quitting their jobs or emptying their bank accounts. Clearly, there were some believers out there.

What does any of this have to do with baseball? Perhaps more than one might expect. In the last decade, baseball has been overrun by a seemingly countless number of “stat-heads” extolling the virtues of “advanced metrics”. They’ll say that their statistics — usually based upon a confusing algorithm and often truncated in a similarly perplexing acronym — are the end-all, be-all way to analyze the game, moreso than the ages-old “eye test” of trusting what one sees when they watch a ballgame. These people are entitled to their opinion, to be sure, but the fact that so many followers of baseball — long-time scribes, former players, and the vast majority of fans among them — reject many of these principles seems unusual. If this “informed” way of thinking really was as advertised, wouldn’t it be embraced by more of those closest to the game?

These “sabermetricians” even had a Camping-style “botched rapture” of their own. In their case, the “rapture” was the emphasis the statistical community placed on defense. For years, these folks alleged that defense was the least important aspect of the game, save for baserunning. They would advocate shoehorning inferior defensive players onto the field in exchange for having their offensive contributions in the lineup. It was a boon to lead-handed, iron-footed outfielder options like White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn. But recently, and suddenly, the philosophy seemingly changed to embrace skilled defensive players. Franchises like the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics that just a few years earlier were all too willing to load their lineups at the expense of team defense quickly began to extoll the virtues of “run prevention”. It remains an incredible about-face.

Whether it’s the failings of the sabermetric community — until recently — to account for the importance of team defense or Camping’s erring for a second time on his forecast of the demise of human civilization, it should be clear to any rational being that there is plenty of truth in the old adage (or counterargument) “sometimes, numbers do lie”. How often they do so, particularly in relation to baseball, is a debate that will probably continue until the end of time. Some will continue to swear by VORP, WAR, and the like. Others will prefer to watch the game in peace, and make judgments based on what they see — agree to disagree, and all of that.

Hey, it’s not the end of the world.

  1. M.F. (Doom)
    May 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

    Just an FYI: individual player defense *still* is the least important part of a player’s game, other than baserunning. Run scoring and run prevention are equally important to winning. But a position player’s run prevention value is curbed by the fact that pitchers control a substantial amount to run prevention.

    Smart teams just realized that the value being placed on those skills was too low. This is in large part due to people like Bill James, who made GMs more aware of the value of OPS in a fashion that drove up contract prices on the no-defense sluggers. Anyone who has ever actually read Bill James knows that Bill James is more passionate about the minutiae of the real game than any number of internet or mass media whiners.

    • May 25, 2011 at 1:39 am

      Well put. I was mostly playing around with a terrible premise in the article I wrote, but I did have trouble last year with what I felt was the Red Sox, since I’m a fan of theirs, going over the top with their run prevention M.O. a couple offseasons ago. That was one of the only genuine elements of the entire piece I wrote, though my feelings are not nearly as cartoonish as depicted. And it’s mostly for the reasons you stated, though I often had a more profane way of addressing the issue last season.

      And while I haven’t read as much James as I probably should have in the past, I’m very interested in checking out his new book.

      Thank you for the feedback.

  2. Greg Andrew
    May 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    No, there is no truth to the adage that “sometimes numbers do lie.” Stats can’t *do* anything whatsoever, beyond existing. The expression is ridiculous. Stats can’t lie any more than words or pictures or graphics can. People lie, using words, or stats, or whatever other tools are at their disposal.

    It’s probably true that sabermetricians slightly underestimated the importance of defense for a long time, but I don’t think you’ll find anybody in or out of baseball that believes that defense is more important than offense or pitching. So it’s still the least important part of baseball aside from baserunning if you divide baseball into those four areas.

    And as far as the statement “If this “informed” way of thinking really was as advertised, wouldn’t it be embraced by more of those closest to the game?,” the answer is no, it wouldn’t. People in baseball are subject to the same biases everyone else is, and thus tend to go for immediate gratification rather than long-term success. The human brain is not designed to be rational; that’s why people are a lot more afraid of flying than driving even though flying is much, much safer. And traditionally, most people entered baseball management came from the pool of people who were good at playing baseball, something that is in most cases a hindrance to seeing the big picture. (Similarly, understanding the big picture in baseball probably is a hindrance to playing baseball at a high level; it leads to over-thinking on the field)

    See the book “How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life” by Thomas Gilovich for explanations as to why in general, human beings make so many irrational choices and consistently see significance where none exists.

    • May 25, 2011 at 1:44 am

      Appreciate the feedback. Between this and the James book, I’ve got some reading to do.

  3. Linus
    May 25, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    The stat-heads stopped being assholes about this a long time ago. The other side never did. What do you suppose that means?

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