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.