Going for the easy story

I saw an interesting story in Sports Illustrated this past week, teased on the cover as “The Unlikely Genius Behind the New Moneyball.” Intrigued, I opened to the article, about how the Seattle Mariners and their general manager Jack Zduriencik mastered something I had never heard of called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR for short, which sounds like an abbreviated name for a breakaway Russian republic.)  Essentially, the Mariners won 85 games in 2009 while scoring the fewest runs in the American League because they also prevented the most.  Their defense saved 110 runs, nearly twice as many as anyone else.  I had no idea this could even be tracked reliably.  These kinds of stories must get missed all the time.

Two camps of writers exist in the sports arena: 1) Number-crunchers who produce stories of this sort; 2) The vast majority of us who rely on gut feeling.  All through last season, I figured the Mariners improved because they added Ken Griffey Jr. and lightened the clubhouse.  Barring that, I figured they had a good pitching rotation, which made me happy since a guy I covered in college, Garrett Olson, is sometimes apart of it.  I was unfamiliar with center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who the story compared, in terms of defensive prowess, to Willie Mays.  In fact, I derided a $20.3 million contract extension Gutierrez received in January.  After all, Gutierrez hit .283 with 18 home runs last year.

The research-driven writing style seems difficult and time consuming.  Quantitative analysis generally isn’t simple, and a lot of us got into sports writing precisely to avoid math.  We also enjoy interviewing celebrities and eating free food at the ballpark.  I know I did when I covered the Oakland Athletics’ Triple-A team, the Sacramento River Cats in 2004 and 2005.  That being said, I also remember being impressed talking to Michael Lewis.  I saw Lewis in the press box a couple of times in 2004 when he was doing research for a follow-up to Moneyball, his bestseller on how the A’s survived as a small-market club.  Lewis came from a background in financial reporting, covering Wall Street, and he told me he never wrote about sports prior to Moneyball.  To call him a sportswriter would almost seem derogatory.

Day to day, sports writing can be lowbrow, filler for the masses.  With so much content needed, there’s often little time to produce stories, one possible reason for the gut opinion style of writing.  It doesn’t take much to cobble together some nice sound bites and observations on which way the wind is blowing, but that also makes traditional sports writing easy to mock sometimes.  Shortly before the sports journalism critique site Fire Joe Morgan went dormant in 2008, one of its posts ripped apart a point-counterpoint on ESPN.com about who would win the World Series.  ESPN.com writer Jayson Stark opined about the Phillies:

They’re here because they’re the toughest team in the National League.

FJM writer “Ken Tremendous” responded:

Fuck all that statistical noise. It’s about toughness. The Phillies are tough. The Phillies are like a hockey team. The Phillies work in an Alaskan cannery 19 hours a day. The Phillies could knock out Kimbo Slice in thirteen seconds.

The Phillies won the World Series that year, but not for toughness.  The Phillies won because, as Mr. Tremendous noted, they had the most home runs and scored the second-most runs in baseball that year, among other things.  They also had Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels on the same roster, a Yankee-caliber lineup in terms of star power without the offensively high payroll.

All this being said, I didn’t agree when the recent Sports Illustrated story noted, “The Mariners are baseball’s preseason darlings, favored by many to end the reign of the Angels atop the American League West.”  It doesn’t take a degree in statistics to know Sports Illustrated jinxes things, and the Angels still look pretty good, even if they lost some players this winter.  Still, I am intrigued at the possibilities of having Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez anchoring a Mariner rotation and I should probably pay more attention to Gutierrez, ridiculous as his contract extension seems.

(Postscript: After reading this entry, my good friend Chris sent me a link to this Popular Science article.  It looks like there are new high-tech methods for tracking defensive ability.)

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