Friday, May 11, 2012

Art V Science

There is a war in baseball that rarely comes up on the field of play yet rages in the stands, the press box, in print and online 365 days a year.

On one side of this battle are those that consider baseball a science and believe that numbers tell us more about the game than any other approach. On the other side are those that consider the game an art and hold that baseball is an activity far too complicated and discreet to be contained in a series of calculations.

Neither side speaks much to the other, and when they do those discussions usually degenerate into a series of playground taunts between straw men, Science eschewing the Art crowd as ignorant louts and esthetes blind to logic, and Art denigrating the practitioners of Science as socially stunted denizens of their parent’s basements.

I delicately wandered into this battle a few weeks ago when, in responding to a Facebook discussion Charlie Pierce was involved in on the merits of Mike Cameron versus Dwight Evans I quipped that “Baseball is an art not a science.” Moments later the esteemed Joe Posnanski and a few others gently reprimanded me, one wagging his finger and writing “They don’t keep score at the ballet, Glenn.” Of course I realized the question was not as simple as either comment decreed, so rather than throw dirt bombs back and forth over the back fence I decided to step back, analyze the structure of the disagreement and try to determine if that tells us anything about the veracity of either approach.

As I see it The problem is not whether baseball is “either/or,” but that members of the Baseball Science team and members of the Baseball Art club are actually talking about two different things. When Baseball Science espouses their view of baseball, they are not actually talking so much about the game on the field as it is played in real time, but before and after, baseball analysis. My comment in regard to art was not referring to analysis but the actual practice and act of playing, baseball in motion. That’s why Baseball Science team so often values players and events that the Baseball Art squad turns up its nose at (like J.D. Drew and BABIP) , and why Baseball Art team tends to swoon at players and occurrences Baseball Science consider unworthy of attention (such as Derek Jeter and RBIs).

Although I am temperamentally more a member of the Baseball Art nine, I don’t automatically eschew Baseball Science. I got my first copy of Bill James’ Baseball Abstract in 1984 and yammered on about OBP and OPS before anyone else I knew. Yet at the same time I still thought of myself as a connoisseur of the games’ aesthetic pleasures. In combination I really thought I had baseball figured out, or that I knew more about it than just about anyone I knew.

Then a funny thing happened. At age thirty-four, following a seventeen-year hiatus after tearing my rotator cuff I began to play again in “Over-30,” leagues. While certainly not pro ball it was several notches above high school ball. Over the next ten years I played about 400 games, probably batting 1,200 times and pitching between 500 and 600 innings, winning a few more games than I lost (a nearly meaningless stat for Baseball Science) for teams that lost more than they won (almost immaterial to Baseball Art).

The result of my experience was that I soon concluded that I knew NOTHING at all about baseball and never would, that neither Baseball Science nor Baseball Art alone came anywhere close to capturing all that baseball is, was, or ever will be. While I recognized that both perspectives had value, Baseball Science occasionally informing me of larger principles not always obvious, and Baseball Art showing me that there are essential elements of the game that are not quantifiable, in the end I had to conclude that Baseball, the game itself, is beyond the singular reach of either perspective.

The game is beyond us, an unknowable mystery, infinite and ever evolving. Baseball Science, while valuable, is inherently static. Yet because baseball is played by humans under an incalculable set of conditions that are never the quite the same, it can no more be fully described by statistics than the ballet. And Baseball Art, while accepting the mystery, really exists only in motion, between the baselines when the ball is moving, then slips away as soon as the final out is made.

In the end, I believe baseball is more than either Art or Science, two approaches that never touch yet simultaneously overlap and combine to make the game richer and infinitely more interesting, discovering a score in the ballet and finding artistry behind the numbers.

All I know is the game works best when both teams are present. The fun is in choosing sides, which gives us all something to talk and write about.

(Note: This essay appears in the May edition of Boston Baseball.  The painting was given to the author by artist June Gibson)

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