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“Narratives” vs. analysis: can’t we all just get along?

Sports Big

Let’s talk about narrative.

It’s a word that has come up a lot in baseball writing recently, in everything from the AL MVP debate to the Red Sox meltdown and now to the Yankees listless ALCS performance. In response to most baseball stories in which, well, stories are told as opposed to a focused analysis of game action, it is not uncommon to see comments dismissing the storyline angle as “narrative,” with the implication that it should be ignored as something superfluous or even fake.

What has me thinking about this is a Twitter exchange between two smart people who, though I’ve never met them personally, I consider friends in that way you think about people you have interacted with on the Internet: Yahoo!'s Jeff Passan and Baseball Prospectus’ Colin Wyers.

The exchange was prompted by that Passan article I linked a few minutes ago about the bad crowds and angry fans in Yankee Stadium. It broke down like this:

Apathy and malaise have replaced mystique and aura. Yankees fans know a fraud when they see it. Column:

— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 15, 2012

This prompted Colin to tweet a link to one of my absolute favorite cartoons ever. Yes, the one to the upper right of this post: RT @jeffpassan Yankees fans know a fraud when they see it. — Colin Wyers (@cwyers) October 15, 2012

Jeff took exception to this:

@cwyers The proliferation of the word “narrative” is the single worst thing to come out of the stat crowd since defensive metrics.

— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 15, 2012

@cwyers It’s so easy to reduce something to that single stupid word. It’s lazy. And of the many things you are, lazy isn’t one of ‘em.

— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 15, 2012

Colin responded by, correctly I think, noting that a debate about that is not well-suited to Twitter. I hope he does address it at some point. In the meantime, I’ll opine that both of them are right to some extent and I think they’re kinda talking past one another.

There is nothing wrong with telling stories about what happens off the field or, in this case, the stands. I know there are people who care nothing about anything that does not take place on the actual diamond -- people who are not interested in clubhouse controversy, gossip, off-the-field news and stories about the politics of fandom -- but that doesn’t mean these off-the-field stories are meaningless for everyone. A lot of people want the flavor and the drama and stuff.

Where it becomes dicey, though -- and where I think both Colin and the XKCD cartoon are rightfully focused -- is when writers believe that the storylines they identify and write about, however legitimate in and of themselves, have a significant impact on the actual baseball being played. Or that said storylines must necessarily impact how a given person should interpret what occurred on the field in the way that the story teller would have it go.

By way of example, it’s legitimate and interesting to write a story about how Miguel Cabrera accomplished a rare and cool feat in winning the Triple Crown. It is specious reasoning -- and the imposition of unnecessary narrative, however -- to say Cabrera carried his team into the playoffs by virtue of doing something cool and rare, without actually assessing those contributions.

It is legitimate to note just how poorly Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez are hitting right now and to talk about how it is killing fans’ enthusiasm. It is specious reasoning -- and the imposition of unnecessary narrative, however --to say that Yankees’ fans lack of enthusiasm for poor play means that the Yankees are an awful train wreck of an organization or that the poor offense is a result of the hitters choking, being complacent or uninspired because the team has a big payroll and the crowd isn’t cheering them on (not that I think Passan is necessarily making all of these points).

Miguel Cabrera is a great player who had a great season and people should totally talk about that. When they do, they can and should use every literary device and express their every emotional reaction to it. They should not, however, claim that their emotional reaction to it makes the feat something that it is not. Likewise, people who empirically analyze Miguel Cabrera’s contributions and find them to be less than the prevailing narrative suggests should not claim that their empirical value should affect how people feel emotionally about him and his game.

It is news -- and people should totally talk about -- that the Yankees fans are pissed, booing former heroes and are not selling out their games. They should not, however, use that as data for their analysis of what is actually happening in the ALCS or use that legitimately interesting stuff to oversell how bad off the Yankees truly are. Likewise, people who empirically analyze the Yankees’ poor offense and find it to be a less than dire thing than the prevailing narrative suggests should not claim that it it illegitimate for fans to be angry as all hell that Robinson Cano and A-Rod can’t hit.

There is a place for analysis in baseball writing. There is a place for prose. There is even a place for poetry. And as long as people aren’t confusing one for another and claiming that their preferred means of understanding the game should necessarily be adopted by others, it’s all good and it can and should all exist.