Vested interests are always the last to see change

Okay, one more post about the A.L. MVP award race, because I haven’t quite gotten over this yet. Yes, that’s Daily News beat writer and MVP voter Mark Feinsand actually pulling out the “I watch all of the games” card to justify his ballot not including Robinson Cano anywhere in the top ten (though fellow Yankees Derek Jeter and Rafael Soriano were third and eight, respectively). I like Feinsand and think he’s probably the best reporter on the Yankees’ beat, but yeah, there’s pretty much no way this one is getting by me.

What makes this whole thing especially hilarious is that Feinsand is responding to Michael Eder, who’s currently the head honcho of TYA. Implicitly dismissing baseball fans as people who don’t watch the games (and that’s what Feinsand was doing, there’s no sense in denying that) is usually ridiculous enough, but it’s even more so when it’s directed at someone writing daily for one of the biggest and most respected blogs out there. I can’t say if Eder watched every game all the way through, but I’m willing to be dollars to dimes he watch a lot of games at least.

The thing is, there’s a small grain of truth in Feinsand’s premise here. There was a time not all that long ago when the beat reporters really were the only people who could watch every game over the course of a season. Before cable television contracts and DVR, it was effectively impossible for anyone to watch every single game other than the people being paid to go to them. As such, the beat writers really did have something of an authority on baseball discussions given their inherent advantage in taking in the action.

Those days, of course, are well behind us and, in technological terms, they might as well be the stone ages. The proliferation of cable television contracts and MLB Advanced Media means that any fan with a computer or DirecTV account has access to every single televised game that isn’t blacked out, either live or through a recording. The days of the professionals’ privilege in being able to watch the game is completely over, but it’s pretty clear that a lot, maybe even most, of the reporters who can still remember the dark ages don’t actually realize how easy it is for everyone else to watch baseball games today. If anything, I dare say that the scribes are actually behind everyone else now. Whereas they used to have a unique ability to, say, view a team’s road games, now everyone else gets to do that to, but the non-writers can flip to another baseball game at the conclusion of the contest, while the professionals head off to a hallway to grab quotes and video of the manager and a few players. Considering that, I’d say that I’m about 99.9% certain that I watched substantially more baseball games than Mark Feinsand did in 2012.

Arguments between new and old media tend to get framed through the prism of stats, and while that’s certainly a huge part of the schism, there’s a lot more to it than that. Baseball, and the way fans and non-professionals are able to interact with it, has changed a lot in the last 10-15 years, mostly thanks to the democratizing influence of the  internet, and mostly in ways that have eroded the authority professionals used to have. I would argue that the fact that so many writers, like most successful professionals in any changing industry (and for a good case study in this, watch a week’s worth of baseball shows that include former players/coaches as analysts, and count up how many of their statements ultimately amount to nothing but an articulation ofboilerplate conventional wisdom. I’ll guarantee it’s at least 95%) are always the last to recognize/accept these changes. And this is why this “debate” is ultimately not much of a contest anymore: once the writers, both professional and amateur, are overwhelmingly people who have come up in the new age of Baseball Reference and MLB TV, there simply won’t be so much of a schism in the way they understand the differences between one another. That won’t mean universal agreement, by any means, but it probably will mean that we don’t frame the debate as pitting reactionary dinosaurs against stat geeks playing with spreadsheets rather than watching the games anymore.

About Brien Jackson

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

11 thoughts on “Vested interests are always the last to see change

  1. Good news: Feinsand didn't overvalue the last few weeks of a season (a.k.a. small sample size) , like most voters do, to say "Cano hit .600 down the stretch when the Yanks needed him most, therefore he MUST be MVP!!!"

    Bad news: All other aspects of Feinsand's reasoning.

  2. Granted, I see many bad arguments from the non-sabermetric people, however, lookinf objectively at the pro-sabermetric arguments, I also see bad reasoning. Example, pro-sabermetric people seem to accept that some wins are more valuable than others (the Tigers' wins are less valuable than the Angels' wins because of their much weaker division). But then they seem to gloss over the idea that wins which contribute to playoff appearances are more valuable than those that do not. Regardless, Wins Above Replacement does not actually represent value, because neither of the above considerations are calculated in. Yet WAR is the central pillar in most pro-sabermetric arguments regarding MVP. The above is a simplification, but I am certain that it is possible to represent actual value metrically, and that the pro-sabermetric people are the group that possesses the skills most suitable for doing so, but until value statistics are available and used, pro-sabermetric MVP arguments are every bit as lacking as non-sabermetric arguments. It is easy to believe that the pro-sabermetric people will come to be the dominating regime of baseball analysis, it is less clear that this will be a good thing. Maybe a superior, more encompassing philosophy will arise to defeat sabermetrics.

    • "Example, pro-sabermetric people seem to accept that some wins are more valuable than others (the Tigers' wins are less valuable than the Angels' wins because of their much weaker division). But then they seem to gloss over the idea that wins which contribute to playoff appearances are more valuable than those that do not. "

      I honestly don't know what this means. If you're trying to say that sabermetrics doesn't recognize the marginal value of added wins, then that's just plain wrong.If you're saying it isn't factored into this equation because of the playoffs, then you'd be right: but that's because wins have much less to do with the Tigers making the playoffs over the Angels than does arbitrary divisional placement (a fancier way of saying that the Angels won more games than the Tigers).

      • I'm saying that the marginal value of added wins is context dependant. Divisional placement may very well be arbitrary but the marginal value of added wins is affected materially by divisional placement, as well as other contextual factors. I'm not aware of any value sensitive adjustments made in WAR calculations.

        • I don't really see how this can work, though. The relation of wins to divisional placement is a completely arbitrary factor determined by which team plays in which division, and completely fluid from year to year based on the competition in the division. To give that such ample weight requires us to give credit/demerits on the basis of factors totally outside of the players' control and largely unrelated to what happens on the field. And in a more immediate sense, it leaves you arguing, in effect, that Cabrera was more valuable than Trout because the rest of his division was terrible while Trout had two of the league's best four teams ahead of him.

          • "… completely arbitrary factor determined …"

            Therefore, once it has been determined, the value parameters are locked, and become constants which can be used in appropriate calculations to yield more meaningful results. I don't know whether this would decide the question in Cabrera's favor, but I would be more compelled to trust the process, and the results.

          • I don’t know, that seems very vague for my tastes. I mean, it would be one thing to discount a player on a 70 win team (or even a 110 win team) on the basis that the marginal value of their wins was quite low, but to take a player on an 88 win team’s wins as much more value than that of a player on an 89 win team because the former’s division was *much* weaker than the latter’s just strikes me as a self-evidently poor way of determining an MVP. Granting for the sake of argument that the two players are very close in their respective cases, I would think the last thing you should do is hand out the award to a player *because* he unarguably faced a lower level of competition than his competitor.

          • "the last thing you should do is hand out the award to a player …"

            You would be correct if I were arguing subjectively as you describe. However, If you were to calculate the actual value of the 88 wins, that would in turn give you a proper value for the contribution of the one player (when applied to his WAR). Then if you were to calcuate the actual value of the 89 wins, that would in turn give you a proper value for the second player. Finally, you would be able to make an apples-to-apples comparison, based on a numerical calculation, not simply using terms like "much weaker".

          • Yeah, I understand. What you’re talking about is the marginal value of each win. It’s an often used concept for evaluating, say, free agent signings and such, but I just don’t see how you can really apply it to awards voting except, as I said, on the extreme ends of the W-L spectrum. As it is here, it’s basically just another way of saying that Miggy was more valuable because the Tigers made the playoffs, but if you apply it with some rigor and not just to compare Miggy to Trout, you would have to conclude that *ANY* 3+ win player on the Tigers/Yankees and any *2+ win* player on the A’s was more valuable than Trout. So, just to pick an example, this standard would have us declare that Jonny Gomes should finish ahead of Trout in MVP balloting because his 2.1 fWAR had more marginal value than Trout’s 10.7.

          • Well, I think your exaggerating now, but setting that aside, this type of consideration is precisely what would be necessary for making a quantitative judgement of value, as specifically called for in the instructions for voting on MVP. Returning to my original point, sabermetric advocates are using weak arguments as characterized by tunnel vision related to performance. The absence of value from the calculations is a material flaw in the reasoning.