Sportswriters and numbers: An oil-and-vinegar reprise

I concluded yesterday’s post with an observation that old media and new media seem hopelessly divided on the subject of steroids in sports.

The same could be said, to some degree, about the subject of analytics, especially in baseball. While a number of high-profile sports journalists (Joe Posnanski, Bill Simmons) immediately come to mind as those who’ve embraced numbers beyond traditional boxscores, others have not. Still others, like me, remain in the math-challenged netherworld in between: Not dismissive, but not yet having plunged deeply into the realm that Bill James created.

billjames_new_logo(Perhaps before diving into his abstracts and historical doorstoppers, I might want to try this: “How Bill James Changed Our View of the Game of Baseball.” The reviews are mixed, but given my need to be guided by traditional narrative, it may be the perfect gentle entry.)

As numbers mavens are on the rise, the refuseniks are spitting out their venom with greater vengeance. Mitch Albom’s bone-headed tripe last winter over the American League MVP race earned him plenty of derision (including perhaps Deadspin’s most glorious takedown of anyone, ever), although he knew damn well what was coming when he wrote that there’s a “divide between those who like to watch the game of baseball and those who want to reduce it to binary code.”

Bleacher Report made an attempt to broker a truce in all this, ultimately paraphrasing Rodney King: “So then…Can everyone get along?”

Well, no. It’s far easier for the sabermetricians to bash away at the bashable Albom, who has plenty of company in the entrenched foxholes of newspaper hacks.

The latest example: Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who has parlayed his ink-stained wretchiness into a blog designed to troll, and I would imagine with the desired page view results.

Last week he outdid even Albom, fearing the spread of numbers numbskullery beyond the national pastime:

This absurd baseball math obsession is now spilling over into basketball, hockey and football; in a few months, this trend will turn your child’s dodgeball game into a series of where is the best place to put little Jimmy so as to ensure his greatest chances of being able to dip, dive, duck and dodge.

Again, these words are designed to inflame, and they did. While Engel is genuinely unimpressed with the obsession over pitch counts, he was only too happy to follow up by linking to his bashers. The substance of what he writes may be old-school newspaper hacktastic, but he seems to have mastered the new-school approach of eliciting reaction (typically outraged) above all else. Indeed, Engel seems to be comfortable with his feet in both worlds when he writes:

I reached out to Tim to do something I’ve never done before: Engage in a discussion with a reader about a column. He was nice enough to agree.

What a brilliant pose: Coming down from a walled-off, print-centric mountain to make contact with an actual reader, natch, somebody with a different view.

It’s all smug, ginned-up wise-assery, in spite of a rather candid conversation. Instead of using his unlimited blog space to ask someone to help him better understand the numbers, Engel perpetuates an enduring persona of the doofus sportswriter.

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