My copy of "Baseball Prospectus 2013" showed up at my apartment last week. I'm pretty sure I have every edition since 2002, which isn't as impressive as I want it to be; they've been doing them since 1996. (You can read that whole edition right here.) It is ostensibly a reference book, but I never treat it as one. Every year, when it arrives, I put aside everything else I'm reading and devour it cover to cover, like a novel. I look forward to it every late February, and it is not an overstatement to say that reading it is a highlight of my year. I'm so happy it exists.
Of all the specious criticisms levied against sabermetricians and baseball advanced statistics folks, the one I understand the least is the idea that they somehow don't like watching games. (I don't really understand any of the "criticisms," but this is the one that makes no sense.) I'm not sure there are people who love the game more than sabermetricians.
These are at their core fans, after all. That is how they started. They didn't get into baseball because they were blessed with a 95-mph left arm, or because their dad used to play the game, or because they had a journalism degree and needed some place to work after college. They got into this because they loved baseball in a profound way, and not in that mystical, hazy, sepia-tone bullsnoot way that Ken Burns always wants everyone to love it. They loved it enough to question it, to test it, to poke at it … to try to make it better. Bill James might have kicked off the revolution -- and Rob Neyer might have helped popularize it in ways that I'm still not quite sure are completely appreciated -- but these are the guys who implemented it. These were people who were engrossed with baseball, and desperately sought out other people who felt the same way.
And in this, they changed everything. When you look through the landscape of baseball today, Baseball Prospectus vets are everywhere. Some write about the sport, like Joe Sheehan and Keith Law and Christina Kahrl and Jonah Keri and Jay Jaffe and countless others, including Sports on Earth's own Emma Span. Some work within the game, like Kevin Goldstein and Keith Woolner and Dan Fox. Some have gone on to, uh, sort of change the planet, like Nate Silver. And let us not forget the late Doug Pappas, who opened the door into questioning baseball finances in a way that was probably annoying to MLB at the time but ultimately has led to better understanding of the baseball economy and, in a strange way, to lasting labor piece. (Full disclosure: Pappas was an extended family friend.)
A lot of these people are misfits, loners, the sort of people who, in a pre-BP universe, there would have been no place for in the world of baseball. Now they're informing, and transforming, every discussion anyone has about it. I know the Jonah Hill mathman character from "Moneyball" has become a bit of a cliché, but let's not overlook the magnitude of this: The whole world of baseball was changed by a bunch of people who loved the game as passionately as anyone who has ever played, if not more.
This is all a fan can hope to do, right? We invest so much in these games, so much time and effort and emotion and money, and the sport itself, the leagues, the people in charge, so often just sits idly by, dispassionately, accepting our devotion and cashing our checks. Baseball Prospectus is an organization full of fans who loved the game enough to make it better. I'm not sure we appreciate sometimes just how truly rare and special that is.
They also opened up the door to other sports, from Ken Pomeroy and John Gasaway in college basketball to Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle and John Hollinger in the NBA to Aaron Schatz and Michael David Smith and SoE's own Mike Tanier in the NFL. The whole sporting landscape is different now, and in our data-driven, wonkish age, is only likely to continue to move in that direction. Because of them.
Now, Baseball Prospectus is an organization, and organizations, by definition, tend to degrade a bit over time and exposure. I'm halfway done with the Baltimore Orioles chapter in the new book already -- roughly seven percent through the book -- and I can't help but notice it doesn't have the same spark it used to. The book is better-edited (by Cecilia Tan and Bleacher Report's King Kaufman) than it used to be, but it's also a little tamer and safer. The book used to be fairly merciless (and undeniably hilarious) in its criticism of archaic front offices and players hanging around because of "veteran presence" rather than actual baseball skill, but it's nicer now, more conventional, more team-friendly.
It's also less Socratic. The intro chapters on each team used to be freewheeling musings on what a baseball organization was, what a team's philosophy was, what it means to be a member of that organization. Now the team intros have been dramatically shortened, and chopped up into easy-to-digest but less meaty portions that aren't all that different than a slightly smarter version of an old Street and Smith's preview magazine.
The book is still essential -- I'm still reading every word of it -- but somehow less dangerous. Less outsider. Less … fan. It's as if BP is self-aware and knows every front office in baseball has a copy now. You can't help but lose a little of your edge once you're no longer fighting against anything, once you're accepted.
But that evolution is a small price to pay for what BP did, what BP is still doing. There are people in the world of sports, be it media or corporate, whose nods to fans are cursory, obligatory, dismissive, who act like fans are just heedless consumers ready to be led around. Fans prove the opposite every day. Baseball Prospectus isn't the only example of it, but they're one of the best. Now if you excuse me, I need to get back to my book. What is Nick Markakis' deal, man?
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I wrote a piece for Baseball Prospectus once. It was about my dad's amusing Twitter account. Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.