Fandom, Sabermetrics, and Aesthetics

On a cold October evening, hopping in the riders’ side of my friend Adam Burke’s pickup truck, I started on a conversation about variance, about fortune, and the mythos of postseason baseball. Adam and I had just visited Nino Colla, watching the Indians take a 3-1 series lead over the Chicago Cubs with beer and revelry strewn throughout the evening. The notion I kept returning too was this did not feel right, it did not make sense. I didn’t know it yet, but that Cleveland Indians 2016 postseason baseball run would change my experience of baseball, and fandom profoundly.1

By the time the Indians reached the 2016 postseason, a loaded roster had become a middling one as injuries sapped a talented rotation. Danny Salazar was recovering from injury, Carlos Carrasco was out for the entire postseason, and Trevor Bauer would soon experience a costly interaction with flying objects. The lineup had similar concerns: Michael Brantley had been out almost the entirety of the season, Yan Gomes was suffering continual setbacks, Mike Napoli had not watched a high fastball in months, and Tyler Naquin had not made contact with fastballs above his belt in a similar timeframe.

Yet, with a flash of Ryan Merritt, a two home run game from Roberto Perez, the combination of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller pitching with unsustainable greatness (even for them), and Josh Tomlin showing the intestinal fortitude of Chuck Norris, the Indians had to win one of their next three games to win the World Series.

Still, it did not make sense. The Indians simply were not one of the five most talented teams in terms of their roster construction that postseason despite being on the precipice. In the truck, I asked Adam how to square this thrilling experience with the sabermetric philosophies we accept regarding postseason baseball.2

You see, while I consistently note that variance or cluster-luck has massive influence in the small sample size postseason, we often sever the rational from the irrational when fandom kicks in.3 However, I realized this is where the emptiness came from, the sort of dis-reality we were experiencing was a product of our understanding that even if the Indians won the 2016 World Series, they were not the best team in baseball but merely the one which experienced multiple fortuitous events en route to beating other better teams.

Of course, the Indians did not finish off the Cubs, and I was not faced with this question while standing in the cold as parade floats slowly moved by, though I might have wished it so. I noticed that baseball is tortuously mysterious but the far greater danger was that the analytical movement which I so thoroughly enjoy was undermining fandom.

This belief was further substantiated entering the 2017 postseason when the Indians had perhaps the best team in the American League and a superior squad that had fallen just a win short the year prior. But despite the Indians talent, they had just a 20% chance at a title and difficult road resulting in upset soon followed. What was more disheartening was that it was not shocking or surprising, I had programmed my mind with probabilities and the nature of the playoffs, thus diminishing the disappointment of a first-round exit. I had no expectations or unbridled optimism, which stinks as a fan. Indeed, the nature of the fan is the submission to the emotional ride, letting yourself believe with limited doubt. Analytics and sabermetrics had taken this from me, but they had also given.

In the past 18 months between, Fangraphs, and the Hardball Times, I have published more than 150 detailed pieces on team evaluation, player analysis, and data-analytics usage by players. At least 130 of those have focused on this Indians roster which means I have repeated thoughts, repeated concepts, and ultimately, as my wife would tell you, written way too damn much.

It turns out, writing repetitively about the team you grew up loving can start to separate you from fandom. In fact, when doing so in an analytically driven manner, it can make you feel like an impartial observer along for the ride.

Yet, as fandom has waned, at least that of the Indians, an aesthetic appreciation for baseball, bound in its nuance has grown appreciably. As my steadfastness to Carlos Santana the Indian disappears, my appreciation for Justin Verlander’s new pitch sequencing, Rich Hill’s curveball, or Joey Votto’s chess matches with pitchers has only grown. While I can now go to bed after an Indians playoff loss without frustration, a strange experience, I also can turn on a Clayton Kershaw start or an Aaron Judge plate appearance and be completely fascinated.

Writing about the Indians for the past few years, diving into the analytical side has taken a lot of my fandom from me but it still does not take the joy of sharing the Indians with my friends and family. I still chat with my father about the Indians once a week. I still enjoy tons of DMs about the Indians from all Jeff Nomina, Jim Pete, Adam Burke, and all the splendid WFNY writers who cover the team so brilliantly. I will still be at Progressive Field upward of 10 times in 2018. I will always try to chat up my grocer about Francisco Lindor’s defense. I will always want to interact with Indians fans on any medium. I will always love Jose Ramirez more than anyone should.

Baseball fandom is different than it was when I started writing, blogging, podcasting, and whatever the hell it is I do. For now, that is perfectly alright with me.

  1. Despite the lessons of my editors, past experiences, and education, personal pronouns will be used all too frequently in this maze. []
  2. Though I suspect, this question was posed far less pretentiously. []
  3. This is not a bad thing as rationality though broadly defined has become a sort of god in modern culture. []