Playing GM

What are sabermetric baseball bloggers (and sports bloggers in general) doing? Writing from my own experience, I would call it “meta-entertainment.” From the perspective of the spectator, professional sports are just entertainment. People do not need to read summaries, commentaries, or analyses of any form or style in order to enjoy a baseball game. However, unless this whole “industry” is a false bubble about to collapse, spectators clearly do read such commentary — even the boring kind that includes many silly numbers.

I imagine much of that readership is for fantasy sports purposes, but it is clear to me that people get something out of reading more about baseball from various perspectives, including that which we call the “sabermetric” perspective. It is a form of entertainment. Now, it is clear that baseball (or whichever sport) could go on without the blog commentary, but not the blog commentary without the sport. So we bloggers are, in that sense, “parasites.” But we are providing enjoyment nonetheless.

Most of us, I would hope, enjoy doing it. Sabermetric analysis, both reading it and (attempting to) write it adds to my enjoyment of the game, but depends on the game itself. It is not enjoyable in itself without the game. That is easy to acknowledge. It is a level of entertainment that exists on top of a form of entertainment — “meta-entertainment.”

This is all to acknowledge that for all the numbers bandied about, the attempts at objectivity and rigor that are involved in this particular corner of the nerdosphere, that this sort of writing is not fundamentally an important or “serious” activity. Sports themselves are not important, right? We do not need yet another finger-wagging lecture about that, it is simply true. Blogging about sports, even if it is done well and with objective truth and sometimes involving relatively significant discoveries, well, that is not important in the “larger sense,” either.

All of that is to preface the issue I want to address today, but let me briefly postpone the entrance of that issue by way of introducing it with the wise words of Lee Judge:

I’d only been writing about the Royals for a few months when I happened to get on a stadium elevator with one of the team’s front-office executives. I recognized him but didn’t think he recognized me. Then he said, “I’m a big fan of what you do.”

“Are you talking about the cartoons or the web site?”

“Both, but right now I’m talking about the web site.”

I’d just written a piece about Brian Bannister’s 1-0 win over the Nationals and Stephen Strasburg. I pointed out that Jason Kendall had blocked six pitches in the dirt that day. Two kept a double play in order that was later turned. One kept a runner on second who was later thrown out at the plate trying to score on a single. Three came with runners standing on third base.

Bannister pitched great, but without Kendall’s efforts, no win.

The executive appreciated someone noticing what Kendall had done, then added, “And I really like that you don’t play GM.” It hadn’t occurred to me to try. I had my hands full attempting to understand how the game was played and how these particular guys were playing it. Commenting on trades, contracts and players on other teams seemed well beyond me.

But that comment stuck with me. It made me think not only about what I should be doing on the website, but also what I shouldn’t be doing.

Judge (assuming “Lee Judge” is a real person and not a fictional persona created for the purposes of parody, a possibility I have struggled with for a while) goes on about various topics, such as how he is just trying “understand how the game was played” and how projections are flawed because (hold onto your hats) we do not know what is really going to happen, after all, look how well Jeff Francoeur played in 2011. But let’s focus on the “not playing GM” thing, because it is pretty obvious that this was Judge taking a shot at much of what goes on in the baseball nerdosphere.

What is the executive really saying to Judge? On a performative level, I think it is obvious that at least part of what is going on is that the executive is happy that Judge decided to throw some compliments towards Jason Kendall, a controversial and widely-mocked signing by the Royals. But what does it mean to “not play GM?” For Judge it seems bound up with not trying to say whether transactions are good or not, or whatever, basically what goes on here.

Judge notes (and I am sure that the Royals executive would agree) that he is “not qualified” to do something like that — it had not even occurred to him. One initial response might be to wonder how Judge is qualified to judge Jason Kendall’s pitch blocking — I noticed the executive did not chew him out for “playing coach.”

But back to playing GM: I suppose it is natural and predictable that a team executive is going to like a writer who does not criticize their moves. What strikes me as odd on only a moment’s reflection is that Judge not only takes pride in this, but basically brags about it at length. What if we shift contexts? After a controversial political decision, a high-level adviser to the Head of State approaches a political commentator and says, “I’m a big fan of your work, you never say we are doing anything wrong, you do not try to play Prime Minister/President.”

Is that something that a credible political commentator would boast about? If we heard that from the commentator would he or she have any credibility in the eyes of a discerning public? Take the decision to go to war — would you be impressed with a political writer if he or she said that it “had not occurred to me” to comment on the war one way or another?

Judge seems to be appealing to common sense by saying that he (and by implication, anyone who does not work in a major-league front office) is simply not qualified to comment on team decisions. In a broad sense, that is true. We do not have all of the experience or the information that teams do. But how is that different from politics?

I am sure that almost every politician has access to advisers and information (whether they choose to heed those things or not) that we do not. I suppose that means that Judge, whose primary job is apparently as a political cartoonist (you cannot make these things up) thinks that we should not comment on politics. Heck, we probably should not even let non-politicians vote!

I find the insertion of politics into sports commentary irritating, but politics is not my primary point. I am using it to illustrate the embarrassing implications of Judge’s view of his “job,” whatever that is. I could go on to discuss his hilarious rating system for players using Polk Points (with impressive annual results), or shock you with revelations that he is not a big fan of pop-tart eating saber-fans. I could even suggest that “Judging the Royals with Lee Judge” might be better named “Mock Trial with Lee J.” I could even go on to point out to Judge (let us pretend he will read this) that various bloggers have gone on to work for teams, but that I am not sure how many writers and political cartoonists, even those who once went to Royals fantasy camp back in 1990, have done so.

But I have gone on far too long already. Yes, this is just meta-entertainment, but I am not going to stop and apologize for criticizing and analyzing what a team does despite my lack of “qualifications.” If that means I am not passing up the opportunity for a transparently manipulative compliment from some team executive, I can live with that. But this is what I do.