I think that there are two very, very different ideas which we, as a society, sometimes conflate. We believe everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion, and the freedom to express that opinion in any way he or see sees fit, so long as it doesn’t physically harm anyone else or step on others’ own rights. That’s great, it’s fantastic, some feel it’s worth dying for — it’s one of the founding principles of my country.
On the other hand, it tends to lead to this sense that all ideas are equally valid, and that the fact that someone expresses an opinion means that we need to respect and support that opinion. And that’s…nothing at all, barely even an idea. There’s nothing inherently good about having an opinion, and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever think that, except as a mistaken overextension of the basic freedom of speech principle.
You can see this in things like Jemele Hill’s deeply weird David Tyree profile from last summer. More commonly, and probably more insidiously, you see it in news organizations bending over backward to present an even-handed, “balanced” view of an issue and allow both sides to be heard without judgment, even where, say, one side of the issue holds scientists or other experts in the particular field, supported by objectively verifiable fact, and the other side is just loonies and B-list celebrities.
I think what Buster Olney did on Saturday in regards to the A.L. MVP debate is a mild version of the latter type of this fallacy.
Olney’s post is Insider-only, though non-subscribers can see the headline (“The AL MVP debate, from the inside”) and the title of the page (“The split within baseball over the AL MVP debate”) and get the basic idea, which is summed up by Olney thusly: of approximately 50 people in the game he’s spoken to, “all but a very small handful of uniformed personnel — by small handful, I mean two — have told me they would pick Cabrera. And all but a very small handful of front-office types — as in, one — have told me they would pick Trout.”
It’s just another way of rehashing the bizarre Trout vs. Cabrera, stat geeks vs. old school folks debate of which you’ve probably become sick to death over the last two weeks or so, but Olney’s angle on it is that there’s a big difference in perceptions of the MVP race between players and coaches, on the one hand (guys who see Cabrera’s awesome presence in the lineup every day, and the RBI he racks up, and his veteran leadership, etc., and believe he’s the MVP) and GMs and other front office personnel on the other (guys who are into all your newfangled advanced metrics and whatnot, and believe that the stats dictate that Trout is the MVP). He even quotes one unnamed “veteran player” as saying, ”I would be really, really disappointed if Cabrera didn’t win,” and one pro-Trout executive as asking: ”Why is there even a conversation?”
It’s an interesting topic, and there’s no doubt the two groups of people approach this topic in two very, very different ways. But Olney describes it as “a massive gap of perspective between the on-field and off-field baseball folks,” as though it’s a legitimate clash between two competing schools of thought.
To that end, I’d ask you to remember two things: (1) this debate is over which of two players has been the most valuable player in the American League; and (2) of these two competing groups of people, one earns their livelihoods by discerning and making decisions based upon the relative value of baseball players. The other folks earn their living by being good at playing baseball — which involves tasks like hitting a thing with another thing, running fast, and throwing a thing to another person — or by formerly being good at playing it, and now coaching others at how best to play it.
So I’m wondering why they’re being treated as competing camps, groups of “insiders” on equal footing, rather than as what I think, on this particular topic, they are: one a group of qualified experts, the other essentially a group of laypeople. I don’t wonder why Olney presents them that way — he’s been on a crusade against WAR and other pointy-headed ideas (sample size is a big one, for some reason) for a few years now — but I wonder why this is the sort of position that can get any traction at all. One of these groups is coming from a position of knowledge on this particular point, and one is not. It’s that simple.
As you probably know, there’s a whole movement out there attempting to stop parents from getting their kids vaccinated against certain common diseases (or diseases that were common before we had, you know, vaccinations for them), on the theory that over-vaccination is the cause of what’s perceived as a recent autism epidemic. It’s complete lunacy, without a shred of evidence to back it up, and it’s led to increased instances of diseases in children that should’ve been effectively stamped out long ago. So on one side you’ve got every reputable physician and scientist and a mountain of peer-reviewed studies; on the other, you’ve got a former Playboy model who did not attain an undergraduate degree at the head of a group of reactionary and paranoid parents with severely misplaced anger. If you’re a journalist and treat both sides of this “debate” equally in the name of “fairness” or some such garbage, I’d argue that you’re failing utterly in your duty to present facts and the truth to your readership. There are definitely times to present both sides and avoid bias and all that; this isn’t one of them. There’s a right and a wrong here.
This isn’t at all to say that baseball players are as vapid and utterly contemptible as Jenny McCarthy, or, certainly, that the pro-Cabrera camp is harming anybody. On the contrary, a lot of players are brilliant, and there are countless decisions made by players and coaches on a daily basis that I’d be utterly unqualified to make (and, of course, nobody’s life is being put in danger here, it’s just baseball). Just that when the particular issue is the relative valuation of the seasons of two players, players and coaches have as much authority to speak as McCarthy and her disciples do on the science of vaccinations. The players and coaches, assuming they’re not on the Angels or Tigers, got to watch these two guys close up between zero and eighteen times this year, and, much like any casual fan might, make judgments based on what they happen to see…and majestic home runs leave more of an impression than a walk and two stolen bases. They also, as many of us did, grew up with RBIs and the Triple Crown. These are what they’re making their decisions on.
Players and coaches have all kinds of knowledge of and insight into how the game is played, on a pitch-by-pitch, day-by-day basis, stuff I, having never worn a baseball uniform after high school, could never possibly understand. There’s simply no reason to think, however, that they have any special expertise that would allow them to evaluate two great players, whose greatness manifests itself in entirely different ways, and determine that one of the two is more valuable than the other. It’s not in their job description. They’re busy with better, much more interesting things.
So really, a better angle for passing Olney’s information along would be that players and coaches are still just as impressed as many fans are by RBI and stuff, while the people who are in a position to know what they’re talking about on this issue are overwhelmingly convinced that Mike Trout is MVP. That’s really what we’re looking at here. Can we stop pretending that having particular talent for hitting or throwing a baseball imbues one with expert knowledge of all things related to the game of baseball?