The Sabermetric Project and the “Science of Words”

Before I hit the record button on our recent conversation together, Geoff Young and I meditated briefly on the relationship between words and numbers — and the respective contributions of each to the sabermetric project. Young said something to the effect that he’d always regarded Bill James (i.e. father of us all) as a writer and thinker first, a statistician second. If I’m remembering correctly, James has said something very similar to this on more than one occasion.

Around this time last year, in these electronic pages, I addressed James’ opinion on the narrative quality of numbers. It could certainly be treated at greater length, but, to paraphrase, his most basic thoughts on the matter are summarized in this statement:

When the numbers melt into the language, they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do, to become fiction and drama and poetry.

Another voice — and another perspective — in this conversation belongs to an unlikely source: Romantic Poet and Manly Christian Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I’ve recently acquired from the University of Wisconsin Library a copy of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection. The first thing to say about the text — not entirely related, but relevant insofar as it’s awesome — is that the specific copy I’ve checked out was published in 1863 (and is, in fact, inscribed by one John L. Ladds, dated 1865). There’s a pleasure to this: to read the exact words that someone 150 years ago also saw fit to read.

More relevant to the present discussion, however, is the following sentiment. Attempting to summarize the purpose of his book, Coleridge states in the preface that his intent is to

direct the reader’s attention to the value of the science of words, their use and abuse, and the incalcuable advantages attached to the habit of using them appropriately, and with a distinct knowledge of their primary, derivative, and metaphorical senses. [Emphasis mine.]

Here we have an idea both opposite, and intimately related, to James’s. Coleridge is concerned not with the capacity for cold data to become warm and rich when organized meaningfully, but rather with properties of words and their particular effects on readers. Of course, there actually is a science more or less dedicated to this: linguistics (and rhetoric, too). That’s not news. But for a community that recognizes implicitly the importance of numbers to our enjoyment and understanding of baseball, it makes sense also to understand the role of words in the same.

Josh Levin considered something like this back in 2003, in a piece he wrote for Slate. In his article, he asks a simple question: Why doesn’t football have a Bill James?

Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders answered the question ably, stating that “baseball analysis exists as it does today because Bill James is one of the people who, in American intellectual history, is a force of nature.”

Levin is smart enough to recognize some other obvious reasons as to why baseball analysis has proliferated. Like, for example, that baseball is older, and also that, being a turn-based game, it lends itself more to quantitative analysis.

Still, it’s a fact: especially in the early years of the Abstract, when he was writing and publishing his annual almost entirely by himself, James’ output was incredible. For not only was he doing all that junk on his own, but he was, more or less, inventing a genre of literature.

What sort of person is capable of such singular focus and ubermenschiness? The same sort who’d write the following words, also in Slate, earlier this month:

I myself am a stubborn, sometimes arrogant person who refuses to obey some of the rules that everybody else follows. I pay no attention to the rules of grammar. I write fragments if I goddamned well feel like it. I refuse to follow many of the principles of proper research that are agreed upon by the rest of the academic world. An editor said to me last year, “Well, you’ve earned the right to do things your own way.” Bullshit; I was that way when I was 25. It has to do with following the rules that make sense to me and ignoring the ones that don’t. It doesn’t make me a bad person; it makes me who I am. I started the Baseball Abstract, self-publishing it when self-publishing was cumbersome and impractical, because it was my book and nobody was going to tell me how to write it or tell me what people were interested in.

Words, numbers, and baseball — and the overlapping relationships between the three — were recently addressed by Will Carroll and (by way of response to Carroll) Tom Tango.

Caroll’s basic stance is that writers in the saber community don’t really understand what it requires to make quantitative analysis palatable to the masses. He writes that

99% of baseball fans still don’t use OPS, let alone a more advanced measure. How about statheads take some baby steps, or better, take some lessons from Moneyball. Moneyball told a good story and brought some advanced measures to a wider audience. In the shadow of that book, statheads lacked a Michael Lewis to carry their message, and worse, didn’t understand why the book was popular. Until statheads stop worrying about decimal places, litmus tests, and passive-aggressive stands against the status quo, they’ll lose out to good stories, marketing, and simplicity.

First of all, with due respect to Mr. Carroll, it’s important to note that characterizing all of the many individuals writing in the sabermetric vein — characterizing them as a cohesive group — is misleading. There’s no central governing body for sabermetrics, nor is there much money in this particular racket. As such, while there is certainly a pretty high degree of interaction between the science’s various practitioners, to suggest that “statheads” are functioning with an agenda — or that they’re capable of doing so — is fallacious.

Second of all, on the subject of forces of nature, let’s all be clear about how many people possess Michael Lewis’s peculiar capacity for storytelling. “One person,” is the answer: Michael Lewis himself.

For his part, Tango takes an approach that won’t be surprising to those readers who’re already familiar with his work. To Carroll’s suggestion that sabermetric writers are failing to make inroads with the general public, he literally replies, “Who cares?”

He also writes this:

We are making strides. Who says we’re not? And we are making strides because we are making sense. But more importantly, the objective is to breed a loyal following to the ideas, because those ideas will live on forever. That’s how you measure success. You don’t measure success by the number of people you can get to buy your fish. You measure success by the number of people willing to sell your fishing rods.

Tango’s main concern, if I’m characterizing it correctly, is to ask questions about baseball — particularly about what contributes to wins and losses — and answer them. He’s excellent at doing this, as The Book and his blog both demonstrate.

We have, in Carroll and Tango’s respective comments, a couple of ways to measure the success of the sabermetric project. The quality of, and loyalty to, the ideas: that’s one criterion. The degree to which the general public begins to utilize advanced stats: that’s another, maybe.

But let’s be clear about something: the survival and proliferation of sabermetrics is ultimately meaningless. Sabermetrics is merely a means to the only possibly valuable end: our own happiness.

If James was successful at marketing sabermetric ideas, it’s not because that’s what he set out to do. Nor was his concern to perfect a science of baseball. Rather, the one thing that Bill James appears to’ve cared about — the thing which makes his work compelling — is satisfying Bill James.

James’ true accomplishment has been — and still is — that he trusts himself fully. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with baseball, at all. It’s a question of curiosity, courage, and, as Emerson says, the ability to “abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”

Before James, the prospect of dedicating oneself almost entirely to asking questions about baseball — it was laughable. He made it a thing. And he made it a thing not because his research methods were flawless (they weren’t) nor because he was a marketing genius (he wasn’t), but because he possessed a singular vision and was able to represent that vision in white-hot prose.

Which, that brings us back to Coleridge and the “incalcuable advantages” of using words well. Yes, James wrote in fragments: if you’re thinking that’s somehow an indictment of his writing abilities, then you’re mistaken in a hundred different ways. No, the fact is that James wrote (writes) the shit out of English. There’s no mistaking, in the pages of his Abstracts, that a human is on the other side of his words — a human who doesn’t take for granted, not even for a second, the wonders of the human mind.

Give me a distinct voice. Not someone who hedges bets in hopes of reaching the greatest possible audience: that’s sad and hollow. Not someone who sets out purposely to make controversy: that’s cheap, dishonest. No. Give me someone who trusts him- or herself entirely, whose writing is a celebration of human potential.

Are there authors like this writing about baseball? Yes, absolutely. Consider the work of Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing and Dan Moore of Viva El Birdos: for as much writing as those guys do, it’s amazing how often they hit home runs. Both make ample use of advanced stats — there’s no question about it. But to label either as a stathead, or whichever other term you’d like to use — well, that’d be a mistake. Yes, each of them writes about baseball, but the way they do it — that’s the very excellent part. If ever I find myself at odds with their work, it’s only because they’re younger than me and should have the decency not to make me jealous of their prose.

Finally, do not suppose that I’m declaring useless all quantitative analysis of baseball. That’s ridiculous. To the extent that a writer employs advanced stats when discussing baseball, that’s likely the extent to which he’s willing to employ reason, as well — and reason is a staple of good writing.

So, what’s the point, then? The point is that the health of sabermetrics, per se, is less important than the cultivation and celebration of idiosyncratic thought. That’s not to say the two are mutually exclusive. Still, there’s a question of emphasis, and the emphasis should be placed on the latter.

“But Cistulli, I know that already,” maybe you’re saying. Good. Excellent. If that’s the case, you’ll forgive me, then — and recognize that I’ve only attempted to state with new words an idea that should be yelled aloud over and over. For, as Coleridge writes (also in Aids to Reflection),

it is the highest and most useful prerogative of genius to produce the strongest impressions of novelty, while it rescues admitted truths from the neglect caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission. Extremes meet. Truths, of all other the most awful and interesting, are too often considered as so true, that they lose all the power of truth, and like bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors.



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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.


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Larry Smith Jr.
Guest
5 years 8 months ago

Excellent. Nothing more to add. Just excellent.

Michael
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Michael
5 years 8 months ago

“But let’s be clear about something: the survival and proliferation of sabermetrics is ultimately meaningless. Sabermetrics is merely a means to the only possibly valuable end: our own happiness. ”

I would say this is only true if the implication is that baseball as a whole is ultimately meaningless (which, fine, but that’s a whole other discussion and obv. involves a lot more than baseball). Because clearly sabermetrics have improved the ability of the people who put together baseball teams to do their job, and will continue to do so.

Kirkwood
Member
Kirkwood
5 years 8 months ago

The reason sabermetrics are only good for giving us happiness is because happiness is the one, true end. The reason we do anything is to make us happy. Thus, everything is meaningless in any other terms. We work so we can have a happy life. We have families and raise children because it makes us happy. We go to school to join professions because having those jobs leads to happiness, to well-being. We watch baseball and, thus, use sabermetrics because they make us happy. People build baseball teams because it makes them happy. Well-being and happiness are all that matter. It’s a Greek philosophical concept called eudaimonia.

Munson
Guest
Munson
5 years 7 months ago

Yes, but your definition of eudaimonia seems decidedly Epicurean in that it focuses on personal pleasure.

NotDave
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NotDave
5 years 7 months ago

“Because clearly sabermetrics have improved the ability of the people who put together baseball teams to do their job, and will continue to do so”

How so? Perhaps on the margins, certain GMs gain a small advantage, such as which player should be the 25th man on the roster, or which FA relief pitcher to offer a contract to be the 6th or 7th man in the bullpen. That’s about it, IMO, and even that is nothing but very slightly educated guesswork, nearly as likely to be a mistake as a ‘find,’ and unlikely to be a big difference maker in the team’s W/L record.

Saberists tend to believe that what they, and only they know contains the secret to winning baseball games. That’s a stretch, to say the least. Teams/GMs/scouts etc have been recognizing the best talent for 100+ years. There is no era in which Albert Pujols or King Felix would not have been in the major leagues, and those are the type players that matter. Whether or not your utility infielder has a .300 or .350 OBP is not that big a deal. Teams have known that forever, and have recognized forever that adding defense into the equation might, indeed, give the edge to the .300 OBP guy, even if they couldn’t invent a number to put on it.

Get over yourselves. What, in the end, has sabermetrics really added to the discussion?

Albert Lyu
Member
5 years 8 months ago

The author of Ecclesiastes realized this a few thousand years ago (see Ecclesiastes 1).

dan woytek
Guest
5 years 8 months ago

Cistulli,
You just got Torahed!

Munson
Guest
Munson
5 years 7 months ago

Not Torahed, Ketuvimed.

char
Guest
char
5 years 7 months ago

Aristotle too

JD Sussman
Member
5 years 8 months ago

Good stuff.

Adam M
Guest
5 years 8 months ago

I laughed. I cried. I contemplated the universe.

Well done, sir.

balfourvanvleck
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balfourvanvleck
5 years 8 months ago

Nice work, Carson. I would also put Grant from McCovey Chronicles in that group of writers. Get him on the pod!

Jon
Guest
5 years 8 months ago

I like to think that I have a unique voice over at my blog. WHo else writes about baseball like an addled James Burke? But the best baseball writing for my money* is Josh Wilker’s over at Cardboard Gods.

* It really was mymoney. I bought his book. Good stuff, esp for those of you around 40.

Kirkwood
Member
Kirkwood
5 years 8 months ago

“Sabermetrics is merely a means to the only possibly valuable end: our own happiness. ”

Been reading up on some utilitarianism, Carson? Hah, loved this article. Perfectly written. You just captured the essence of baseball and, really, of any pursuit — intellectual or otherwise. This is why I come to this site: I always leave it thinking, and not just about sabermetrics.

noseeum
Guest
noseeum
5 years 8 months ago

I’m tempted to submit this entire post to Andrew Sullivan to be nominated for his Poseur Alert award.

Robert J. Baumann
Member
Member
5 years 7 months ago

I really did cry. Briefly, I felt normal.

Eric
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Eric
5 years 7 months ago

Thanks Carson, I really am thankful for the work you do here for us with your prose, poetry, your interviews and your statistical analysis.

Jonathan Sher
Guest
5 years 7 months ago

As someone who loves insights into baseball and good writing, I have always thought Bill James to be a pioneer of the former but a master of the latter. He was an English major, not a statistician, and his genius is his ability to pick off long-held assumptions and reveal their falsehood with precise questions and clearly-worded answers. Those skills depend upon clarity of thought — as does effective writing.

A DC Wonk
Guest
A DC Wonk
5 years 7 months ago

Ehhh . . . I disagree with some of that. We _do_ need other people to want this stuff, otherwise the “infrastructure”, so to speak, won’t exist. If only three people cared about fielding stats, we wouldn’t have organizations going over each play and coming up with UZR, or whatever. Or, from another angle, If some sponsor offered a $1M bonus and a fancy award to top OBP or SLG in each league, you can bet some TV stations and newspapers would start to carry that stat.

Michael Becque
Guest
5 years 7 months ago

The main failing of the sabremetric community to this point has been the ability to qualify the quantitative discoveries we’ve made. Stats like batting average have survived so long because they are easy to understand. Many of us interested in sabremetrics are physicists, mathematicians, or otherwise very talented people.

The problem is that baseball appeals to a wide range, not just the intellectual community. How would you explain wOBA to someone who doesn’t know what statistical regression is? How do you explain ERA+ to a person who’s never heard of normalization?

Thus is the challenge of all scientists, sabremetricians included. We must present our profound findings in such a way that the general public will not only trust that we are correct, but also somewhat understand what we are saying. Only when this is achieved will sabremetrics be widely embraced.

verd14
Guest
verd14
5 years 7 months ago

Nice piece. Thought provoking for sure.

@Michael Becque I don’t think the problem is the difficulty in learning the concepts.

I think maybe, to Carson’s point, people just don’t give a shit about WAR or wOBA, or ERA+. Wins and Losses, ERA and Batting Average are enough for them to evaluate how good or bad someone performed and don’t need any snot nosed saber metric dweeb telling them how it may have been “unlucky”.

If you aren’t participating in a fantasy league or trying to figure out who Theo should sign next year at a good price, I’m not so sure how relevant all this information is, or why it’s worth reading about. I think most people are perfectly happy experiencing baseball in their own way, which doesn’t involve WAR, wOBA, or ERA+.

Having said that, I can’t get enough. Keep it coming Carson and Co.

brew1982
Guest
brew1982
5 years 7 months ago

Carroll is a moron and should be ignored. He has done more damage to the cause than anyone with his Rose nonsense and general inept writing.

This community is making strides. Keep asking questions, keep working to provide answers and don’t be a snotty *sshole when discussing topics. It’s not a hard formula.

Except for Carroll

BobLoblaw
Guest
BobLoblaw
5 years 7 months ago

Very good article, first of all.

Only the characterization of Carroll’s piece is a bit off. He’s not, as you say, referring to an agenda, or a cohesive unit acting together. He’s referring to a PATTERN. And what he describes is admittedly a very real pattern of behavior among sabermatricians. And maybe that behavioral pattern is symptom…. of sabermatricians’ feeling of alienation from the masses who put them down or don’t “get it.” Something better communication could fix.

pft
Guest
pft
5 years 7 months ago

“When the numbers melt into the language, they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do, to become fiction and drama and poetry.”

That’s the big problem, numbers are used just as often to deceive and create fiction as illuminate reality.

The great modern fiction is that RBI’s are not important in evaluating how valuable a player his to his team, and that rate stats are more important than counting stats, and adjusted run and win estimators are accurate to within 1 decimal point.

I see folks using park factors and UZR w/o really knowing what they are doing since they completely ignore the uncertainty in these numbers in their analysis.

I see some in the saber world as implying that because they can find no evidence that something exists statistically, that one should assume it does not. A good example is catchers intangibles and ability to call games, or clutch performance. If Science followed that logic we would still be in the Dark Ages.

I also see those in the saber world assuming that a model based on the population as a whole can be applied to individuals without validation or an estimate of the uncertainty. Large populations may appear to exhibit random behavior, but not all individuals within the population behave randomly. For example, while it may be true that that most pitchers have no control over BABIP, there are certainly individual pitchers who do. While the average hitter might be adversely affected by hitting in San Diego, Tony Gwynn was most certainly not.

Bill James questioned the old paradigm, and helped change it, despite pressure from the protectors of the old paradigm who believed with certainty they were right.

The new paradigm is just as dearly protected, and may be just as wrong. The pendulum has just shifted a bit to overvalue BB and a wildly uncertain measure of defense, and a preference for estimates and estimators, at the expense of observation and events which actually happened, and to undervalue stats like HR and RBI.

If the SABER world wants to get more attention from the rest of the baseball world, they might be best off moving closer to the real world and away from the fantasy world which tries to predict the future or assign a value to a player which can not be proven or disproven (validated).

Fans are more interested in knowing how many actual runs and W’s a player contributed for his team. For example, if a batter hitting 7th earns a BB with 2 outs and men on 2nd and 3rd, and the # 8 hitter makes an out, that BB earns 0 runs (and not 0.3 runs)

However, if the # 8 hitter drives these 2 runs in, then the BB assisted these 2 runs by not making an out, so the BB by the # 7 hitter should be credited with an assist.

Basketball and Hockey all have a stat called an assist. Why not baseball to go along with R and RBI (the only 2 stats that always change the scoreboard in the real world). I guess then we would not have as much use for statistics if we could better measure what actually happened.

messytaco
Member
messytaco
5 years 7 months ago

There are math whizzes who can invent stats, but not explain them, and there are writers who could write about the stats if only they could understand them. But Bill James is a logician. He transcends those two groups is because logic is superior to both math and language when it comes to baseball analysis.

We have seen keen baseball analysts get MLB jobs and fail to keep them, while instinctive, numbers-illiterate yahoos get hired to manage or GM teams again and again. Again, there is a third thing that matters more than either of them, and that is adaptability in a collaborative environment. Neither tobacco-chewing scouts nor computer-headed analysts can survive indefinitely in a meaningful baseball environment without being able to work with their colleagues – in whatever way those colleagues need to be worked with. Every work environment is different, so there is no single way to succeed.

What I think Will Carroll is always trying to say is that some statheads – particularly readers, but some writers too – would beat their heads bloody in a meeting room before conceding that, say, maybe Milton Bradley is not worth the risk. “My argument is better than your argument” may be accurate, but it isn’t how you make the case. That is what I think stat-minded fans cannot accept.

There are people who are influential because they write beautifully, even though their conclusions are often flawed. And there are people who almost refuse to be influential because they are sure their information is so compelling it needs no embellishment. But Bill James is neither an evangelist nor an intellectual, and he has never felt he had a rep to protect. If anything, that is his real advantage, and that’s what I read him to be saying. His ego is so large he has no ego, because it is unassailable. Analysts in any field must be willing to say, “Here is my information. If you don’t use it right, that’s not my problem.” If they are lucky, they end up getting a job with a boss who will use the information right. But no matter what the field, such an opportunity is distressingly rare.

The Common Man
Guest
5 years 7 months ago

Speaking of writing the shit out of the English language…

Doctor Memory
Guest
Doctor Memory
5 years 7 months ago

The plurality of my days is lived in not-so-splendid isolation.

Language; numbers; baseball: one might think that fellow travelers would be so thick, I’d have to brush them away from my face.

I have been elevated today by this fine writing, fine reasoning, and by the fine responses to same.

Do you feel the emptiness as division titles are clinched?

It’s not the post-season that warms me and animates my being – it’s the humane rhythms of the six-plus months that precede. My thought creeps forward: “What am I gonna do until March?”

Rogers Hornsby remarked about his off-seasons, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

The very large window at my desk-side overlooks downtown Augusta, Georgia – through which I note daily a procession of passersby. The leaves will soon begin to yellow, then fall from the Chinese Elm whose branch wind-grazes my view of this world. The pane will grow cold to my touch; before Spring, I might see a snow flurry. Or two. A monthly monotony of secular and religious holidays will be noted, pedestrians of my spiritual calendar. Football-rabid southerners will approach me on the street, asking, “Where yuh been, bo-uh? Ah ain’t seen yoo since Labor Day. How ’bout them Dawgs?!?”

I have my language and my numbers, and I belong to an electronic congregation of fellow spring-awaiters – appreciative of clarity, and of its fluid nature, and of the portal, baseball.

THE_SLASHER14
Guest
THE_SLASHER14
5 years 7 months ago

pft: It’s hard to hit in San Diego because Petco Park is huge. And no, Tony Gwynn was NOT able to hit in spite of that. He retired before Petco was built. In point of fact, EVERY Padre hitter has suffered because of Petco, and there is no reason to believe that Gwynn wouldn’t have suffered as well. It doesn’t take a “stathead” to figure that out but it does take someone whose knowledge of baseball is at least that extensive.

NotDave: Maybe YOU don’t think sabermetricians have advanced our knowledge of the game but the Boston Red Sox disagree, and have profited thereby. I submit their opinion is more knowledgeable than yours. What you’re overlooking is the extreme LACK of statistical information available before Bill James came along. In the 1950s and 1960s, many teams didn’t keep ANY numbers — look at the many missing games in Retrosheet’s database. It is not a coincidence that the flagship National League franchise of the 1950s hired a statistician (and as a result there are NO missing Brooklyn Dodger games). Nor is it a coincidence that the man who hired Allan Roth — Branch Rickey — was one of the few front office operatives to value on-base percentage over batting average. He even developed a formula — quite similar to OPS in many respects — with which to evaluate players. A formula which he kept secret, because he felt it gave him a huge advantage over other teams. His record in St. Louis, Brooklyn, and Pittsburgh speaks for itself.

Sabermetricians, led by Bill James, have simply gone where very few men had gone before. To say that they have brought back some stuff that is questionable is reasonable; to state that they haven’t added anything to the discussion is ignorance of what existed before them.

mike
Guest
mike
5 years 7 months ago

I believe in stats in general and sabermetrics in particular with one notable exception – I do not accept any defensive stat because they are all far too subjective. Of course that also makes WAR less compelling for me though I love the concept (and I do try to use all the defensive stats together to create a picture for me).

I am a big fan of Bill James and I think he singlehandedly brought a new focus to analysis of baseball statistics, for which he deserves ultimate respect.

Still I would not have commented on this article were it not for the Carroll and Tango quotes/takes. Unless I am misreading it, Carroll says it is the sabermetricians responsibility to be better at getting the message out. There is a point to that – a talented person who isn’t demonstrably arrogant and/or snarky could indeed provide more advances.

Still Tango is correct that making sense is far more important than doing so in a stylish manner. I agree but the rest of his quote could also be seen as supporting the idea that people will become loyal followers and the ideas live forever. To me that borders on (at the least) propaganda and indoctrination.

People interested in manipulating other people have always tried to just keep putting the same stuff out there over and over until the masses accept it as the truth. For me, even if the stuff is 100% correct, that particular methodology is simply wrong (though it is far too often successful). Having someone with the ability to make the point stylistically combined with someone who can show the foundation of the point would go far toward letting people make up their own minds – and take further steps.

Talking about luck will not accomplish this in my view nor will snarkily asserting that anyone who doesn’t accept the new math is a dinosaur or just stupid etc..

Oh and ironically, James was successful fighting against the insidious propaganda put forward by people analyzing baseball from the 19th century. He made the concepts palatable while showing how they made sense. We need more of that to take further steps and much less of hoping that inundating people over and over will eventually bring us followers.

Jon Ruckdaschel
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

Thanks for that complied info. Its really helpful ! great post?pretty much covered it all for me?thanks all!

Maura
Guest
5 years 3 months ago

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