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Nite Owl II Nails the Point of Sabermetrics

It’s hard to imagine Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Hugo Award winning graphic novel Watchmen, being much of a fan of sabermetrics. He quit the hooded justice industry in order to become a mechanic, and he always did have a soft spot for the traditional values of Montana, where his grandfather learned the values he instilled into the young Mason.

Although the second Nite Owl, Daniel Dreiberg, exhibits a fair amount of similarities to his predecessor, he is less of a fighter and more of a thinker. Nite Owl II relies more on technology and gadgets than on toughness and physical prowess compared to the rest of his masked colleagues. His love for ornithology (the study of birds) is obvious given his bird-themed alter ego — not only is his costume designed to look like an owl, but so is Archimedes, his ship, named for Merlin’s pet owl in The Sword and the Stone.

To that end, Dreiberg contributed a piece called “Blood From The Shoulder of Pallas” to the Journal of the American Ornithological Society. In it, he discusses how scrutinizing over the details of birds can make us miss the beauty of it all.

Is it possible, I wonder, to study a bird so closely, to observe and catalogue its peculiarities in such minute detail, that it becomes invisible? Is it possible that while fastidiously calibrating the span of its wings or the length of its tarsus, we somehow lose sight of its poetry? That in our pedestrian descriptions of a marbled or vermiculated plumage we forfeit a glimpse of living canvases, cascades of carefully toned browns and golds that would shame Kandinsky, misty explosions of color to rival Monet? I believe that we do. I believe that in approaching our subject with the sensibilities of statisticians and dissectionists, we distance ourselves increasingly from the marvelous and spell-binding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place.

Dreiberg, a scientist himself, doesn’t say this to diminish study or scientific research. In fact, it’s harder to find a bigger proponent. He’s just warning us not to let the pursuit of data to blind ourselves from the beauty of what we’re studying.

This is not to say that we should cease to establish facts and to verify our information, but merely to suggest that unelss those facts can be imbued with the flash of poetic insight then they remain dull gems; semi-precious stones scarcely worth the collecting.

Dreiberg goes on to tell the story of how, in experiencing the cry of an owl while in the field, he truly felt immersed in the poetry and beauty of the subject again. Surely, every baseball fan has this sort of almost religious experience that keeps baseball beautiful, as opposed to limiting it to pixels on a screen. For me, it was the Brewers’ playoff run in 2008, to go along with my experiences as a player. For Dreiberg, much as with most sabermetricians, these experience only enhance the desire for data and analysis.

…this is not to suggest that I immediately foreswore all academic endeavor and research pertaining to the field in order to run away and eke out some naked and primordial existence in the woods. Quite the contrary: I hurled myself into the study of my subject with renewed fervor, able to see the dry facts and arid descriptions in the same transforming magical light that had favored them when I was younger. A scientific understanding of the beautifully synchronized and articulated motion of an owl’s individual feathers during flight does not impede a poetic appreciation of the same phenomenon. Rather, the two enhance each other, a more lyrical eye lending the cold data a romance form which it has long been divorced.

I believe this to be an essential point to remember when analyzing baseball (or owls, or anything else for that matter). The numbers can tell a story, and it is our duty to give them that story, as Dreiberg lends a story to the owls he analyzes.

Perhaps, instead of measuring the feathered tufts surmounting its ears, we should speculate on what those ears may have heard. Perhaps when considering the manner in which it grips its branch, with two toes in front and the reversible outer toe clutching from behind, we should allow ourselves to pause for a moment, and acknowledge that these same claws must once have drawn blood from the shoulder of Pallas.

From Watchmen, Chapter VII, pages 29-32