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On the Pleasures of Data

Clicking and embiggening are both options here.

It’s the conviction of this author that, among its many charms, baseball’s greatest (charm, that is) is its capacity to constantly produce data. While such a claim would likely redden the face of a Real Baseball Man, let it be known that, by data, I’m not merely thinking of columns of stats; in fact, because of the frequency with which games are played and because of the intimacy which necessarily develops between players and coaches and beat writers and fans, baseball also produces narratives about masculinity and heroism and failure, etc.

The act of record-keeping is truly central to the game. Really, nothing besides politics and the weather is so thoroughly documented for the benefit of public consumption — and neither politics (which is horrifying) nor weather (which is boring) are so pleasant to discuss with strangers.

At its least exciting, this data becomes the raw material for trivia. “For which player was Jeff Bagwell traded to the Astros? How many men did Old Hoss Radbourn kill with his just his mustache over the course of his syphilis-shortened life?”: while perfectly amusing, such questions don’t generate meaningful thoughts. At its most daunting, the expanse of data becomes overwhelming: what does one do with it?

However, if one approaches it all with the proper frame of mind — equal parts curiosity and well-meaning impertinence — then the data becomes a powerful medium to that most pleasant of human enterprises: contemplation.

Nor is it merely Major League Baseball data that does this. For example, consider the team stats — from a very secret league — embedded at the top of this post.

The attentive reader will note that, although they’ve played roughly the same number of games as every other team in the league, that fourth team from the top has hit over half of the league’s home runs. Nor, as you might suspect, does said team seem to play in a hitter-friendly park: in fact, the pitchers for this same team have allowed only four of the league’s 46 home runs, and no other team has allowed more than ten home runs (which suggests that the team in question hasn’t merely teed off against the poorest couple pitching staffs).

“What’s going on here?”: if you’re the curiouser sort, then that’s the question you’re asking instinctively. Nor is it the answer itself that’s ultimately important. I mean, one must believe than an answer exists — otherwise the pursuit is worthless — but the real pleasure is derived from, first, encountering an outlier and, second, determining what causes it.

Note: for those parties interested in pursuing the answer to this specific mystery, click here.