Thursday, October 20, 2016

Sabermetics and English majoring

I was recently nominated for a departmental award, and part of the application process is a short (<500 word) essay. Given the inanity of the two essay topics, I thought the committee is basically using this as a writing sample. Anyway, since I actually had to put some thought into this, I decided to re-post my response here.

It involves sabermetrics and baseball. Additional, since my hometown team, the Cleveland Indians, just made the World Series, I thought this extra appropriate.

PROMPT: Or, what is the one thing outside of the academic world that you are currently learning? Why? How do you think your experience as an English major has contributed and will contribute to that desire and pursuit?

  Academic life allows little time for hobbies, but perhaps my most important non-academic obsession is baseball. This obsession goes well beyond community league softball or keeping tabs on the playoffs (go Cleveland!). Instead, my passion for the game has led me into the field of sabermetrics. Baseball tends to be the most history-minded of the four major American sports, and statistics play a large part in that historical consciousness. Briefly defined, sabermetrics is the advanced study of sports statistics. For example, sabermetricians have found that traditional baseball stats—batting average, RBIs, pitcher wins, and the like—are actually poor indicators of a player’s individual skill level. New sabermetric stats, however arcane they look to the average fan (especially insofar as they often require complicated formulas), have nevertheless been so successful in analyzing the in-game activities of baseball that all Major League front offices now employ a sabermetrics department. I have found that studying sabermetrics allows me to express the analytical, mathematical side of me that tends to go unused in my academic studies.

Strange as it might seem, my experience as an English major actually goes a long way to increasing my appreciation of sabermetrics. One minor way is the whole “nerds vs. jocks” debate, which no longer appears much in popular culture but which remains alive and well in the world of sports—advocates of traditional stats often display their resentment of new statistics by attributing their creation to “nerds.” Considering that academic work might be considered a “nerd” activity, my familiarity with this baseball debate has exposed me to a range of strong responses. A more important influence from my English studies, however, is the way they have opened me to the possibility of studying baseball in non-traditional ways. Literature is itself an activity that helps people think creatively and outside the standard modes of thinking; it opens one’s worldview to ideas and cultures not otherwise accessible. Sabermetrics initially appealed to me because it seemed like a highly creative way to approach well-worn problems in analyzing baseball. Most mathematicians, after all, assert that math is a highly creative activity, and I was overjoyed to learn how baseball fans were developing new and exciting formulas to explain things happening in the physical world. Indeed, the influence of my academic studies on my love of baseball can be seen via an analogy: sabermetrics is to baseball is what literary theory in the 1980s was to literary criticism. Even if your own literary criticism does not follow one of the newer theoretical approaches, those approaches raise questions and concerns that had otherwise remained hidden. 

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