Steroids Hysteria – The Sound of a Skillset Being Rendered Obsolete

The internet. Blogs. Online baseball databases, and cyber communities of like-minded fans and analysts. A bunch of factors facilitated the growth of a new sort of baseball writing. *

Many of these analytical baseball writers start out as complete outsiders. They come to baseball as fans, and they base their analysis on publicly available data-sets.

Sports-opinion writers are the ultimate insiders, with the best jobs in the world. They come to baseball as professionals, through the traditional newspaper system. They achieve enough status within their organizations to keep a job as a sportswriter, but no longer have to do the difficult work of being a baseball team’s everyday beat reporter.

Guys like Dan Shaughnessy, and Mike Lupica, and Marcus Hayes, and Bill Madden, and Jeff Schultz, and Rick Reilly, and I guess I could keep going.

They share opinions. In decades past, you’d find them complaining about how certain players dressed or carried themselves, and speculating about deficits in their character and their love of the game. They were prophets of grit and determination, singing the gospel of how scrappiness and clutch hitting wins games.

Now they mostly focus on generating outrage around performance-enhancing drugs.

By essentially writing the same sorts of stories over and over again, baseball opinion writers created their own market inefficiency. They ignored a growing public demand for more analytical thinking, more reality-based assessment, and better baseball writing.

The new, ascendent baseball writers stepped into that void. They were comfortable with advanced stats, and interested in the questions advanced stats hope to answer. Like what parts of on-field performance are the product of skill and what is the product of luck? What can a player control and what is beyond his control? What events on the field directly contribute to winning, and what seemingly beneficial acts actually hurt your team?

The new approach is about more than advanced stats, it is about mindset. It is about considering the possibility that the observer might be wrong about what he thinks he is seeing. It is about being willing to engage in trial and error, in conjecture and refutation, in the scientific method. It requires a level of curiosity and self-abnegation that is inconceivable in the world of baseball opinion writers.

Of course, baseball opinion writers are still going strong. They have powerful podiums at major newspapers (which have now become major sites online). They guard the gates of the Baseball Hall of Fame. They appear regularly as talking heads on sports television.

But they seem to be aware that their position has eroded. They write peevishly about bloggers. They say disparaging things about the analytical focus of baseball general managers, and they demonize certain players as being too-obsessed-with-statistics, a character malady that the baseball opinion writer is uniquely adept at diagnosing.

All these things betray a certain desperation, a sense that their golden age of bullshit is coming to an end.

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