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Sifting through round table reactions

by Alan Schwarz
January 13, 2005

If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true . . . Since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

John Stuart Mill
"On Liberty," 1859

NEW YORK—It is about conversation.

Baseball America's debate between two scouts and two statistics analysts, the second installment of which begins in issue 0503, could be seen to concern high school pitchers, Double-A hitting prospects, the modern confusion between DIPS and dip. But that is only a smokescreen.

It is about humility. Constructiveness. Debate. These are the fibers that, braided together, will lift these two groups from the muck of obstinacy and contempt into an air more healthy and breathable—and, ultimately, sharable.

Like most fraternity wars, this whole stats-versus-scouts business started out silly before aspiring to idiocy. Group with comfortable jobs feels threatened by progressively skilled youth. Youth mocks old guard as outdated and crows it's ready to take over. Polarization and arrow-slinging ensues. As if this dynamic were not soporifically old and predictable, dating back through the Lancasters and Yorks and probably baked into our bones as homo sapiens.

Sitting down two longtime scouts (Gary Hughes and Eddie Bane) and two prominent statistics analysts (Gary Huckabay and Voros McCracken) for a debate was designed far less to thaw any feelings among those four than, weeks later, to let everyone else listen in. Intelligent debate begets intelligent debate. And that's exactly what happened, in scouting rooms across the majors, chat rooms across the Internet, and all the way to a soldier in Iraq.

Readers React

Collecting the thousands of letters and blog posts that the Round Table spawned is of course impossible here. But suffice to say that a majority rejoiced in how, regardless of their opinion on the opinions, the conversation's sense of decorum fostered a welcome sense of, "What can we do together?":

"Nowadays the (stats) vs. scouts arguments are nothing but partisan hacks subbing baseball for politics."

"The statheads and scouts need to take some meteorology classes and learn just how effective their methods are. Weather forecasting is more accurate than ever, but there's still a one in 10 chance that you'll be shoveling 3 inches of partly sunny off your driveway."

"Part of the problems the stat community has made for itself in terms of PR is a function of how we communicate with each other—often online, where snarkiness makes for a better read than civility and moderation."

"They all made nice, though I sense the scouts would've loved to tear Voros a new McCracken."

"Scouts vs. stats makes as much sense to me as pretzels vs. beer."

In the end, the consensus seemed to hold that each side was impressed most by Bane (the Angels' scouting director) and Huckabay (a Baseball Prospectus author and A's consultant), specifically because they sounded most interested in what the other side had to say. I can testify that all four were interested—I was in the room—but yes, those two were particularly solicitous of others' thoughts.

And then came an e-mail from Sgt. Rob Jamison, a member of the Fort Hood-based 1st Cavalry Division's Fire Support Element, who has spent the last 11 months in Iraq—and in his off time reads both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus.

Dismissing either statistics or scouts to any extent "would be a waste of available data, and vice-versa," he wrote. "The idea of having two separate assistant GM's, one each for a statistics department and a scouting department, would probably serve as invaluable tools."

Moving Forward

Baseball America occupies an odd spot in all this. Our 24 years have been spent reporting and relying on scouts' insider impressions of players. Given that, the magazine has become a tantalizing symbol of the teetering establishment. Baseball Prospectus folks have often been downright nasty—in part, I have learned, as a tool not just of rhetoric, but marketing.

I knew darned well that this scouts/stats Round Table would serve as foil for the larger America/Prospectus dichotomy, and welcomed reaction to that. It came right on cue.

"The developed outsider perspective has its positives and negatives," wrote BP's Will Carroll. "There's no need to pull punches, knowing that (you) won't have to call that front office the next day, giving (you) far more intellectual freedom, but that freedom costs information. There are things that are known or unknown that the outsider perspective will miss out on, just as being too close to a situation . . . will cause a skewed perspective."

In the end, it's the pure value of new ideas that elevates them above the old. All the other stuff is really just noise.

As the nation's only baseball-only magazine, Baseball America takes upon itself the responsibility of cultivating a safe haven, and raising standards, for that noise. Like bat and ball, collisions can indeed be beautiful.


You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to alanschwarz@baseballamerica.com.

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