Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Master and Margarita , sabermetrics, and 2010 expectations

One of my favorite passages in Mikhail Bulgarakov's book, The Master and Margarita, a satire on the literary bureaucracy in communist Russia, involves a conversation between an editor, Berlioz, and a poet, Ivan. It seems that Ivan the poet is commissioned to write a long antireligous poem about Jesus. So the poet writes a humanistic portrait of Jesus as a figure who once existed - a portrait that includes both positive and negative traits. Berlioz, however, mirroring the spirit of the age, declares that the poem is not atheistic enough. He suggests that the poet re-write the poem as if Jesus had never existed at all. The editor, being a well-educated, well-read man, presents him with a logical and historical basis for this idea. To the poet, all this reasoning is new, and not knowing quite what to make of it, the poet Ivan sits back and just listens. The passage sets the tone for a strange, but great book within which Bulgarakov thumbs his nose at the conventional. He is wonderously inventive, even throwing in such marvelous characters as a gun-wielding, 6 foot tall cat.

So what does this have to do with the Cubs or this blog? Let me say first off that I'm writing this blog for fun. That being said, a writer needs some feedback from time to time, so I've asked friends to read it and give me some tips. I got an interesting one the other day from a Cub fan friend of mine. The verdict? As much as I try to portray a realistic portrait of the Cubs chances, endowing the team with both negative and positive traits, my friend tells me in effect that my blogs are not pessimistic enough. Like Berlioz, he presents me with facts and figures that suggest that the Cubs chances are, in fact, virtually non-existent. Not being the numbers guy he is, I sit back and just listen.

Sabermetrics is the spirit of the age in baseball and my friend isn't the only one who views the Cubs in such a harsh light. It has become gospel in the sabermetric community to view the Cubs this way and blashphemy to suggest that there is anything positive about their GM Jim Hendry, whose philosophy is centered less around sabermetrics and more around old-fashioned scouting. The excellent sabermetric-based website, Fangraphs, ranked the Cubs as the 19th best organization out of 30 teams. That's pretty low, in my opinion, for a team that's been as successful as they have in recent history and with a farm system that is quickly rising to be among the best in baseball. The writers on the site, to their credit, did say this was a subjective ranking. The readers, however, were a different story. When I questioned this ranking, I was immediately besieged by three other readers who insisted the ranking was perfect as it is, and chided me for suggesting otherwise. One went so far as to suggest that I do not understand sabermetrics at all. In all honesty, I understand it well enough. Well enough, anyway, to quickly allay that readers concerns. In the end, however, it wasn't the ranking itself that left a lasting impression, it was the rigid, dogmatic adherence to a system that, while interesting and useful, cannot possibly know all the answers or provide us with 100% accuracy.

Luckily for me, my friend is not my editor and I, as my blog suggests, try to draw information from a number of sources, not just I'm going to continue to portray my Cubs with the positive and the negative...and continue to try to be realistic, but with the hopes that the Cubs really do have a chance in 2010. If I am not pessimistic enough, so be it. Maybe the chances of the Cubs winning the World Series this year are as likely as a Russian poet encountering a 6 foot tall feline, but when your favorite team hasn't won in 100 years and the immediate future looks gloomy, sometimes you need fantasy to escape the mundane realities of history and the logical probabilities of stats and trends. So I say, Go Cubs! This is the year!...Well, maybe not. But sometimes you just gotta have hope.


  1. I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of sabermetrics but I just don't agree with the Cubs hate coming from those circles. I'll admit there are a few too many what-ifs (can Soriano & Soto return to form, can Ramirez stay healthy, how will Lilly return from surgery) to pick the Cubs to win their division. However, I don't see the Cardinals as being a dominant team like many of the experts so I think it will be a tight race with the Cards, Cubs, Brewers and perhaps the Reds fighting it out until the end.

  2. Fair enough...I agree that not all sabermetric fans are that harsh. Maybe my sample size was too small? :)

    As for your analysis, I think it's a very good asessement. With regard to Soto and Soriano, it should also be noted that their BABIPs were lower than usual, so we can expect some return to form if they stay healthy. I also agree that the Cardinals are not as dominant as it appears. To me, there season depends much on Chris Carpenter. If his injury issues re-surface, it really takes their rotation down a peg...enough to make it an interesting, wide-open race in the NL Central.