In Defense of Outliers

Occasionally, baseball players lose ownership of their own names.  Steve Blass, Mario Mendoza and Tommy John have become adjectives, terminology rather than personality, their careers condensed into a single trait.  Such is also the fate of Brady Anderson, who played fifteen seasons in the major league and yet in a very real sense played only one.  In that infamous year of 1996, the reedy Anderson hit fifty home runs, nearly a quarter of his career total.  It’s an accomplishment that only twenty-two players in baseball history can claim, and yet it’s invariably followed by an invisible asterisk.  It’s not that the home runs didn’t happen; it’s that they shouldn’t have.

The value embedded in the phrase “Brady Anderson”, naturally, is its connection to the steroid era.  It’s one of those cumbersome tasks that every discussion like this has to start with, even though author and reader alike already understand the implications.  Amazing feats of baseball abounded in the era directly following Anderson: names like Luis Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti and Bret Boone flung themselves onto the headlines, while Sosa and McGwire smeared their fingerprints ontorecord books, distending the numbers.  The resulting chaos has left fans weary and confused, unable and unwilling to sort through the ashes.  Anderson has firmly denied any steroid use, but such denials are useless; it isn’t Brady Anderson that has become attached to juicing, but greatness itself.

Several months ago, Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated wrote an article about Jose Bautista.  Bautista’s career began even more ignominiously than Anderson’s, and has since soared even higher.  And much like Anderson, Bautista has faced a significant amount of scrutiny for his achievements.  Posnanski begins with the simple question: “Do you believe in miracles?”  He then conjures the familiar names of the great and unlikely, Lance Armstrong and Kurt Warner and Dazzy Vance.  We’ve grown skeptical, as a nation and as a sport.

It’s the ultimate condemnation of Anderson and Bautista: what they did doesn’t make sense.  But was Brady Anderson’s 1996 a miracle?  Is Jose Bautista’s ascension?  Voltaire wrote on the subject of miracles in his Dictionnaire Philosophique, defining a miracle as “the violation of those divine and eternal laws.  If there is an eclipse of the sun at full moon, or if a dead man walks two leagues carrying his head in his arms, we call that a miracle.”  This is the ultimate condemnation of Brady Anderson and Jose Bautista: what they did doesn’t make sense.  A man doesn’t go from hitting fifteen home runs to fifty.  He doesn’t go from being cut by losing teams to being an MVP candidate.  These things aren’t independently possible, and so there must be something else causing them, something unnatural.

But though Voltaire’s eclipse and his headless man were both considered miracles at one time, they’re very different.  One violates the natural laws as we know them.  The other violated the natural laws as we knew them at the time, but later came to be understandable.  As we grow more knowledgeable about baseball, and we become increasingly skilled at analysis and projection, we become increasingly resistant to aberration.  The flaw in so much of analysis (baseball and otherwise) is that while we smirk at the ignorance of the past, we neglect to factor the ignorance of the present.  We do not know what we will know, and what fails to make sense now may be perfectly clear tomorrow.

In this sense, miracles are dangerous, revolutionary things.  They challenge the solidity of accepted wisdom.  They force us to question our assumptions about the world.  They challenge the laziness of our thinking.  Steroids have become one example of this laziness: a refusal to examine greatness, to admit the possibility of being impressed. Occam’s razor has gone from being a guideline to a law.

Perhaps most importantly, miracles chip away at our fundamental preference for certainty.  Luck is something we understand, at least when it turns against us.  We want to believe that our successes, however, are the result of nothing except our own pluck and determination.  Anderson seems to agree.  He described 1996 as “just one more home run per week, just one more good swing. That is the data that simultaneously comforted me and haunted me, the small difference between greatness and mediocrity.” The role that luck plays in the success of a baseball player is only an exaggeration of what goes on in our own lives.   How many people who have condemned Anderson’s achievement as impossible have gone home to play the lottery?

Ultimately, I’m not in a position to say whether Brady Anderson used steroids or not.  The possibility exists, as do other possibilities.  What interests me is the potential for greatness, the acceptance of outliers.  Every game, every season, something happens in baseball that defies expectations, and demands that we dig deeper.  Call them miracles, call them flukes, call them statistical deviations.  Regardless of what they are, they bring vitality to the sport, and in some cases, they form the origins to amazing narratives.  It’s a possibility I find infinitely more palatable than the predictable alternative, no matter how much sense it might make.

6 Responses to “In Defense of Outliers”

  • Some light might be shed by looking at the issue of the individual vs. the group. If a team like the 2003 Marlins win the World Series out of nowhere, they aren’t all accused of steroid use or cheating or whatever. But if an aberration occurs on the individual level, the suspicion is endless. Look at Raul Ibanez and his hot streak last year. He was pilloried for a hot streak (that ended soon after the hullabaloo) while the rest of his team played brilliantly to no scrutiny. It is easier and less complex, perhaps, for critics to channel their anxieties towards an individual rather than the more complicated group, a la Brady Anderson. I think we prefer to conceptualize an individual making a singular choice over understanding group dynamics, shared culpability and the chaos theory that they open up.

  • Brady Anderson had a career of taking the first pitch like a leadoff hitter was supposed to do. Pitchers obliged by grooving one down the middle. In 1996, Brady jumped on first pitches, it took awhile for the pitchers to notice. Miracle? No, stupid pitchers are not surprising.

  • Okay, I’ll bite.

    Which of Voltaire’s miracles no longer violates natural laws and is now understandable?

  • @rlc: You’re right; I was in error. I did some last-minute editing and misread my own quotation, thinking it referred to the eclipse of the sun and the moon, not the sun at full moon. My thinking: eclipses themselves were once (long, long ago) miraculous, based on humanity’s limited knowledge of astronomy. Still, there’s no excuse for flubbing that.

  • @Ted: You’re right, and it’s strange, because in all other forms we tend to speak about drugs from a cultural standpoint. In baseball, you get the impression of shady men wearing long trenchcoats hanging out suspiciously on the ballpark concourse. Or at least, that’s what I imagine.

    @John: I thought your theory was interesting, so I glanced at Brady’s HR data from 1996. His first home run was indeed on a 0-0 count, on April 9. But by the end of the season six of his home runs were on the first pitch. (Actually, it might be a few more; for some reason B-R doesn’t have pitch count data for random stretches of 1996 and 1997). Based on what we know, Anderson’s first-pitch HR rate is about in line with his career rate of 16%.

    What’s interesting is that as he got older, he definitely got more impetuous. His rate up until 1995 was only 8%, whereas from 1997 on it jumps up to 23%. Maybe Anderson figured something out halfway through that monster season, and put it to good use.

  • I would suppose, even if it wasn’t your intention, that a valid argument could be made that a headless body with a still-attached brain stem could walk.

    A big part of the reason for the scrutiny of Brady Anderson’s 1996 season, which, you’re right, is almost synonymous with steroid use, is that unlike Luis Gonzalez or Jose Bautista, Brady Anderson looked like this:

    Good feature, though.

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