Author Archive for Paul

So Much Depends

One of my favorite classroom activities revolves around a little sixteen word poem by William Carlos Williams. The Red Wheelbarrow is a classic, rightfully famous for so many reasons, not the least of which how it hones in from the broadest of openings to build a specific and detailed image in a single sentence.

The activity is this. I ask students to write a sentence beginning with the words “so much depends.” It’s that simple. If I’m in a science class, I might add the addendum that the sentence should be about science, or about the environment. If I’m in a literature or poetry class, on the other hand, I might ask students to focus on themselves, or I might just leave it open.

The results are often fascinating. I’ve seen simple, but elegant phrases like “so much depends on aloha,” or the more concrete “so much depends upon a community working together.” Perhaps the greatest lesson, for me as a teacher, is how much depends on context, on how much the immediate environment dictates and shapes what students produce.

Strangely enough, though I frequently ask students to engage in this exercise, I rarely do it myself. During the recently completed playoffs, however, I’ve been thinking about how much little things alter a short series, and how fitting The Red Wheelbarrow’s opening line is to a team trying to win a championship. Or, perhaps more importantly, how fitting that line is to a fan watching.

With that in mind, I want to offer a few observations of my own, but I also would love to hear from anyone else. How does your “so much depends” end?

So much depends upon a long fly ball, deep to left, beyond an outstretched glove.

So much depends upon an aging Columbian shortstop, swinging his hardest one last time.

So much depends upon the number and wiggle of a catcher’s fingers.

So much depends upon a Yankee captain’s dollars and pinstripes.

So much depends upon out three.

So much depends upon a series lead with your ace on the hill.

So much depends, but so little seems to matter, when your home team watches instead of plays.

The Stadium Experience: Getting There

The magic of attending a baseball game may begin when you present your ticket at the gate, but no spell can be cast without adequate preparation. Before the first pitch the would-be attendee faces a gauntlet of decisions, ranging from checking the schedule for the presence of the home team to pondering whether skipping work on a Wednesday afternoon to watch the 5-starter is really acceptable. The alchemy of preparation may have numerous permutations, but there are four ingredients of particular importance, namely: Who, What, When, and How. Without these, which arise for every game-goer, the stadium might as well not exist.

Image from flickr user "terren in Virginia"

Who am I going with?

Whether it’s the wife, a college friend, a co-worker, or an awkward uncle, choosing a partner or group of co-attendees is a precursor even to picking a game. While this is a relatively simple question, the process of making this choices says a lot about the potential attendee. For example, the less authoritative personality is not likely to choose at all, rather waiting for the game to come to him in the form of an invitation. The gregarious carouser, on the other hand, is wont to invite five or six friends, especially if he’s got someone to impress. The especially magnanimous, but secretly lonely, man will offer to buy everyone’s tickets and beers if only they’ll come along, while the lazy and anti-social man will just drag his wife along for fear of getting in contact with – and being rejected by – anyone else. One might justifiably wonder how he has a wife in the first place, but that’s beside the point.

Any one of us might be any one of those people at any time, or we might default to a single game-attending modus. Regardless, whether we follow habit or not, having answered “who” we proceed to “what.”

What game are we going to?

The all-mighty schedule imposes certain limitations on this question. If the home team is in the backwaters of Pittsburgh and Washington for the next week the game-going impulse will not be immediately satiated. If, on the other hand, the darkened dates on the calendar indicate a glorious 14-game homestand, the proverbial cup runneth over.

Having perused possibilities, choosing a particular one – or, hey, maybe two or three – is a relatively simple function of available money (lets call that “M”), and time and date of games (call it “T”). Taking the result of “Who,” (or W) as a coefficient, each potential game (“G”) is scored as follows: G = T / W*M. That is, the likelihood of going to a given game is equal to the convenience of the date, factoring in who is going and how much it’s likely to cost. I might have the formula slightly wrong, but I trust some enterprising sabermetrician will spot the error and correct it.

When do we get there?

The question comes with the all-important corollary, “What do we eat?” Ballpark food has its advantages, but price is not among them. On the other hand, there are some fans who insist upon arriving an hour before the game to sit around and watch players stretch and take batting practice, which makes a pre-game meal and drink a trickier proposition.

The other corollary, here, is “How are we getting our tickets?” Scalping is a viable option, but is best done right before the first pitch, when the fickle baseball-ticket market suddenly shifts in the buyer’s favor. A baseball ticket is a rare thing that can be worth as much as one hundred dollars one moment, less than ten a few minutes later, and nothing at all the next day. Finding the right time to strike is vital.

Buying online, or buying walk-up, on the other hand, requires a somewhat earlier arrival, as the line at the ticket-office is liable to make even the most optimistic fan despair for humanity. Questions that might arise, especially if first pitch is imminent, include: “How can it take so long for the guy in front to buy a single ticket?” and, “Why would they hire a deaf saleswoman?” and, if the home team is playing everyone’s favorite lovable losers, “What are all these freaking Cubs fans doing here? This isn’t Chicago!”*

*The reader should disregard this last question if he or she is, in fact in Chicago.

Are we there yet?

How do we get there?

Finally, the most important question of all. Having settled the simple stuff, the real getting to the park must be negotiated. Public transportation, a nice walk (if you live close enough), the horrors of driving and parking, or some combination of the three are all valid options. While location has a lot to do with the decision, here, it doesn’t change the finality. Once the car is fired up, the train is boarded, or those first steps out of the apartment have been taken, the stadium experience has begun. It’s only a matter of time before, settling into his seat, the stadium-goer can sit back and let the game wash over him, talking with his particular whos. Cue National Anthem, starting lineups, and first pitch. Put aside all troubles and worries, including the very effort of getting there.

As a coda, I want to address the absence of the other two classic journalistic questions: “Where” and “Why.” I have left these out because the former is exceedingly simple and the latter exceedingly complicated. In other words, if “Where is the stadium?” is an important question in your particular game-going experience, you’re clearly in an unusual situation. If “Why am I going to the game?” is an important question in the pre-game process, well, you’ll just have to answer for yourself.

Teaching Sabermetrics

Earlier this year a small Bay Area nonprofit called Tutorpedia asked me to teach a poetry workshop over the summer. Actually, they asked to write a curriculum for a poetry workshop, and then to teach it later, which may seem like a slight distinction, but is not. Seeing as I clearly didn’t have enough to do already – I was also in the midst of a Master’s in Education program at Stanford – I petitioned to write and teach not only a poetry workshop, but a sabermetrics workshop as well.

To my surprise, Tutorpedia not only said yes to my nefarious, baseball-teaching plan, they were thrilled.  They even offered me free Oakland Athletics tickets so I could go to a game with my students.  And so I started crafting my curricula in my ‘spare time.’

Who doesn't love the Oakland A's?

Tutorpedia believes in project-based learning, and I believe in dialogue-driven classrooms, so my model was not, from the outset, stand up and lecture. Rather, the poetry curriculum was to be a series of conversations about famous poems, followed by activities highlighting techniques the poets in question were using, all culminating in the composition (and public recitation) of an original work of poetry. Likewise, the sabermetrics course was designed to give students the skills they needed to perform statistical analysis before sending them off to do independent research projects.

Unfortunately, after carefully putting together my curricula, I found out that no one was signing up for my workshops. And not only me, Tutorpedia was hoping to run dozens of workshops over the summer, and no one was signing up for any of them. Ultimately, three students signed up for my sabermetrics class, and none for my poetry workshop. So be it! If high schoolers would rather learn about wOBA and WAR than enjambment, simile, and pentameter, who am I to argue?

One of my three students ended up having to drop the course due to a family emergency, leaving us at a paltry two – and a brother and sister (and Yankees fans) at that – but nevertheless we trod onwards towards understanding and insight, or at least indoctrination into a different set of beliefs than those you get from watching the Fox Game of The Week. I say that in jest, partially, but it’s also a question. Is it possible to really get students to learn to think critically about anything – even something as trivial as baseball statistics – in just 16 hours of class time? And isn’t critical thinking what sabermetrics is supposed to be about? That’s the real can of worms, I suppose. As sabermetrics have grown more prominent, it’s not clear what the study is about anymore, let alone what teaching the subject means.

Certainly the origins of sabermetrics are in critical thought. At a time when no one questioned the power of batting average and the RBI, advocating statistics like OBP or, even worse, creating new ones like Win Shares, was the kind of heresy that required a great deal of level-headed, penetrating insight and at least a little gusto to boot.  Enter Bill James. These days, however, we have Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, Baseball Analysts, Baseball-Reference, and countless other websites devoted to providing information and analysis about baseball statistics. The old heresy is the new religion.

Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with sabermetrics – I wouldn’t teach it if I were so unfaithful – but rather it raises the question: which is more important, the thought process behind the study of baseball statistics, or the outcome of that process? Which is more important, knowing how WAR is calculated (as much as they let you know, anyway) or knowing more or less how to use it to evaluate players?

Another object of study: Win Probability graphs

I, for one, am persuaded that WAR is a better measure of a player’s value than almost any other single statistic, and WAR formed the basis of the research project – building an all-time Yankees roster – my students and I did at the end of the course. That said, my inclination as both an educator and as a baseball fan is and always will be towards process over outcome. Without the ability to think through a statistic, the statistic has no meaning to me other than the one that other people give me.

How to convey that in eight two-hour sessions? Well, it’s hard. I taught my students how to use excel and basic statistical tools like regression and correlation (which, to their credit more than mine, they understood), and I exposed them to a few of the many sabermetric websites. And in the end I saw that hard work rewarded by rapid – almost immediate – buy-in when we learned about WAR and UZR and ERA+. It remains to be seen whether my students will ever bring the tools of the skeptic’s trade – critical questions, excel speadsheets, and statistical techniques – to bear on the new numbers as we did on the old.  I hope I at least planted a skeptical seed, but the narrative of modern baseball statistics, it turns out, is quite compelling.

In retrospect, the course was perhaps a bit too practical. Maybe the better path towards critical thinking runs through a more philosophical approach. Maybe stepping even further back, teaching less and asking the students to explore more on their own, would have netted a more skeptical attitude. But, taking that approach, what do you do if the students come out the other end convinced that pitcher wins and runs batted in are awesome?  What if being hands-off means letting someone else do the brainwashing?

I suppose the answer, on some level, comes down to the students. Because I was working with a brother and sister who were at least familiar with the existence of Moneyball, I knew they had the potential to dive into concepts like WAR, wOBA, and UZR, but when our initial discussion turned up batting average as THE statistic of choice, I also knew we had some work to do before we got there. Considering the slightly younger-than-anticipated enrollment (I expected high schoolers and got middle schoolers), we had to begin at the beginning, building regression tables to show that, in fact, OBP and SLG correlate way better with winning than batting average or homers.

As I dove into these analytical and pedagogical depths, considering and reconsidering both the statistics I was teaching and my approach in teaching them, I was called back to another world as we were working on the final project. The sister wrote a limerick on the board in a moment of whimsy, likely tired of comparing Red Ruffing’s ERA+ to that of Roger Clemens.

“How do you like my poem?” She asked me.

“That was supposed to be the other workshop,” I told her.

Sailing to Byzantium

The author of this post is Paul Franz. Ted and I invited Paul to contribute to Pitchers and Poets with the idea that he would bring a new perspective. Already, he has wowed us by writing an insightful essay built around a poem by W.B. Yeats.  Please welcome Mr. Franz to PnP with open arms. For more of his work check out Nicht Diese Töne. –Eric

There comes a moment in the career of a topflight ballplayer when he is no longer a star. The moment is often followed, in short measure, by an even more painful moment when the player is no longer even league average. Then he falls to replacement level or below. Finally, the player retires, often because no one will sign him, or because his team forces him to.

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Sometimes the process is protracted, like it was for Ken Griffey, Jr., whose injuries kept him off the field for the better part of the decade. The Kid pushed back into the All-Star Game and even found his way to the MVP discussion with big years towards the end of his stay in Cincinnati, but upon his return to Seattle he found himself unable to field, unable to run, and, increasingly, unable to hit.

Sometimes the collapse is more rapid, like it has been this year for Todd Helton. The Toddfather hasn’t been a star for quite some time, but he was well above average last season, plugging along with his 10-20 homer bat and his consistently high, .400 plus OBP. While his body was clearly falling apart, only this year has Helton lost the rest: he’s not walking as much, he’s striking out more, and the power is all but gone.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

It’s at this unfortunate stage where a player’s “character” and “leadership” start to stand out. Media, fans, and other players will talk about the wisdom of players like Griffey and Helton, their joy while playing the game, and their tremendous skill. They’ll talk as if that skill is immortal, as if this season’s numbers are only a blip, a slump that will undoubtedly end any game now. No doubt those magnificent numbers Griffey and Helton put up in the late 90s – when today’s stars were watching after their Little League and Legion games – speak to the vain, unarticulated hopes of Franklin Gutierrez and Troy Tulowitzki: some players, great players, are different. Those players are forever.

It”s hard to blame someone who has spent his entire life being paid millions of dollars to do something because he was so much better at it than almost everyone else for refusing to believe that he can’t do it anymore. You might as well ask a writer not to write, a musician not to play, or a chef not to cook. Baseball is, in fact, much crueler than that, because it is the realm of the young, caught up in body and motion and justly irreverent towards the stuffy work of the mind. What right has some number-cruncher to tell Griffey he’s not good enough? What does Helton care for his line-drive percentage? It is difficult enough to ask for self-knowledge from any man or woman, let alone from a ballplayer.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

No wonder so many baseball players stay in the game as announcers, coaches, and scouts. That innate knowledge is something they must share, because it is in leaving the game that they truly understand it. Meanwhile their statistics are engraved into the History of the Game, a testament to their superior ability. At last they are satisfied to take a less agile form, to leave the field quietly. A lucky few, like Griffey, will have busts made in Cooperstown, commemorating their prowess, and acknowledging that, really, they are the stuff of myth. For the rest, well, not everyone makes it to Byzantium