Ignorance is not a sportswriting skill

Journalists are supposed to fight it, not brag about it. Too many baseball writers don't seem to feel that way.

Published January 12, 2009 12:00PM (EST)

I am sick of ignorance being touted as a virtue in my profession.

The Web site Seamheads interviewed former longtime newspaper and Sporting News columnist Dave Kindred over the weekend about his baseball Hall of Fame ballot.

Results of the voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America members for this year's Hall of Fame class were scheduled to be announced Monday at 1:30 p.m. EST. The election has been a hot topic among online baseball obsessives. Rickey Henderson figures to be a slam-dunk choice, but Bert Blyleven, Jim Rice and Andre Dawson are controversial candidates who have come close to election. There's also a lot of argument about Jack Morris and Tim Raines, who have not.

Just in case anyone's interested in this column's opinion on the subject of those five more than this column is: Blyleven and Raines yes, Morris, Rice and Dawson no. But if Rice and Dawson, or even Morris, get in, you know, no problem. It's a wonderful museum is what it is. And by the way: Alan Trammell.

Kindred voted for Henderson, Rice, Dawson, Lee Smith, Dale Murphy, and Mark McGwire. Now writing for Golf Digest, Kindred, himself in the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame, comes across in the interview as the same reasonable, thoughtful guy who wrote all those columns for all those years.

Asked if he discussed his ballot with fellow voters, Kindred said, "No. I avoid committee meetings. This is not world peace, it's baseball." Indeed.

But one thing he said bugged me. A lot, but more because of cumulative effect than because of anything about Kindred. Here it is, starting with Seamheads author Mike Lynch's question:

How about the statistical revolution? Do you still rely on traditional stats to make your selections or have you branched out to include newer measures like Win Shares, VORP, WARP, DIPS or any other sabermetric measure?

All those are fun, and someday, when I grow up, I hope to have my elders explain them to me.

VORP and WARP stand for "value over replacement player" and "wins above replacement player," respectively, the first a measure of hitting and the second of overall play. DIPS stands for "defense independent pitching stats," which attempt to separate pitching effectiveness from good fielding.

Kindred is more temperate on this subject than many, particularly some in his generation. For example, New York Times writer turned blogger Murray Chass wrote in the Times two years ago that sabermetric stats such as those above are "new-age nonsense" whose existence "threatens to undermine most fans' enjoyment of baseball and the human factor therein."

Chass bragged in that column that he didn't know what VORP meant, that for a long time he didn't bother to find out and that once he did have someone explain it to him, he still didn't understand it. I mean: He bragged about that.

Kindred doesn't boast about his ignorance, but he laughs it off in about the same way I might laugh off some of my shortcomings, such as being handsome and generous to a fault.

I'm sick of this, just bone sick of it. Sorry, Dave Kindred. You were the last straw is all.

This is the current literature in our field. Keep up with it.

It's one thing to criticize the new stats. VORP and WARP, for example, are proprietary statistics of Baseball Prospectus, which doesn't show the math behind them. BP's defensive stats, which are an element of WARP, have been called into particular question by some experts. I don't have the math chops to take Win Shares apart, but I think some of its assumptions are a little off.

But it's another thing to simply dismiss them without bothering to figure out what they're all about. And then to try to pass this off as wisdom.

Imagine a baseball writer snorting at a question about the Tampa Bay Rays, "I'm sure they're a very nice team. Someday I hope someone will describe them to me." Then figuring this makes him look like some kind of sage with a deeper appreciation for the game than all those kids with their Rays and Diamondbacks and Marlins and whatnot.

Sabermetric analysis is used not just by a wide swath of baseball fans and chroniclers, but also in baseball front offices. It's relied heavily upon by, among others, the Boston Red Sox, who have been one of the most successful franchises in baseball this century, winning two of the last five World Series, and by the Rays, who beat the Sox on the way to the Series last year.

It's what's going on in the world we're covering. In what other profession do practitioners brag about their ignorance regarding current events and developments? In what other area of journalism is lack of awareness a mark of distinction?

Cut it out, fellow writers. Do your job. Engage with your material. Stay current. Learn about things you don't understand.

Ignorance isn't a virtue. It's not something to brag about. It's something to fix.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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