Commentary

Spoiler Alert

Stats are having an uncountable impact on our enjoyment of the game

Updated: November 19, 2012, 9:50 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Excluding adulterous generals and Justin Bieber, has there been a hotter celebrity anywhere these past two weeks than Nate Silver? From the front page of the Guardian to the digital midsection of the Times to the wry, dry centermost of the New Yorker, he is our numbers-crunching heartthrob, a matinee idol of long-horizon regression analysis. I expect him to replace Brad Pitt on behalf of Chanel No 5, smoldering on the back cover of glossy magazines from coast to coast above a cutline reading "The No5 is prime."

Paramour of the parametric, Mr. Silver has won his fame fair and square by refining and applying the sciences of statistical probability so keenly as to predict the last two presidential elections with uncanny accuracy. His work in baseball is just as well and widely known, and every case he makes -- like this one, in favor of Mike Trout for AL MVP -- is itself another argument in eloquent service of rationality and the dispassionate application of numerical fact. In our new American century of quantification, Nate Silver has done the impossible: He has made math sexy.

[+] EnlargeNate Silver
Taylor Hill/Getty ImagesWhen Nate Silver is able to predict with 98 percent certainty what you are getting for your birthday, will you be as excited about the party?

In reply, many of my analog sporting colleagues make themselves foolish arguing against the intelligent use of statistics -- by citing older, less reliable statistics. Or by reference to their expert eyeballs or guts or a mild tingling in the scalp or the spine. The bones and entrails these oracles read are their own.

Computers, of course, have made all this sports page pillow-fighting not only possible, but necessary, an inevitable consequence of the Information Age. Post-"Moneyball" sports have become a blizzard of numbers, and every snowflake or at-bat or citation of yards-after-first-contact-after-catch can be discernible as an individual event, but also blinding in the aggregate. New calculations beget newer calculations. So the refinements of science and metrical adjustment seem endless and incremental because they are endless and incremental. This can be discouraging stuff to press box traditionalists.

Symbolism and empty poetics have taken a real beating these last few years, and we've roughed up metaphor and cheap cliché too, but we're mostly better off for doing so and have a clearer understanding of what it is we're seeing. And while I'd never make an argument in favor of ignorance or innumeracy, I will make the following observation: It's still fun to be surprised. Proposals, elopements, birthday parties and Baylor's unexpected massacre of Kansas State on Saturday are sufficient reminders of this small truth.

But surprise, however charming, is the enemy of efficiency. And efficiency, rather than ephemeral nonsense like your happiness or mine, is what we're all chasing in this new Western world of ours.

Understand that Mr. Silver can exercise his talents both forward and back through time. His political work and his baseball work can be used before or after the fact, predictively or forensically. An algorithm can be applied just as easily to Miggy Cabrera as to Mitt Romney, as disinterestedly to Barack Obama as to Bill Pecota. This is all very fair.

One of the few criticisms of Silver's pre-Election Day precision might be that it reduces a complex set of messages and promises and lies and passions and human impulses and contradictions to horse racing. Thus, in the end the mainstream press, always seeking higher circulation and to maintain the status quo, pays its scattered attention only to the race and only to the front-runners. But we're unlikely ever to see another "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline.

In other words, more information leads to fewer surprises. Which is essential for survival, great in business, and probably good for politics -- but opposes everything we love most about watching sports. Or magic acts. Or reading novels or going to the movies. Part of our deepest joy lies in emphatically not knowing what happens next. My steam-driven colleagues worry the price of prediction and our new precision is too high.

The numbers are only the sparks thrown off by the hammer on the anvil after all, not the thing itself. Statistics are the byproduct, not the reason for being. The game exists to produce joy or sadness or distraction or love or hate or a thousand sensations unrelated to common sense or business or efficiency. Not even money. So to what end do we go to WAR over VORP?

Science is inexorable, as is change, and I've had to make room for both in my understanding of 21st century sports. But even a perfect mathematics has its limits. To ask what a number can tell me about the beauty of Ted Williams' swing is to ask if you could reverse-engineer the David by the dust Michelangelo's chisel left at its feet.

Science -- and Nate Silver and baseball and the Hadron Collider and every expression of the human ambition to order -- does its best to divide and arrange the world into finer, more meaningful increments. To do so, we parse out the universal in smaller and smaller pieces. But somehow we wind up back where we always do, trapped in the argument between faith and science and arithmetic and mysticism:

Once you quantify the trick, once you inventory every hat and every rabbit, what happens to the magic?


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