I’ll never forget the moment I realized I loved baseball statistics. I was just ten years old, and as any young child who likes baseball is wont to do, I loved to read about baseball history. The first book about baseball that I vividly remember was David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49, a book documenting the rough-and-tumble American League pennant race of 1949 when the Yankees and Red Sox fought down to the very last game.
In this book, there wasn’t much about advanced statistics, obviously, but there was a very interesting paragraph about Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Halberstam explains the numerical significance:
“...Another Harvard professor, Edward Mills Purcell, a Nobel physicist, was also fascinated by DiMaggio. Purcell had run most of the great baseball records through his computer looking for any statistical truths they might produce. The computer responded that all but one were within the range of mathematical probability: that someone (Babe Ruth) would hit 714 home runs, that someone (Roger Maris) would one day come along and hit 61 home runs in one season, and that even in modern times a player (Ted Williams) might on occasion bat .406. But the one record that defied all of Purcell’s and his computer’s expectations was DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941.”
I loved baseball ever since, but it wasn’t until my discovery of the actual sabermetric community a few years ago that I rediscovered this love of the wonder that numbers can provide to the sport of baseball. Bill James once said something to the effect that you couldn’t tell a .300 hitter by watching a game, or even a handful of games, so numbers do the job of putting what we see in a larger context.
In this sabermetric revolution, numbers went from merely an augmented version of reality, to the reality itself. Analysis writ large became, “So-and-so player is over-performing their FIP,” or “so-and-so player is getting BABIP’d,” essentially to the point of self-parody. Numbers won this imaginary war because we did gain a greater understanding of the baseball world, but by about five years ago, we reached a point where each gain in knowledge became ever smaller and more incremental than the next, the essential concept of diminishing returns that sabermetrics worshiped—it designed its own end.
The logical end to this ridiculous “war” was during the 2012 MVP contest, where triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera defeated Mike Trout in what was widely considered a traditional statistics vs. advanced statistics debate. On one hand, people saw an undervalued player who was also the best in the world. In another, people saw a feat that was just as poetic as what Halberstam described.
In the past three years or so, we’ve not only seen the relative stagnation in new baseball stats in the public sphere, but we’ve seen a complete shift in the way baseball is analyzed and written about. Writers like Trevor Strunk, Meg Rowley, Grant Brisbee, Patrick Dubuque, Stacey May Fowles and many, many others moved from this strict, straight-laced statistical analysis to an appreciation of the sport in what I would describe as “post-sabermetric.”
There is an understanding and appreciation for advanced statistics and what they’re capable of, but they’re also cognizant of their limitations. They revel in the general absurdity and beauty of the sport, and they talk without reservation on how praying at the altar of statistics can create a situation where human beings are exploited through the lens of labor, or race, or gender, or sexuality.
This post-sabermetric movement, in my opinion, brings us directly to Aaron Judge. For the first time since I saw Halberstam’s words jump off the page, or the first time I read a Roger Angell piece, or since I read John Updike’s musing on Ted Williams’ retirement have I felt a genuine, heartfelt giddiness about baseball that transcends numbers and graphs.
To explain Aaron Judge, you need words. I could use numbers to give context to just how great he is, like to say that his wRC+ this year is the same as Babe Ruth’s career wRC+ (197), but it doesn’t really do the whole ordeal justice. Frankly, you can do it with video:
513 feet later, Aaron Judge had the longest home run of the derby pic.twitter.com/GqWmviMepe— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) July 11, 2017
Distance is a number of course, but I don’t care about the Statcast metrics behind something like this. Home runs like these, or those like the 495-foot shot earlier this year, fall into the range of the unexplained, of the near-supernatural.
I’m not saying that we should merely slide back into the analysis we had before modern times. Understanding statistics, and keeping in mind those inter-sectional societal elements that affect the game are still important, if not vital, in understanding it.
I find it almost natural, almost a logical conclusion, for an era defined as pushing back against number-worship, to find Aaron Judge appealing. Not only is he breaking ground in a way we’ve never seen before, but he brings fans from all walks of life together in appreciation. I don’t necessarily believe in a “Face of Baseball” per se, but he’s the face of post-sabermetrics. We’re not going to go backwards in our understanding, but there’s nothing wrong with embracing baseball as a narrative, as something not just scientific, but mystical.