Baseball class!

So, this semester, I decided to do something extraordinarily stupid: overload.

Normally, master's students at Vanderbilt Divinity School take 12 units a semester, and this is enough (for the most part) to satisfy the requirements for the 2 year Master's in Theological Studies degree (those that are pursuing ordination, or who believe that a MTS does not offer the same amount of training, pursue the three year Master's in Divinity). One of the things I like about the MTS degree is that it allows the student to take a much higher number of electives. As someone who is not exactly interested in the pastoral or overtly theological approaches to religion, the MTS was the clear choice for me. 

But this semester, I'm taking 15 credit hours. LIke a boss (or a moron, your choice). 

At the time of registration for the Spring Semester, I was thinking that I would want to concentrate in American Religion, especially the sociological and political aspects of it. Fun, right? While I decided to change my concentration (back) to Early Christianity and the New Testament, there was one course that I decided to keep from my original schedule. This class, though offered at the undergraduate level in the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt, had me more excited for school than I had previously been in years. The course was Sociology Through Baseball. While I will endeavor to update y'all each week with the coursework and relevant (well, to me, so...that could be anything, let's be honest) discussions, I can't promise anything because I get distracted easily and because Mondays are excruciatingly long. But I hope that I can provide an interesting look at baseball that is unique in both its framing and in its content. 

What I think will be of special and particular interest to TBLA and its commentators and moderators is my term project: taking a team that finished in the bottom third of the MLB (presumably in standings) and making a five year plan to get that team ready for the playoffs. When I get more information about the assignment, I'm sure I'll make a fanpost just for that topic and, because I think I would learn quite a bit from letting the collective genius of TBLA tearing it apart, I'll probably post my term paper somewhere that it can be access. In addition, I will be writing a paper on an aspect of baseball and investigate it and examine this aspect through a sociological lens. I haven't figured out what that's going to be yet, but again, I think some people here will take a particular delight in picking that apart, too. 

3 Nights in August (Or How I Learned My Professor Hates A Purely Statistical Perspective)

Over the past two weeks, our class was assigned 3 Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger of Friday Night Lights fame. The book took a three game series between two NL Central contending teams: the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. While some of the commenters on TBLA have decried Bissinger because of his stated bias against bloggers, I highly recommend the book. On the whole, the book is very well written; Bissinger, while a bit of a punk at times, is a tremendous writer. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Bissinger offers a counter-narrative to the one that is most often presented at TBLA. The author's love for baseball as it was "back in the day" runs through the book, and is exemplified in the figure of famed manager Tony LaRussa. While TLR does use some of the technological advances afforded to him by the modern era -- video, advanced statistics regarding player matchups -- he is offered up by Bissinger as the answer to Moneyball and as someone who has a "pure" love of baseball. While the book is presented as a look at a baseball team over the course of the basic unit of baseball, the three game series, it is worth nothing that it is offered through the eyes of Bissinger through the eyes of TLR, who is about as removed from the day-to-day of the team as one could possibly be and still be an effective manager at the major league level.

I'm aware this point of view probably would infuriate a majority of the posters here, but as an academic, it would be inexcusable for me to discount a differing viewpoint solely on the basis of it offering a different viewpoint. Personally, I tend to think in shades of gray; if there is anything that studying religion has taught me, it's that life and the phenomena therein cannot be held in black and white terms (well it can, but it's at your own peril). This can be problematic when people want you to "take a stand" or to tell you what is "right" and what is "wrong". But in baseball, as in religion, the human element is what makes the entire enterprising compelling. Statistics and definitions and methodologies can only get you so far. 

In any case, in tonight's class, we were asked to examine Bissinger's textual man crush on TLR from a sociological perspective. As such, we were asked to choose different topics presented within the book that we found required additional discussion or unpacking. The topics ranged from explaining tactics ("hit and run" had to be explained, as several of my classmates are students who don't know much about baseball but like sports or had to satisfy an upper level writing requirement) to statistical analysis and how that effects one's perception of the game to the relationship between managers and players.

Hilariously enough, much of the class discussion was given to the discussion of "momentum", that seemingly unquantifible yet qualitatively important aspect of baseball better known to fans as the "rally". One of the stat heads in the class had managed to piss off the professor last class by talking to another guy under his breath for the majority of our time together about how "wrong" people were. As such, she zeroed in on him and asked him about his perspective -- baseball as a game of 27 outs that seemed wholly removed from the human element of the rally and shifts in momentum generally -- and then asked him to defend his point against several data points observed by Bissinger in the book. 

The poor bastard never stood a chance. What I found interesting is that he had nothing to say about chemistry or flukes or teams playing WAY above their heads -- I mean, really, the fact that I had to bring up BABIP during the break? Me? BABIP?! REALLY?! -- but seemed unable to defend his point against her questions regarding errors, turnovers in the lineup, pitchers being "on", or player-coach/manager interaction in general. So that got me to thinking, and this is the question that I would like to pose at large:

Do questions regarding "momentum" belong in the larger realm of discussion about baseball? Put another, likely more cogent way: does the idea of the rally really exist? 

I think it does. I was at Game 2 of the NLDS in 2009 against the Cardinals, and I saw the way both teams reacted to Matt Holliday's fielding error. I saw the way that Casey Blake's phenomenal at-bat which resulted in a walk bolstered the Dodgers, eventually allowing Mark Loretta of all people to hit the walk-off bloop single. 

Can something like momentum, or luck, be accounted for in statistics? Or is that one of the distinctively human elements of the game that, like Vin Scully's commentary, compel us to watch the game instead of simply plugging lifetime statistics into a simulator and just watching the game that way?

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