Baseball Prescriptivism

(Don’t worry, this eventually gets to baseball… I promise.)

As a kid, my mom once made the mistake of incorrectly answering aloud a multiplication problem from her teacher. Apparently, the teacher had once answered the same question wrong, too, and was subsequently embarrassed into learning the answer. When my mother did the same thing, the teacher enacted the same punishment: the entire class got into a circle, with my mom at the center, and pointed their fingers at her as they sang “8 times 7 is 56! 8 times 7 is 56!” That went on long enough for an embarrassed little girl to learn her lesson. Needless to say, my mom never again forgot what 8 times 7 was.

Most of us have a similar experience in our childhood. I don’t mean the crowd of kids pointing at you and laughing as they sing the answer – that’s just cruel, and I certainly hope no one else has similar memories. What I mean is, most of us have some relatively minor lesson from our childhood educations that we remember better than others because of the way we learned it. Maybe it’s a math concept that you struggled with for a week or more until an older brother or someone showed you a nifty little way to understand it and you had that “hallelujah moment”. Or maybe it was a history lesson that you read over and over until you just couldn’t forget it. Chances are, though, that it was a grammar lesson that some overly strict teacher drilled into your head. “You cannot start a sentence with ‘because’!” or “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition!” or “It’s ’20 items or fewer‘, not ’20 items or less‘!” and so on.

It’s a common story: kids write as they talk, and often miss the nuances of the written word, leaving fragments and the like all over the place. Teachers then point out their mistakes, but, instead of trying to teach the full complexities of the English grammar to an eight-year old, they give the kid a shorthand rule to follow that is meant to help. The kid then internalizes that shorthand rule as “the rule” and spends the rest of his life correcting people who don’t adhere to it. After all, that’s the rule that he had such a hard time learning and, now that he’s learned it so well, he’s not going to forget it. And, lord forgive you if he sees you make that mistake on a website – there’s no internet alive that will prevent him from trying to teach you that same lesson.

The problem is that this isn’t “8 times 7”. When it comes to language, there are few hard and fast rules that follow the “100% right or 100% wrong” nature of an arithmetic problem. Chances are, that shorthand rule that the kid originally learned was only true under certain circumstances and with certain qualifications, but he never learned those because the teacher thought it was too complicated for him at that age. But now it’s 30 years later and that lesson has been ingrained in him for all those years. It’s asking a lot – maybe too much – to expect him to accept that he’s been wrong all these years and to change his ways. For a lot of people, there’s just too much history there to fight.

Which is where baseball comes in. For many, many baseball fans, especially those who grew up in the 1950s/60s and before, the traditional stats – the RBI, the AVG, the W/L record – are the stats that they internalized at a young age, the stats that they’ve defined as “the rule” and that they’ve spent their life abiding by, but that only work in limited circumstances that they were too young to learn years ago. In language, the people that I’ve described are called “prescriptivists” – there’s a certain prescription, or set of rules, that the English language must follow at all times. In the same vein, these traditionalists can also be thought of as “baseball prescriptivists”. To them, there’s a set of rules that must be followed when analyzing a club’s or a player’s performance. These are rules that they spent a lot of time learning and understanding when they were younger, and that they’ve spent a lot of years using and trusting. They’ve served the prescriptivists well, and any change seems unnecessary and ill-advised.

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Go to any message board or blog devoted to grammar “mistakes” like the ones mentioned above, and you’ll see hundreds of comments from people complaining about the same things. For some reason, people are passionate when it comes to these language pet peeves. This is exactly what we have to deal with as we try to get baseball fans, writers, and announcers to understand and appreciate the less traditional stats. It’s why Adam Wainwright had the most first-place votes in the Cy Young voting last week, why there was such a firestorm over the Vazquez/Haren picks, and it’s why Joe Mauer won’t be a unanimous MVP this afternoon.

There is no easy way to solve this dilemma. In the language world, prescriptivists are challenged by “descriptivists” – people who try to study the language as it is spoken and “describe” it. I like the clear analog to statheads/sabermatricians. But even there, it’s obvious that these two worlds are not going to merge anytime soon. With millions of adults passing on their life-lessons to the younger generations everyday, and with the likes of Strunk and White still printing millions of copies, there will seemingly always be a divide. It’s no different in baseball. My recommendation, and my hope, is that the less-traditional stats will get embraced by more and more people in all age groups. If that happens, then we can only assume that kids will get exposed to those ideas at an earlier age and learn to accept them as “the rule” instead of batting average or runs batted in. Maybe that’s pie in the sky.

In any event, I think we have a better chance of changing a generation’s mind about baseball stats than we do about language “rules”. If Joe Mauer doesn’t win the MVP award this afternoon, for example, the debate will be long and detailed. But it would be minuscule in comparison to the firestorm that would erupt if, say, President Obama announced that he could pay for Social Security and a public health option for the next 200 years if only colleges would  no longer use Elements of Styles in writing classes. And if he said it while splitting an infinitive and ending the sentence in a preposition… that might actually be fun to watch 😉

(Wow, a thousand words on language and baseball… I feel like Joe Posnanski!)

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.