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David Remnick, George Orwell, And The Perils Of Sabremetric Writing

These two are really great! (I'm paying homage to Catalonia) Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
These two are really great! (I'm paying homage to Catalonia) Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
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I’m currently reading Lenin’s Tomb, by David Remnick. It’s a monumental work of research and reporting, chronicling the fall of the Soviet Union from the perspectives of a dizzying number of interested parties. From his position as the Washington Post reporter in Moscow, Remnick seems to have worked his way into the confidence of everyone from the liberal intellectual resistance to the hardliners of the politburo. He’s interviewed the leaders of a nationwide mining strike and a hermit fisherman living completely outside of the Soviet economic system. And yet, I struggle to trust him.

My mistrust has nothing to do with Remnick personally. He’s clearly brilliant, and is allegedly a peach of a guy to boot. There are few people in the world better positioned to understand the fall of the USSR. If he were to call me up prior to my reading his book, and say, "Hey Ian! The Soviet Union fell because it was propped up on nearly a century of ideological fiction, and once that was stripped away by glasnost, the unsalvageably rotten nature of the system had nothing to stand on," I would say, "Thanks, Remmy!" and run with it – based on nothing but his personal authority – at the next cocktail party that seemed appropriate.

But that’s not what he did. He wrote a history book.* When you’re writing history, you’re constructing a proof. You’re claiming that your way of organizing the body of facts is the correct, true way. Everybody who has written before you, who has written something that doesn’t fit into your narrative? They’re wrong. When the revisionists come along, as they inevitably will, trying to make names for themselves, they better have new data you didn’t have access to. Because if they don’t, they’ll also be wrong.

When you write in a genre that requires proof, and make claims beyond the extent of your ability to prove, something funny happens. Those claims cease to be merely unproven, and take on all sorts of more negative shades. You yourself become untrustworthy.

I think the sabremetrician-writer faces much the same hazard as the historian-journalist.

*Yes, I know. In the Preface, Remnick explicitly states that Lenin’s Tomb is not a work of analytical history, "to write history takes time," and that from his vantage point of 1993 he doesn’t have the required distance to understand the definitive picture. The problem is, the self-awareness of the four page preface mostly deserts him in the other 500-plus pages. If it reads like a history book, it is one, no matter what you say in the preface.

The sabremetrician also works in a field that requires proof, while at the same time, due to his time spent searching for that proof, he has a degree of personal insight. I think of it this way. If Mike Fast were to call me up and tell me that he thought Jeremy Hellickson lived outside the rules of DIPS theory, I would believe him, and promptly change my thoughts on the matter. But if he were to write an article, with a bunch of numbers mumbo-jumbo that really only amounted to small sample size trend spotting, and then claim that Helly would outperform his FIP next season, I would furrow my brow and lose part of my belief in Mike Fast.

Of course, Fast would never do such a thing. I use him as an example because in addition to being a brilliant analyst, he was one of the best in the field (RIP) at staying within the bounds of his data. I quite literally never read a piece of his where he claimed something he couldn’t support, and most of the time he offered plenty of warning about what his findings didn’t necessarily mean. This was probably an easier balance for Fast to strike than for most, as more often than not when he wrote, he’d proven something worth writing about. But what about the rest of us? Most of us rarely uncover truths about the very basic nature of baseball. And if we happen to do so in some small way, we often do not have the wherewithal to push those findings to their necessary limits of proof. How are we to write?

For an answer to this personally troubling question, I go to one of my favorite books, Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell. It’s Orwell’s account of his time on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, where he fought in the anarchist POUM army. Like Remnick, Orwell lacks the distance and understanding of time, as he writes his account before the conclusion of the war. Yet, to today’s reader who knows the eventual triumph of Spanish fascism, Orwell’s ignorance of the future comes off as heartbreaking historical irony, while Remnick’s just makes his assured tone seem foolish.

The difference is all in the tone. Orwell approaches the Spanish Civil War with the idea that fascism should be opposed, but with almost no knowledge of the conflict beyond that. In this regard, he’s in nearly the same position as most of his readership. The entire work becomes both a swashbuckling adventure and an explanation of how he discovered the internal politics of the anti-Franco cause from his limited first-person viewpoint. I think this is a literary/journalistic space where the sabremetrian can safely live. We can avoid losing our trustworthiness by taking readers along for the ride.

Always start with what you don’t know, and then show your evolving thinking as you search for an answer. Your intermediate steps may not be quite as interesting as freezing in the rain without proper shoes and firing aimless potshots at the fascist fort on the opposite mountain, but including them means that the reader knows exactly where you’re coming from. If you have proof, it will be clear what you are proving, and how you came to do so. If you fall short of proof, that’s okay too. People will see that you tried. In a field where objective knowledge is the goal, there’s danger in acting knowledgeable. The field permits little room for personal authority, so adopting the idea you know nothing, or at least very little, as a starting point is key.

Were the sabremetrician-writer merely a sabremetrian, I could simply say, "Use the scientific method." But he’s not. Whether out of financial necessity or for glory, he pens articles and books, comments on the daily games, and generally makes himself a public figure. And, on account of his tone, too often loses track of the scientific method and commits the same errors as Pulitzer Prize winning journalists (which is frankly inexcusable, I know). The solution is for him to either be demonstrably right and certain 100% of the time, or more likely, to drop any trace of surety, and treat everything as a question to be asked. To show readers the question, to show how he approaches it, and to only actually declare it answered when absolutely warranted. Proof is not always necessary, but a rigorous threshold for what is considered proof is.