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Shedding a tear for Tom Boswell

19 November 2008

In his Wednesday Wangdoodles roundup of various baseball blogs and links, my ESPN.com colleague and friend Rob Neyer was nice enough to link to my post picking Cliff Lee as AL MVP (welcome, new readers!).

Sadly, Rob had another link to pass along: A post by the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell, who picked RYAN HOWARD AND FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ as his MVPs.

Boswell writes:

All of the encompassing offensive stats __and there’s little difference between Total Average, Runs Created, OPS and others__ run the risk of overvaluing walks and singles while undervaluing the bases-clearly game-changing power of extra base hits. So, sometimes, you have to underline the obvious; for example, a first baseman with 146 RBI is “more valuable,” especially when he plays on a first-place team, than a first baseman (Pujols) with 116 RBI on a fourth-place team.

Don’t analyze beyond that. True, Howard can’t field (19 errors). And Pujols outhit him by .357 to .251. Howard strikes out a ton while Pujols walks constantly. But none of it outweighs Howard’s RBI total, built on his .320 average with runners in scoring position. For what it’s worth, Howard wasn’t even in the top half dozen in baseball in runners-on-base when he came to the plate. His 146 RBI wasn’t a fluke. He’s Mr. Multi-Run Homer.

and…

As for Pedroia, I’d pick him over his main competitors –Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer of the Twins. Pedroia and Mauer won gold gloves at valuable defensive positions __second base and catcher. Morneau is just a first baseman. Besides, Pedroia’s Red Sox made the playoffs, the Twins didn’t.

But in 30 years, nobody is going to remember anything Pedroia did this year. Howewver, Francisco Rodriguez saved 62 games for the first-place Angels may still be the MLB record.

Sigh. Tom Boswell was one of my earliest reads growing up as a baseball-loving little guy. I appreciated his Total Average stat and incorporated it into the readings of Bill James and Elias books that my dad bought me while I was still in grade school. Stats aside, Boswell seemed to have an understanding of the game and how it worked that topped the efforts of his colleagues. He was sharp, witty and almost always on point. I don’t know what’s happened since then, but none of those descriptions apply now.

I’ll always be grateful to Boswell for the work he did earlier in his career. Heck, my humble offerings will never amount to 1/1,000th the contribution that Boswell has made to baseball writing. But I’m afraid that Mr. Boswell needs to spend some time reevaluating his take on the game, or risk having baseball pass him by entirely.

Please, Tom. Pick up a copy of this book (I won’t see a penny in royalties, promise), or check out the work of…anyone. Rob Neyer, Keith Law, Tom Tango, MGL. Dave Cameron, the BP group, Hardball Times, Fangraphs, you name it. Better yet, check out the work of Joe Posnanski, an excellent mainstream media writer with no statistical training of any kind who’s learned to funnel the best analytic findings into his work, while continuing to write in an enjoyable prose.

Tom, I want to enjoy your work again. I hope you make the effort to catch up. I’m rooting for you.

Update: In discussing this further with my buddy Mark, I realize I wasn’t being entirely clear in my wish for Mr. Boswell, and sportswriters in general. I’m not advocating 1,000 new Bill James clones. I do expect people to take the time to learn what the new metrics mean and not blindly mock them (or any arguments, statistical or not) when they contradict their own inflexible point of view. Again, I refer to Joe Posnanski. He writes like a champ, he’s not a stathead by any stretch, but he’s aware of the research out there, wields it effectively when necessary, but does so with a light touch that makes it seamless. Very much enjoy reading his work.

I’ll take this a step further. If Tom Boswell gave up analysis altogether and just focused on Roger Angell-style writing for the rest of his life, that would also be great. I love sportswriting that’s devoid of numbers, when done right, too. More than I like sportswriting WITH numbers, actually. Roger Kahn, Roger Angell, Ring Lardner, W.P. Kinsella, Allan Barra, David Halberstam–these are some of my favorite writers of all-time, baseball or otherwise.

If you’re a storyteller in your writing, be the best storyteller you can be. If you’re an analyst in your writing, be the best analyst you can be. If you’re a hybrid of both, be the best hyrbid you can be. Effort and thought. That’s what I ask.

Update 2: Speaking of JoePos, he takes down Boswell with aplomb here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. sorekara323 permalink
    20 November 2008 3:48 am

    I am not familiar with Boswell’s earlier work..on basis of this article..well, it seems we are in Murray Chass territory…Learning some of the advanced new stats CAN be difficult, but as has been pointed out by you and others, it only enhances your enjoyment of the game…I mean seriously…how can ANYONE rationally think that Howard (great player that he is) is anywhere near Pujols?? I think a 5-yr old fan would see the difference..

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  1. Boswell: Dunn’s defense isn’t that bad | umpbump.com

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