As I mentioned before, one of the great things about getting in touch with people is that many of them have alerted me to possible resources that I can use in my research. One person that I’ve been in touch with pointed me to the Simnasium website. Learning about this project, got me thinking about a lot of sociological issues, but before I discuss them, I should explain what the Simnasium is.
The Simnasium is a computer based simulation baseball game. 1 In some respects it is similar to traditional fantasy baseball, where you form a league with other managers, draft a roster and compete against each other based on the the performance of the players. However, in addition to using sabermetrics as part of the algorithm that determines to determine the outcomes, the players that populate a manager’s team are not limited to current MLB players. Instead, managers have the opportunity to draft players from all eras. I’m not exactly sure the specifics of the player selection system, but the main attraction of something like this is that you can draft Sandy Koufax and see if he can strike out Josh Gibson (Yes, the even have Negro League players). Click here for the full set of rules which are somewhat complicated, but quite fascinating.
Obviously, from a sociological point of view, this can be seen as a practical application of Sabermetrics. Aside from a hobby for baseball enthusiasts, this is a way that the cultural object of Sabermetrics can be packaged, and in this case sold ($19.95 a team, although, the will give you a free team when you buy your first team). It also is one way that baseball has been reappropriated by fans. Of course, this is not anything new in sociology. There is a rich literature about people reappropriating culture when its intended uses do not fulfill people’s needs. The Sabermetric movement as a whole can be viewed this way. Baseball, including the statistics and the analysis that was part of the institution proved very unsatisfactory to several like minded fans. So using their own ability with statistics and their own time and money, they refashioned it into something else that was much more useful to them. Now what that “usefulness” is not exactly clear. In other studies, the thing that is useful is resistance against something. Whether it be the resistance to patriarchy of Radway’s romance readers or simply resistance to the unimaginative ways of many culture industries, the idea is that when people choose to do something differently, they are actually saying something about the social conditions under which they are consuming the cultural object.
The narrative that has been made popular by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is that the Sabermetricians are challenging the established methods of baseball analysis used by MLB franchises and baseball journalists, which in effect is challenging the dominant discourses of baseball. 2 And for my research the question of course is do people who do sabermetrics feel this way and if so, what is it about the discourse that does not work for them. The Simnasium presents one possible motivation as to what Sabermetricians are looking for. One of the things that Simnasium does that conventional baseball analysis does not really allow for is to compare players across time. There are some Sabermetric tools that try and get at a comparison of players across time, the paradigmatic metric being Bill James’ Win Shares system.3 But even with that, the result is simply a number to compare. It obviously doesn’t replicate the real life test of pitting a batter of one era against a pitcher of another era.
Another way to look at it is to take the method that is used by the Institution of Baseball for making these comparisons, the opinion of specialized experts. In most cases, those experts consists of people who have much experience watching or playing baseball. So someone like say, Joe Morgan, can compare a Johnny Bench to a Joe Mauer since he spent time playing with Bench during his playing days and has spent time watching Joe Mauer playing as his time as a broadcaster. I use Joe Morgan intentionally because he is one of the people who has been somewhat outspoken in his stance against Sabermetric analysis. Because of who he is, he actually holds a fair amount of power in determining what is legitimate baseball knowledge and what isn’t. His status as a member of the Hall of Fame veterans’ committee only solidifies his position as a voice of authority. This expert authority gives him special privilege to make those decisions. And seemingly, Sabermetricians are not satisfied with Joe Morgan’s expert opinion.
So one of the angles that I am going to explore is the notion that Sabermetrics democratizes baseball. Now we don’t have to occupy a special position within the Institution of Baseball to make these kinds of comparisons, or more generally, to create knowledge. It takes away the exclusive power of those people who control baseball history and knowledge and distributes that power into a network of people who feel that they have 1) a better method of creating and maintaining knowledge, and 2) a better motivation of creating and maintaining knowledge. Obviously, I do not know if Sabermetricians feel that the Institution of Baseball has bad motives in opposing Sabermetrics, but up to this point, the treatment of Sabermetrics and Sabermetricians by the Institution of Baseball would make that seem to be the case.4
Again, the Simnasium seems to be an example of this. One of the things that the Sabermetric movement is famous for is literally rewriting the record books. The case of determining the number of hits Pete Rose needed to break the all-time hits record is just one example. 5 The Simnasium offers another way to use sabermetrics to literally rewrite history. I’m not saying that people use Simnasium and then go out and say, “I know that Lou Gehrig is better than Joe Morgan because that what Simnasium says.” However, I think it would be simplistic to just say that people only use this particular form of fantasy baseball because it gives them pleasure. Obviously, there is a lot of pleasure to be had in setting lineups, determining strategy, and matching up your favorite pitchers of the deadball era with your favorite batters of the current juiced era (I know that isn’t an official designation, but I’m unaware of any other names that have taken), especially if like most people, you’ve never played organized baseball past the little league level. However, like I said before, people can derive pleasure from baseball without actually participating with stratomatic or Yahoo fantasy baseball. There has to be a reason why this particular application offers more than the other ways just listed. As I alluded to a previous post, distinction is one of the reasons that I think people may be doing this, but also, I do think that they are engaged in a greater conflict to challenge the Institution of Baseball on the grounds that it is exclusionary.
There’s a lot more to write about this, but this is long enough. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of time to get to some of the other stuff that the Simnasium represents, but for now, this is a good starting point for discussion and development. If anyone who reads this actually happens to own a Simnasium team, I would love to hear some feedback and please oh please leave a comment.