The Arty Semite

Jews and Baseball, by the Numbers

By Eitan Kensky

  • Print
  • Share Share
Getty Images
Tommy Hunter of the Texas Rangers during Game Four of the World Series.

The Fox camera kept returning to Jon Daniels, the Texas Rangers’ Jewish General Manager, during Game Two of the World Series last Thursday. Texas’s bullpen was collapsing in spectacular fashion for the second time this postseason, and Daniels was struggling to stay expressionless. Struggling, but you could see him suffering the frustration that comes from having your worldview confirmed.

Like many GMs, Daniels is known for using sabermetrics, a data-driven approach to baseball. Sabermetricians believe that reserving the team’s best reliever for the ninth inning is ludicrous. Yes, the game technically ends in the ninth, but more often the crucial moment comes with runners on and few outs in the seventh, or eighth; the team should use its best reliever then to shut the opposing team down instead of waiting until the game is essentially decided. These two Rangers’ postseason games could easily be exhibits A and B in the case against the closer.

Jews have always been interested in baseball, playing it and aestheticizing it through literature. But what’s different about the work of GMs like Daniels, Theo Epstein of the Red Sox, and Cleveland Indians President Mark Shapiro is that their approach to the sport is driven by a vibrant intellectualism that emphasizes debate and developing new methodologies.

With apologies to String Theory, no intellectual movement of the last 30 years has had as much of an impact as the sabermetric revolution. While sabermetrics takes the form of rigorous data analysis and the creation of more advanced statistics, the driving ethos of the movement is a willingness to fundamentally rethink what baseball — or any system — is and how it works.

In that regard, the Jewish move into baseball is not unlike the Jewish move into English literature in the 1940s and ‘50s, when writers like Leslie Fiedler and Saul Bellow redefined how we saw the American novel. Fiedler’s 1948 Partisan Review article, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” opened questions of sexuality, gender, and race by exploring the homoerotic dynamic in “Huckleberry Finn,” while Bellow brought a new Yiddish-inflected language to the novel.

Neither sabermetrics nor the New York Intellectuals are Jewish movements, but the strong critical and ideational aspects of both encourage Jewish involvement. Chaim Bloom even went from writing baseball criticism for Baseball Prospectus to working for the Tampa Bay Rays — which would be like Lionel Trilling transitioning from theorizing about Mathew Arnold’s views on culture to physically transforming into Mathew Arnold.

Like all important intellectual movements, sabermetrics has begun to spread from its roots in baseball. Its data-consciousness moved into politics when Baseball Prospectus’s Nate Silver founded fivethirtyeight.com with the purpose of rethinking polling. The increased emphasis on performance-based teacher evaluations and meta-analyses in medicine suggest that there will be many new markets for statisticians who are unafraid of challenging the tenets of their fields.

It’s only a matter of time before sabermetrics changes our understanding of Judaism, just as the literary and philosophical tools that developed since the 1950s altered our understanding of how it evolved through contact with other religions and cultures. Howard Megdal’s “Baseball Talmud” used sabermetrics to determine the best Jewish players at each position, but what about using the tools of baseball to look at the Talmud? We all know that Hillel was the dominant rabbi of his era, but just how dominant was he? How many arguments could we expect the next available rabbi to win? Sabermetricians invented “Value Over Replacement Player” (VORP) as a way of figuring out a player’s relative worth over a readily available replacement — well, just what was Hillel’s Value Over Replacement Pharisee? Which rabbis are over- and under-rated by this metric?

Value Over Replacement Pharisee may be a trivial statistic, but other data-driven approaches to Jewish history and culture won’t be. Judaism is always open to new questions and modes of interpretation, and as sabermetrics inspires Jewish Studies, it will subsequently change our view of Judaism.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: fivethirtyeight, World Series, Value over Replacement Player, Theo Epstein, Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, String Theory, Saul Bellow, Sabermetrics, Red Sox, Partisan Review, New York Intellectuals, Nate Silver, Matthew Arnold, Mark Shapiro, Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, Jon Daniels, Howard Megdal, Hillel, Eitan Kensky, Chaim Bloom, Cleveland Indians, Baseball Talmud, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.