Jesus Was A Stat Head: A Post for Opening Day

“Fixate on the particular and you miss the big story.”

So says John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, in a Bleacher Report post about the damage that sabermetrics have done to baseball.

I’m not buying it, for baseball or religion

For the uninitiated, a brief summary: over the past 20 years, baseball has seen the rise of a kind of player valuation that is based less and less on the perceivable “tools” of players and more and more on a searching analysis of those players’ statistical records. This has applied equally to present-day players, future prospects, and past greats. It has been a move toward measurement and quantification, and its practitioners have spawned their own measurement tools in never-before-heard statistical categories like On Base Percentage (OBP) and Value Above Replacement Player (VORP).

The most accessible account of the embodiment of this trend is Michael Lewis’s excellent book Moneyball. Lewis dug into the story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, who used sabermetrics data to put together a string of low-budget winning teams in the early part of the last decade. Even for non-baseball fans, it’s a great read.

The debate that Moneyball popularized, the debate that Thorn is engaging, and the debate at the heart of sabermetrics is this: what has greater value? The things you can measure or the things you can’t? Is a player’s VORP a more useful evaluation tool a scout’s observation that he can flat-out hit?

Now to religion, particularly the mainline protestant Christian version. The scouts of the mainline church have been observing for decades that membership is declining, and they’ve offered their analysis: the church can’t hit the curve balls that postmodern culture is throwing. It has no theological arm strength. It’s leadership is out of touch with the players.

None of this is based on any actual data. Like the observation of a baseball scout, this way of evaluation the church depends entirely on what one can see, and its conclusions fit nicely with the scout’s well-established narrative of success and failure. And these have been the accepted answers to questions of the church’s decline.

But what if it’s been wrong all along? What if a new generation of church sabermetricians created new tools to measure what’s really going on?

Thankfully, that’s starting to happen. In my own denomination, a Research Services division has started publishing some great analytical work that casts serious doubt on the cigar stained conventional wisdom of the church’s scouts. It’s stated goal is to help the church make “fact based decisions,” which strikes me as almost poetically consistent with the aim of sabermetrics. Because it’s debatable whether a pitcher has control problems. But it’s a fact that over the last three seasons he’s walked 6.5 batters per nine innings. It’s debatable whether the church is dying and bad theology is the culprit. But it’s a fact that in 2009 the PC(USA) saw a rise in non-white candidates for ministry, increased Asian membership and leadership, and an increase in female pastors.

The scout calls it dead arm. The sabermetrician calls it a changing delivery.

What Thorn has wrong is the forced choice between the “big story” and the particular. When applied to faith, it’s decidedly anti-incarnational to poo-poo details in favor of a grand narrative. That instinct leads to a contempt for critical study of the Bible and to half-cocked evaluations of the church’s ailments.

The Big Story is made up of the particular, the stuff you can measure and track. Further, that story arises from those particulars; it can’t be forced upon them a priori.

Play Ball and go Royals!

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13 thoughts on “Jesus Was A Stat Head: A Post for Opening Day

  1. Well done, good sir.

    But we can’t let silly little things like “fact based decisions” get in our way when we’re trying to prove a point, now can we? 🙂

    And…amen. Go Royals.

  2. Keen insights Rocko and well said. Still I cannot help but think that even statistical data requires interpretation. People misinterpret data all the time in order to lie with statistics, an art that politicians know too well. For this reason I am not sure that stats are going to solve the issues.

    1. Absolutely, Reece. As a very smart person in my congregation explained to me in a conversation about this recently, everything you can measure is a proxy for something you can’t. In the end, somebody is making a decision about what ought to be measured and where value actually lies. The more we’re aware, though, of who’s making those calls, and the more we actually propose our own theologically grounded measurements of value, the better we’ll all be.

      Thanks, boss!

  3. So, where’s the “Jesus was a stathead”? I think I see what you’re saying here (despite us sabermetrically-challenged-heads), but the issue is balance, isn’t it? The reactive response to enlightenment, especially in the last 40 years, has been that “life” can not be reduced to empirical data. Of course, the enlightenment was a response to the exaggerated “opinions” of a few wealthy and powerful people claiming to speak for God and the masses. There is a middle ground, but in the end it is all still subjective, isn’t it? (Please don’t stone me for leaning toward the dangerously circular logic of absolute relativity).

  4. I love statistics. Each year I get the full set of PCUSA stats for the state of Kansas. I see some interesting things, and have my own theories about membership and numerical growth. Previously I worked in manufacturing, using precision measurements and statistical tools to dramatically improve process control.

    However, I’m now to the point that I favor the intangibles – especially gut instinct – to pouring over the statistics. At what point do the statistics become meaningless? In the NCAA Mens Division I Basketball Tournament, none of the top 8 seeded teams are in the final four. There is a chemistry which is important on a team. There is also the factor of a learning curve which cannot be measured. I’d rather follow the soldier who can sense by looking down a street whether or not it will have an IED – but they can’t tell you exactly why they believe this is so. There is a trust and a love that cannot be measured.

    At some point the statistics become absurd. Fictional Firstbaseman has an OBP of .456 overall, but .578 in games that start after 5pm in the second half of the season during the last quarter of the moon phase when facing RH pitchers while playing at home against a team which plays home games East of Fictional’s home ballpark. If fictional steps out of the batter’s box twice between pitches, and adjusts his cup at least once, he is more likely to hit a homerun. But at what point do these sort of things become self-fulfilling prophecies? At what point do they really say nothing?

    Jesus gave the Samaritan woman at the well her statistics (regarding husbands). But the point wasn’t about the statistics. It was about the difference between a mostly empty heart and an overflowing heart.

    Why do we root for the underdogs? Isn’t it that we desire great heart? My goodness – the team that beat KU last week had great heart, with much of it within the heart of the coach.

    It’s not about the best plays, as though the same routines, plays, and understandings will be effective in the next decade.

    It would greatly benefit congregations to work upon becoming a learning organization. But more important is having the big heart which includes (rather than excludes). The great commandment is to love. We should want players who love the game, and who would do nothing to give it a bad name (either on the field or off it). We should want players who would want to play the game even if they got no pay or status or recognition for playing.

    The main, unmeasurable, intangible is what is generally referred to as “heart”. As David Brooks said in a recent TED talk, “People learn from people they love.” I believe this is true, whether it is a coach, a player, a prophet, or a humble custodian who has great heart.

    The “particular” and the “big story” is a false dichotomy. We obviously need both. But we really need those who can see the big picture and live it out every time they come to bat.

    A big heart is what I seek – in baseball, or in the church.

  5. Dennis,

    I like this. Sabermetricians routinely mock categories like “heart” and “gut” and other “intangibles,” since they can’t be measured on a spreadsheet. But you’re right that those things have an actual effect.

    Maybe it’s best to refine what we’re talking about to the past. Statistical analysis can help identify what was really going on in the past–whether it was the steroid era or the pitchers’ era–so that we can better understand what’s happening in the present. It seems that a lot of the church discussion of present challenges is hindered by unhelpful shorthand descriptions of the past that aren’t actually based on any real data.

  6. This is really fascinating. If you wanted to provide a sabermetric analysis of the PC(USA) that cut through the rhetoric of either the right or left, what stats would you highlight? What are the most important statistics to measure the vitality of the PC(USA)?

    1. That’s the $64,000 question isn’t it? I’d suggest people served in mission and public worship attendance as starters, as opposed to membership size. What do you think?

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