No Cinderellas in Kansas City

Yes, the Kansas City Royals just won the World Series. Last year they came within 90 feet of winning, and I wrote this to process my disappointment. “Rooting for something is good for the soul,” I urged, and among North American sports fan bases over the past three decades, few can claim better conditioned souls than Royals fans.

But today faces us with a new question: what does it do for your soul when the thing you’ve rooted for actually comes to pass? What is a spirituality of winning? I don’t have an answer for that; rooting for losers is a kind of my thing, and not only in sports (friends will recall my impassioned advocacy of Joe Biden for President in 2008).

The closest thing I have to an answer is a confidence that the slow, incremental manner in which the Royals became winners begs to be understood as an endorsement of a certain kind of longevity of purpose that has spiritual analogues.

The General Manager who constructed this championship roster was hired in the middle of the 2006 season, a season in which KC would lose 100 games and win only 62, and during Dayton Moore’s first two seasons the team improved. They won 69 games in 2007 and 75 games in 2008.

Then they regressed. The 2009 Royals won 10 fewer games than the year before. Those were dark nights of the Royals fan’s soul for sure, and if Moore had been fired by ownership after that season, few fans would have objected. His signature line–“Trust the process”–was firmly established as an empty platitude, just another way losers justify their losing.

But 2010 saw the beginning of a slow, steady march to the top, beginning with a meager two game improvement in 2010 (67 wins). Then this:

2011-71 wins

2012-72 wins

2013-86 wins

2014-89 wins, Wild Card Winner, American League Champs

2015-95 wins, Division Winner, American League Champs, World Series Champs

For six consecutive seasons, the Royals have won more games than the year before. The most dramatic improvement came in 2013, when the team improved its record by 14 games and nearly made the playoffs. But since then the improvement has been modest. Three more wins in 2014; six more wins in 2015.

It’s not a worst-to-first story, is what I’m saying. There are no Cinderallas in Kansas City. And I’m taking a lesson from that.

What is the small improvement I can make today? This week? This year?

And to what end? Sports have an enviably easy-to-assess goal: win the championship. But in the world of jobs, kids, faith, neighbors, school, and relatives, rarely is the objective so obvious. Defining it is important.

Then we can work and live and love in a way that measures “success” not by other peoples’ standards and expectations but by our own sense of improvement. Are we getting better? Are we experiencing sustained transformation?

Maybe growth doesn’t happen by leaps and bounds, but by deliberate, measured improvement over time.


Sin Boldly: A Post About The Royals

A baseball post for the start of the World Series. Read more baseball posts here.

Fans talk about their teams’ winning and losing with moral language, especially their losing.

I am that fan. For 15 years, while sabermetric analysis was ascendant in baseball and my favorite team, the Kansas City Royals, refused to bow to On Base Percentage and Working The Count, I judged them as moral failures. My devotion to them was full of hope that they would one day experience a conversion to the Moneyball way, the truth of BABIP, and the Life of a winner, but with every draft pick spent on a power hitting high school player with a low OBP, every signing of a free agent with “character,” every hiring of a “players manager,” I grew more and more despondent.

The winners in that era–The A’s, the Red Sox, the Giants–I canonized as stoic saints of restraint and self-discipline. Theirs was not the youthful folly of chasing the 0-2 slider in the dirt. Theirs was the purity–the piety–to spit on that pitch, to work the count full, and then to hammer a fastball into the right center field gap.


But now look at this. The Royals are about to play in their second consecutive World Series, not because their General Manager was converted to a morality of analytics, but because he and the organization maintained a devotion to a virtue an earlier era forgot, namely making lots of contact, even with bad pitches–the first sin of sabermetrics. They see fewer pitches per plate appearance of any team in baseball. They also walk and they strike out less than any team in baseball.

When it comes to the morality of sabermetrics, the Royals sin boldly, and it works. Their lack of discipline now shows as assertiveness. Their leadoff hitter, to take but one example, almost always swings at the first pitch he sees, an offense for which Bill James would see a hitter tarred and feathered. Only it works. A lot.

I just wonder about all the ways in which en earlier era’s sins turn out to be the saving practices we need today.


BS: A Post for Chad Andrew Herring

Note: Chad Andrew Herring helped shape this blog post, but it’s not his fault if it’s garbage. 

Here’s a really great read from last week (salty language warning). It’s about Bill James, the pioneer of sabermetrics and MoneyballHere’s the money quote:

Anything that happens, you can make up an explanation for why it happened.

Youth group attendance is down because kids are just so busy.

The Presbyterian church is in decline because of liberalism.

Preschool enrollment is tanking because the new preschool across town.

We are explanation makers. Our minds grasp at ways to account for the things happening to us, especially the unpleasant things. Almost all of those accounts are based on our own limited perception and “make sense” only as confirmations of 1) our ingrained biases and 2) our desperate hope that we’re not the cause of the problem.

Most of it fits Bill James’ description of BS–malarkey, balderdash, hooey. Not because we’re deceptive, dishonest people, but because we’re not all that interested in the truth and the demands it will make on us.

Bill James and the sabermetric community in baseball have a terrific tool for overcoming BS and offering interpretations of baseball events that are closer to the truth: data. A single baseball game produces enough data to choke a VORP. I know a guy who’s company employs people who watch every pitch of every game every day during a baseball season so they can compile all that data and sell it to teams. Data is anti-BS serum.

When employed properly (so mind the small sample size). Data must be interpreted by insightful people who are after the truth. We’ve all seen raw data bent into percentages and ratios that are baldly self-serving. Data+skilled interpretation=truth.

The church has access to data about church membership and about the makeup of our neighborhoods, and we should compile and interpret the heck out of it for the sake of a thriving gospel ministry. The most valuable source of data available to us is the lived lives of the people in our congregations and communities, and there is nothing stopping us from listening to them and then listening to them some more in order to understand as fully as we can what people are up against and how the church can help.

There’s no excuse for BS anymore.


The Process (Or: Moneyball 2.0)

“Rooting for the Royals has always been a battle between wanting them to win and wanting to be right.”

Rany Jazayerli

Everybody knows about Moneyball and how the first guy through the wall always gets bloody. Billy Beane exists as a folk hero in my imagination, and I have often drifted off to sleep these past ten years to dreams that he would plop himself down in Kansas City and work for my Royals some of the movie-worthy magic he’s worked for the Oakland A’s.

In my hand as I’ve floated on these dreams has been an iPad lit up with some baseball blog excoriating the Royals for their stubborn refusal to embrace Beane’s Moneyball reason and their stupid loyalty to baseball conventions like “intangibles” and “grit.” For seven seasons now Royals fans have been treated to a vision of General Manager Dayton Moore’s “Process” and promised that patience would be rewarded with a winning franchise. “The Process,” among Royals fans, has been a squat thumb in the eye.

Only now they’ve posted consecutive winning seasons, each one better than the one before. Now they’ve made the postseason. Now they’ve won the American League Wild Card. Now they’ve beaten the Oakland A’s in the playoffs, but not just in the playoffs–six of the last eight times they’ve played. The Process has defeated Moneyball.

Not really. I still fantasize about Billy Beane running my team. He’s crazy smart, and he’s always going to be thinking one step ahead of the industry. The team the Royals just beat is a team full of players that had failed everywhere else they’d played. But they won in Oakland. Moneyball magic.

The Process seems to me a slight variation on Moneyball’s genius. Moneyball is known for its advanced metrics, for On Base Percentage and platoon splits, and The Process has no apparent interest in any of those things. But, at bottom, Moneyball is about exploiting market inefficiencies. It’s a way of seeing the world and your competition in it. Some things are not highly valued by your opponents and are therefore readily available to you. Collect enough of the same kind of devalued commodity and you’ve got something valuable. For the A’s of 2004 it was OBP. For the Royals of today it’s contact, even weak worm-burner contact.

The Royals strike out less than any other team. They also walk less than any other team and hit fewer home runs than any other team. They strike out so infrequently because they swing at lots of bad pitches and make lots of weak contact, which is also why they hit so few home runs.

That’s a recipe for futility. Only that team just beat the team with the most walks in baseball. And they did it with a hailstorm of weak ground balls. This is the Royals formula: chopper on the infield for a hit. Bunt the runner to second. Steal third. Score on another chopper on the infield. This team won a game last month by scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth without hitting a ball out of the infield.

Are weak contact and stolen bases the new market inefficiencies in baseball? Is Dayton Moore the new Billy Beane? He seems to have built a successful  organization around the kinds of commodities Moneyball loyalists disdain. It’s not the death of Moneyball, though. It’s the next chapter.


On Opening Day And Getting Better

Note: we interrupt our normal Monday Morning Quarterback series to offer this annual post on the opening day of baseball season. 

Today is the beginning of the baseball season. I had trouble sleeping last night so I watched the last episode of Ken Burns’ marathon documentary on baseball late into the night.  My day will revolve around a 1:00 pacific start time to my team’s first game. I may even wear my team’s cap into the office. Baseball’s opening day is a big deal for me, and I make no apologies for it.

Yet I know it will end badly. My team isn’t very good. It hasn’t been for nearly three decades. It is among the least successful operations in all of sports.

These days, baseball and the fate of my team is a stand-in for measurements of value. This is for baseball an age of tremendous enlightenment, when fans have access to as much statistical data on teams and players as do the General Managers and owners, data fans can analyze themselves for the sake of long blog posts condemning the decisions of men who are paid millions to make them. This Sabermetric community within baseball has brilliantly re-framed the notion of value when it comes to a baseball player, lifting from obscurity undervalued skills (like this) and packaging valuable player contributions into novel statistics like OPS and VORP. Naturally, this community has elevated the celebrity of the guys spending teams’ money on these players and their skills, which is good if you’re name is Billy Beane but bad if it’s Dayton Moore.

More and more of my life and vocation is taken up with the question of value: where does value really reside and how is my work contributing value to the world? Here, potential is a curse. Potential is only valuable once it’s realized. In my work with youth, students’  potential for a strong faith and a compelling witness to the love of God is far less valuable to me than their actual faith–weak and confused though it may be–and their actual stammering witness to something closer to fairness on God’s part. The latter is theirs, something they can be held to and challenged to grow. The former is my projection, a thing that asks nothing of them and so gives them nothing.

My baseball team is a fitting backdrop for these kinds of considerations, especially on this opening day, because after years of drafting and developing dugouts full of potential, the team traded much of it away last winter for some proven real world value, and the bloggers went crazy in protest. “Why,” they demanded, “would you trade away six years of team control over a player who could be a superstar for two years of a player who’s only a regular star?”

The team’s rationale is simple: trading away the consensus top amateur player to get a star commodity makes the big league roster significantly better today, and six years is a long time. The opposition is fueled by an ideological purity that prizes rationality and analysis over hoping for things to “work out.” Things, they correctly point out, “work out” in increasingly predictable patterns, and if you ignore the pattern, nobody’s going to feel bad for you when it plays out to your detriment.

I have read almost every damning word aimed at my team and nodded my head in dignified agreement with many of them. Likewise, I compulsively read condemnations and dire projections about my church. Those, too, make skillful use of data and eloquently lampoon the decisions of decision makers as badly informed or, worse, immoral. I nod in agreement at some of those as well.

Yet on this opening day I take my stand on the side of measurable improvement and the risky, ill advised move that willingly disappoints ideology for the sake of the good we know we’re getting right now, which, everyone can see, improves what we are immediately. It’s older. It has less potential. It may leave us for greener pastures in 24 months. But it makes us better now. Perhaps not better enough. But better.

Today, I’m for better.

Play ball.


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!