Bonus: Science, Gender, and Baseball
Host: Anna Reser
Guests: Laura Shir and Alexis LaMarsh
Producer: Leila McNeill
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In this bonus episode, Anna talks with Laura Shir, the co-host of the Resting Pitch Face podcast, and Alexis LaMarsh, who runs the website Pinch Hero, about the intersection of science, gender, and baseball. They discuss statistics, women’s baseball, and baseball fandom.
Transcription by Rev.com
Anna: [music playing inaudible 00:00:00] This is a special bonus episode of Lady Science Podcast. You may remember that in the fall of 2018, Lady Science published a special series about sports, science and gender. We ran some really amazing pieces like Anna Goshua’s essay on advanced analytics in women's basketball.
Anna: Stephanie Springer wrote about gender and the Science of traumatic brain injury in football. Ciara Healy has a piece about Roller Derby and the International Olympic Committee. You can read Christopher Mulvey’s media history of masculine fitness culture and Kathleen Bachkynski wrote about a great piece about protective technology in history of hockey. So you're going to read all of these pieces and more of course at ladyscience.com.
Anna: This episode of the podcast is my conversation with Laura Shir and Alexis LaMarsh about one of our favorite topics, baseball. So we talk about statistics and the myth of objectivity, a very engaging study of player attractiveness and a little bit about our experiences being women fans of baseball. So we hope you enjoy listening to this special bonus episode as much as we enjoyed making it. Remember to subscribe, rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcast and PS it's bat flip season, spread the word!
Anna: I have with me today Laura Shir is a nationals fan, co-host of the Resting Pitch Face podcast who can occasionally be found writing for Baseball Prospectus’ Short Relief. She is a graduate student with a background in Biological Anthropology and Biomedical Research.
Anna: Hi Laura.
Laura: Hi. Very excited to be here.
Anna: Excellent. And with me today also is Alexis LaMarsh and she is a Cardinals fan and a communication student at Webster University in St. Louis. And she's written for FanGraphs as well as Cardinal's blog St. Louis Bullpen, and she currently writes over at her own site Pinch Hero.
Anna: Hi Alexis.
Anna: So thank you guys so much for coming on the podcast.
Laura: Thanks for having us.
Anna: I thought we could start with just sort of the basics about your relationship to the game, why you love baseball, maybe you could tell us your favorite player of all time or your favorite player from last season, stuff like that, whoever wants to go first.
Alexis: Okay. I'll start. I like baseball personally because it gives me a lot of opportunities to learn. And I found in the 8, 9 years that I've been following baseball that there's this huge community, so there's this great sense of community that comes with it as well.
Anna: Yeah. Absolutely. When I started following baseball, I was really amazed by it especially like baseball Twitter and how active and awesome everybody is, well for the most part.
Anna: What about you Laura.
Laura: I would echo what Alexis said about the community, that stuff and at least that's really really important to me. One of the things that makes baseball specifically really fun for me is how many of my different interest that brings together and then of course it has this incredible community associated with it. There are people doing incredible work around science and statistics in baseball then there's the whole history and culture aspect of baseball. People are always talking about gender and inclusiveness and diversity, and there are all these different aspects of the game that are brought together in the community that are all different kinds of things that I'm really interested at and you can find any of that. There's even musicals about baseball. You can't say that about a whole lot of other sports I think. Bend it Like Beckham is the only musical I can think of that's about a sport that's not baseball, whereas baseball has two or three musicals about it. Anything that you're interested in, there's going to be a tie end to baseball and so it kind of pulled me in that way. I don't know what it is, but I think all if us can agree that there are something about the game itself, that once it gets under your skin, once it gets in your blood, you're not leaving any time soon.
Anna: Yeah. And I guess for me, I just started watching baseball with my dad a few years ago just like out of nowhere. I think he's just like always a baseball person but didn't really either have time for it. I think he probably just didn't have time for it. I just sort of all of a sudden started watching baseball and everyone was like, "Oh, this is the thing that you do?" No. And so I just was casually watching with him and he's really good at explaining things and he just teach me about the game and then he totally created the monster, I’m more interested in baseball, even than he is now.
Anna: So it was like a good bonding experience for us and then like you said, it really does intersect with a lot of things I'm interested in. Particularly, I’m a historian, so there's just no shortage of interesting historical aspects of baseball I guess. There is a little bit of baseball in my dissertation which is about the space program. So hopefully it's not too obvious, self-indulging thing.
Anna: Okay. I guess, what we want to focus on today is science and gender and baseball. I think there's a lot of stuff that we could talk about but I thought a good place to start which is to be just to talk about the most basic, I guess, intersection of science and baseball. What is the role of Science in baseball in a general sense? I know there are lots of things that we could spin off from that. Where should we begin?
Alexis: Yeah. I think science gives us a different way to look at the game. I think it's allowed us to make improvements, especially in player performance and player health, player recovery, stuff like that.
Anna: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we can talk a little bit about like in the history of baseball, is there like a timeline of science becoming more important to the game? And I suppose there's probably some backlash to that, right?
Laura: Yeah. I would say it depends on sort of what you include under the umbrella of Science but I think statistical analysis as well as player performance could both fall under that. And both of those things have definitely changed over time. To spin off what Alexis was saying about some of the player recovery, to start with. There's a big difference between Babe Ruth’s era and now, in terms of the physical performance and physical state of these athletes from a biomechanical perspective, from a medical perspective, it's really changed. Pitching velocity has gone up as a result of that. Power hitting has gone up as a result of that and that's really a combo of training and biomechanics and a better understanding of the medical aspects of athletics, I would say.
Anna: It's a cultural thing as well, I would say. Right? Like there's a shift in just what players are inspected to understand about their own bodies, and the sort of way they're supposed to think about their jobs as maintaining their bodies in a certain way. I'm talking over the long haul, not like the last ten years or something.
Alexis: I agree with that.
Laura: Yeah. I would definitely agree with that. I think the changes in the timeline of player development as well and there's certainly a lot to criticize there in terms of the young age that which these kids are specializing in baseball and being really intensively developed as baseball players and there is more and more evidence that there are harms to that, but in addition to the harms that are now starting to become understood, that's also been part of the reason. If these kinds understand at a young age how their bodies work, how they can use their bodies to create these high performance adult athletes they're going to grow into, that has had a huge impact on a game in the last few decades as well.
Alexis: Yeah. I would argue that at one point, I wouldn't say it was more casual. But it really was more of a game and then you start to see this shift where it's about money, it's about it being a legitimate sport, legitimate professional sport, and the attitudes towards bodies and performance has definitely shifted as a result.
Anna: Yeah. I think that's a really good point. I think it's interesting to posit the difference or the shift between thinking of something as a game and as a sport has to do with this kind of ideas about bodies and like the optimization of the body to play a sport versus a game. Right?
Laura: Yeah. I mean, Babe Ruth probably never heard the word optimization in his life. He was going out and getting drunk and then seeing what would happened if he swung a bat, and because he was Babe Ruth, the answer was usually good things but there's definitely been a major change and approach since then. And he's not the only one, he's just perhaps, the most obvious example.
Alexis: Yeah. I would argue even after the 50's, you get Mickey Mantle who also was similar in the way that he had no regard for his physical health. And you see that trend, I think it started probably shift, maybe 70's, 80's, 90's, steroid era.
Laura: Yeah. It's an interesting shift going into the steroid era because it was certainly a different approach performance but one that was very much limited by the fact that people were getting away with it, and so that's a huge controversy now and frankly, that's not really about health. That's kind of separating player optimization from health, because on the long run, those kinds of medications were really terrible for your health. I mean you could get heart problems. You get hormonal problems, and so now, I think people try to make it more so that optimization of a player isn't completely contradictory to that person's health or at least they try to make it sound like that's what they were doing.
Laura: Obviously, that's not always true, but in the steroid era there was really no question if you knew what people were taking. People knew what it was doing. People knew what kinds of consequences they were going to suffer for their health but that wasn't the point. Whereas now, at least they're pretending to care about the player's health. Is that better if they're not really taking care of players any better, necessarily? I don't know.
Alexis: Yeah. I would definitely agree with that thought. And I think if we think of if we go beyond performance, as we mentioned earlier statistics, I think that's also something that came about relatively early in sports as well in the 70's.
Laura: Yeah. I think what you were getting at with some of the backlash is the way statistics have changed from the early descriptive statistics that have been around for as long as the game has versus this whole concept of advanced statistics––statistics that are going to give us some insight beyond just counting how many runs the pitcher allowed and then dividing it by 9, and that telling us something.
Laura: The idea that we now have these advance statistics that tell us how the pitcher was really doing and beyond that, tell us how the pitcher is going to do tomorrow or next year or five years from now. Or at least say that they're telling us that. And so that's the really big shift and that's the shift that has in certain ways, started to take down the old scouting industry where it was these scouts whose professional judgment was subjectively used to decide who they thought was going to be a good player in five, ten years. Whereas now, we have these advance statistics that supposedly do a better job of telling us that.
Laura: And in some ways, they do but in some ways, I think you were talking about beforehand, some of the objective versus subjective concept behind these stats. We have this idea of statistical objectivity and these statistics are really presented as if they're objective but I think one of the big questions and debates that people have who really get into the weeds of these statistics is, are they truly objective? How can you tell what does that mean? And what are you trying to get from them if they are?
Alexis: Right. And what's the lasting power of some of these statistics? Because we've had some advanced statistics come up, maybe a few years ago or so and suddenly they're not good. We start to see the flaws in them and maybe part of that is the objectivity versus subjectivity of them.
Laura: For sure. I think you're right. There are definitely fads in these advanced statistics that people come up with. Baseball prospectus has a new one. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) was a big thing when it came out. Now, there's like three different versions and offensive is better than defensive, and everybody argues about what goes into it. And then at the same time, people when they fit their point, present them as if they're just solid fact and there's no arguing with them. So there's definitely a difference between what people do with them when they're just trying to learn about predictive models versus what people do with them when they're trying to prove their own point.
Laura: I think one of the interesting things about baseball, whether you love it or you hate it, is that the game itself is inherently subjective. When you're talking about the strike zone and everybody's calling for robot umpire, we don't have them yet. We have umpires who are human who make different calls and different scenarios. We have ballparks that are wildly different sizes and shapes from each other. And there are models out there that try to control for all of that and some of them do better than others but at the end of the day, there can't ever be, in my opinion, a truly objective statistic about a game where the rules themselves, are subjective.
Alexis: Yeah. I think there's a strong human element to baseball. And I think as you were saying to the point of certain stats and everything else being subjective, I was thinking about defense. And a lot of our defensive metrics up to this point, they're not very good. We still haven't figured out how to best evaluate players defensively and part of that is because you have things like the shift and then beyond that, when you want to account errors and everything, that's the scorer's discretion.
Alexis: So the very fundamental numbers that we have like how many errors the player has made, that's completely subjective. So I think there's a strong human element that underlies the most fundamental knowledge about the stats we have.
Laura: Yeah. I would add just in case any of our listeners here aren't familiar with how a scorer decides if a player has an error or not. It depends on the scorer’s idea of whether or not the play that that player was making was routine or whether it was not routine. And so I don't know if they've ever done studies, I would love to see them if they have but I have a feeling that they haven't put a bunch of official scorers together in a room. Show them the same clip, don't let them talk to each other, just have them mark down what they think it was, routine play, not routine play, error or not error. And then repeated over and over again and see how much variation you get.
Alexis: Yeah. I definitely think that would be an interesting study to do, to see how much variation there is, even between the official scores.
Laura: Yeah. I mean, I'm sure major league baseball would not like that study to be done.
Laura: Which is a major problem in terms of understanding these things. When the governing body that controls the staff, the proprietary data or governing bodies plural really when you talk about the individual ball clubs. But when they have a vested interest in not allowing certain analyses to be made, that just adds another layer of subjectivity because there are all kinds of studies that people have done based on umpire behavior, balls and strikes, ejections, because that's visible on the field. And so at least, the vast majority of it, you can look at and say this is what happened but the official scorers work in a little bit more mystery than the umpires do, so I don't remember seeing much of any research on how that works. So I'll have to look for it now because frankly, it hasn't occurred to me to look.
Laura: There's a lot of that sort of thing on umpires. There's much less data on official scores as far as I've seen.
Anna: I like what you said about it being very mysterious because what they're doing in scoring these plays is sort of doing this weird divination of like would he have caught the ball? Should he have caught the ball? It's a very strange for maybe people who aren't as familiar with the game or at least me, I guess. It just strikes me as just like, "Oh that's just like the hinge of scoring is just the strange projection into a parallel future that never happened." Where he caught the ball or he didn't.
Laura: Yeah. It's very quantum.
Anna: Yeah. It's like the superposition of all possible outcomes of a play. And then a person just makes a decision about that. And then we build like you said this whole statistical model on top of this strange quantum superposition of these mysterious scorers. In a way, I really like that. I think that that's along with having human umpires who have very wildly different ideas of how big the strike zone is. I think that's one of the things that I actually like about baseball, but it does have interesting impacts for what we consider objective data that we can collect in a game.
Alexis: Yeah you have to be very careful, I think. When you analyze the game and you look at these statistics because you have to count for things like scores and umpires and the individual decisions that they've made.
Laura: Yeah I think the problem that I see in certain uses of these statistics. I don't have a problem at all with the fact that they're fundamentally subjective, I think that's just baseball. I think one of the issues that comes up is when broadcast, broadcasters, teams treat them like they're actually objective and portray them that way to the fans, in order to make whatever point they're trying to make. Sometimes, the point that they're trying to make is benign. I would say this whole new resurgence, not resurgence, just surgence because it hasn't happened before, of these sort of projected catch percentages which has really exploded in the last few years looking at outfielders and their route efficiency running to get a ball and then this supposed probability of them making the catch they made. And that's based on computer models and it's very complex and it's a fascinating process of how they decide that but it's not like these percentages were given by the baseball gods and we know them to be true.
Laura: Someone, somewhere is modeling them and coming up with them. And then the broadcast is saying this is the percentage. This is what it was. And there's no room for confidence intervals and there's no room for this is how we came up with this in the first place. You just get this piece of information as a viewer. This was his catch percentage. That I think is a problem in that people don't necessarily have the opportunity to hear where this came from and so they just take them as fact.
Alexis: Yeah. I would agree with that. I think, sometimes, this gap between what people who study the numbers know and it gets lost in translation in some ways when you try to communicate that with fans. As you've said, it gets passed off as fact and those who don't dig any deeper into it think, "Okay. Well, these are the newest, coolest stats we have. They must be true."
Laura: Yeah. And I don't see any problem with sharing those with fans. I think there's of sort of gatekeeping like people won't get it. People can't get it, which I think is condescending and kind of silly.
Alexis: I agree with that.
Laura: Yeah. But at the same time, it's important to explain at least a little bit. This is the kind of place that this is coming from. There's this lab that's doing this work. There's this company that's doing this work. Here's what they take into account. I think more people would be interested than a lot of the broadcasts give them credit for. And I also think it comes into play––so something this off season that a lot of people have had strong opinions about is the free agent market and as well as the arbitration process where these players are negotiating salaries with their teams and all of that is extensively based on statistics.
Laura: So when Michael A. Taylor goes to arbitration court with the Nationals over $250,000 difference in what he wants versus what they want to give him, which in baseball money is an insultingly small amount of money for them to go to arbitration with him over, in my opinion. The kinds of things that they look at in arbitration court are who are players that have comparable stats to you? And what are they getting paid? And what I don't know frankly, is which stats they're looking at and how.
Laura: These are real people, these are real consequences. This is impacting how much money a player will get in arbitration or how much money a player will get offered as a free agent, teams use these stats. When viewers believe that these stats are infallible or at least if not infallible, truly objective, then they're more likely to think, "Oh, the team probably got it right because they're using data." Right?
Alexis: Yeah. I would agree with that. I think there's this sense that we can assign value to players. Like a simple value based on these statistics and I think that goes to your point with arbitration. Well, based on these stats, this is how much money you should be making and for fans, it's like, "Well, here's their WAR, here's this, here's how much they're worth as a result."
Laura: Yeah. It can be A) dehumanizing and B) we are told to just take this on faith. The team has the data. They know and they're going to offer these people what they're worth and what astounds me is how many people seem to side with the teams particularly in the last couple of off seasons where the free agent market has been so depressed–– some would say artificially, I would agree with them but technically that's alleged, I suppose.
Laura: How many of these fans are saying, "Well Bryce Harper is not worth 400 million. Look at his stats. Manny Machado is not worth,” I don't actually know how much..
Alexis: Yeah. I don't even remember.
Laura: Maybe 300 million. Manny Machado is not worth XYZ, look at his stats. And then with Machado, there's an added layer of this idea that people have about him being a bad clubhouse guy, not hustling. A lot of racist undertones that get into that.
Alexis: For sure.
Alexis: Oh, I said for sure.
Laura: Yeah. And so that's a really interesting scenario where it goes beyond just the playing stats, but it's definitely this whole thing where people are saying this person is not really worth this much money. Well, it's not your money, it's some billionaire owner and objectively speaking, every team can afford these guys. There's no true salary caps in baseball and at this point, the revenue is tied to the TV deals far more so than it is for the attendance which I don't think everyone fully understands.
Laura: And so you get into these weird situation where fans are acting like billionaire owners’ money is limited and like they should somehow be the stewards of it and then they are assigning value to players based on stats that they see as objective which probably aren't objective because they're based on things that aren't objective. And that's where kind of baseball is right now, which is a really weird plays for baseball to be.
Alexis: Yeah. I will agree with that. I find it personally incredibly frustrating when fans make these strange arguments based on what limited information we have and I don't mean that in a condescending way. I mean, as you were saying with arbitration, we don't know what numbers are looking at. We know they can't use StatCast data so they're going to be looking at publicly available information but we don't know what. We don't know what the player comps are.
Alexis: Frankly, we don't know how much these teams have. They don't have to disclose how much money they're making. Revenues are almost a mystery save for what we know about the TV deals and such. So I find it very strange as you are saying when fans side with these billionaire owners.
Anna: I think you've really drawn out the ways that these statistics and the perception of statistics as being objective, the really far reaching consequences that this is an issue of labor and labor organization and it touches on and impacts the problems that we have and baseball with racism. I think this is really good sort of exploration of these things didn't really have far reaching impacts and they can be deeply social and cultural in addition to the way we want to think of data as just objective numbers that we can have about stuff. The way that we use that information and the way we understand it as being objective or subjective or where it comes from, this is super important.
Laura: Yeah. And I would actually add one more layer to that in the area of racism but that I haven't specifically mentioned yet. My co-host on Resting Pitch Face podcast Sydney has done some really interesting data analysis on umpire ejections by race and ethnicity and that's another thing. I mean, ejections are less of a specific stat when it comes to arbitration as far as I know but what she's found pretty clearly is that umpires are much more likely to reject Black and Latino players for arguing balls and strikes than they are to a eject white, an asian player.
Laura: And then you get a number at the end of the season, someone so was ejected X number of times. That one, like I said, it's less relevant in arbitration but it happens to be a stat where we have some really clear data thanks to Sydney about what's happening. Again, things are subjective in baseball. The umpires have control over a lot of different aspects of the game and if they are biased on ejections due to race and ethnicity, I'm not saying that I know that they're biased on other things, but we can't know that they aren't, if we know that they are biased on ejections. And so that's another aspect of the racism question when it comes into these subjective judgements by subjective people that then play into statistics that are used for very really life consequences like salaries, where we have pretty clear statistical proof as clear as statistics can ever be.
Laura: That there people who are treating players differently in a certain situation based on their race and ethnicity and thus, we know that there's a potential for this to happen and other statistics that do affect people's salaries to a greater degree.
Laura: I was just going to say, I think that's a really important to keep an eye out for.
Anna: And that kind of impacts also what you were saying about Machado being perceived as not a good clubhouse guy or heel or something. If you're a player who has a bunch of ejections, that plays into how fans see you and usually along these racialize axes and umpires are the ultimate authority on the field. So that contributes to these damaging perceptions of players, "Oh this is the guy who gets ejected a lot." Well you get ejected a lot because he's a brown dude but not because he's a bad guy.
Laura: He's doing the same exact thing that this white comrade is doing and he's more likely to be ejected for it. Yeah. I think the clubhouse aspect of it is a really interesting intangible that in some ways, going back to the idea of the battle between the objectives statistical people and the Dusty Bakers of the world, I think that's more of a stereotype than reality because when Dusty was the Nats manager, he was no better and no worse than anybody else we've had and we've had quite a few as far as anyone could tell, following statistics rather than his gut. But that the stereotype that he gets at least.
Laura: This perceived dichotomy between the statistics people and the old-fashioned people, "Oh Jason Werth was a clubhouse leader." So even though he's field statistics weren't great all the time, he was still really important to the team because of what he contributed to the atmosphere. And I don't know how true that is because I've never been there but I think that kind of thing is this really interesting shadow land of... we can't measure it yet. So we're just going to tell you when it doesn't suit us, that you're making it up. When it does suit us, we're going to say, "Yeah. They're intangible so as the things that statistics can't measure but they're so important."
Laura: I think that's interesting ground there because people ignore it until it serves their purposes not to. And I can't imagine how we would measure it but 50 years ago, they probably couldn't imagine how we could measure spin rates so I suppose you really can never say.
Alexis: Yeah. I would agree with that.
Anna: It's also this idea that like the idea of measuring things and collecting statistics is good and objective and is going to tell us all we need to know about a player until it doesn't. And then, "Oh well, there are just some things we can't measure." And those are important too. There's just like wild sort of waffling between... everything has to be measured and we have to have numbers for everything. But if they don't tell us what we want them to, we can just say, "Well, but he’s a clubhouse guy."
Laura: Yeah. And I was great fan of Jason Werth so I'm certainly guilty there, but I think it's interesting when you see the broadcasts play into this. There was a lot of hoopla about this year's Cy Young Award. Alexis, I'm curious if you saw this in the Central as well because I was mostly seeing the NL East, where the people who want Scherzer to win were presenting a certain set of statistics and the people who wanted deGrom to win, were presenting a different set of statistics.
Laura: And the fact is, if you want a certain guy to win the Cy Young you can find statistics to support that. And they're not necessarily better or worst statistics. I mean some of them clearly are, pitcher wins, it's ridiculous. But beyond that, it's not necessarily clear which ones are the better statistics and which ones are the worst statistics for whatever it is you're trying to decide.
Laura: So there was this really clear bias, people put up screenshots next to each other of the stats that the Nationals broadcast were putting up about Scherzer and the stats that the Mets broadcast putting up about deGrom. And they were all incredible statistics but you really can pick which ones you want to use to prove your point. Even if the individual stat is objective, even if ERA (Earned Run Average) is objective, which it’s not, but even if it is, you can pick and choose. You can decide which ones you want to use to prove your point.
Alexis: Or you can craft a narrative using statistics. And then you were saying that the broadcasts use different stats, what kind of impact does that have on fans perceptions? If the Nats broadcast is like, "here are these numbers. This is why Scherzer should win." And then fans are going to be like, "Cool, yeah. Of course, he should win because of these stats." And then over on the Mets broadcast is the same with deGrom and so you have this disparity. Again, with them all being great stats but coming at it from different angles.
Laura: I think people do know to a degree. You see people making fun of every broadcast has some variation of, "Oh, here is Harper's batting average in the seventh inning or later, in day games, against a righty,” and we made fun of it when it's that. Everybody will say "Oh and he's standing on one foot and it's a full moon." And so when it's that egregious, everybody just making fun of it.
Laura: There's also situations where it's not that obvious. And so if you're not thinking about the information you're given, you might not realize that you're being given information to nudge your perception one way or another. And again, when it's about something arbitrary, that's fine. But when it's about something that's important and it impacts people's livelihoods, it's less fine.
Anna: I think that's actually a really great way to segue into talking about women in baseball. So for people who don't know, women do play baseball. Imagine that! This summer was the women's baseball world cup which was hosted in the US for the first time in a long time or the first time. I don't remember. I didn't get to watch as much of it as I wanted to, but I did watch it. It was available to watch for free on YouTube and I thought we could just talk a little bit about women's baseball.
Anna: I saw a lot of discussion during the women's baseball World Cup about––people would post videos and gifs of the players to Twitter and were talking about their performance and stuff. One that I tell a lot of was Ayami Sato who was the starter for Japan and she's probably the best woman baseball player in the world. I saw a lot of stuff on Twitter and just sort of around, I mean, your usual gross troll stuff, but there was this instance like some people seem to be sort of do some good statistical analysis like looking at the spin rate on her pitches and stuff. There's always like some reply guy being like, "Well, her fast ball was only 70 miles an hour. She could never play against men." Even though no one is even having that conversation.
Anna: So I thought we could talk a little bit about what happens in a sport that doesn't have opportunities for women to play baseball. What happens when we turn our statistical eye to women in baseball?
Laura: Do you mind if I put on anthropology hat for a minute?
Anna: Please do.
Laura: So before we get into some of the specifics, I think Sato’s spin rate a perfect example to go into. But I just want to lay the ground for where I come from mentally with these kinds of issues, which is from a biological anthropology standpoint, an evolutionary standpoint, a cultural standpoint.
Laura: We as a species have much less sexual dimorphism than other species. Meaning basically that compared to say, gorillas, male and female humans, talking about cisgender people here for the moment, are really much more alike than we are different. And so when you plot things on a graph that have to do with body size and anatomy and physiology, the averages are different but they overlap far more than they don't. So that's why you see men who are 5 foot 2 and women who are 6 foot 2. We have these overlapping areas where there might be more men who are taller but that doesn't mean that there aren't women.
Laura: I think one of the fallacies that's really easy to fall into when you're talking about professional sports is to talk about averages for men and women, because you're not talking about average people when you're talking about professional athletes. And so if you're talking about your beer league softball games, then sure. That's a different story. You're probably talking about pretty average people when it comes to athleticism. Nobody in Major League Baseball is average, they're all far beyond the average for men. So when you're talking about the idea of women professional baseball players, the idea that the average woman is 5 foot 6 or whatever it is or 5 foot 4. I think actually is the answer to that, that's really not relevant as far as I'm concerned. What's relevant is what elite athletic women are capable of achieving which is a completely separate question. And so my go-to on this frankly is always, no one will ever be able to convince me that if you give Serena Williams intensive baseball development from the age of 5, every resource that Max Scherzer had access to, every kind of training and conditioning that Max Scherzer had access to, I firmly believe that she would be able to throw a 95 mile an hour fastball. And no one will ever convince me otherwise.
Laura: And so I think it's really important to recognize that when you're talking about average people versus professional athletes, those are completely separate conversations and that culture really does impact player development. I mean men were only throwing 70 mile an hour fast balls a hundred years ago. And now all of a sudden, everybody's throwing a hundred. Well, that wasn't happening before something changed. And so when you're talking about women athletes and what they're doing now, we really don't know what women athletes could do in sports that they don't have access to great development in.
Laura: If they actually had that access, we just don't know. And so I'm always a hundred percent thrilled to talk about what Ayami Sato is doing now, but I never in million years assume that that means that I know what she could've done, if she'd have access to the kind of player development that her male counterparts have had. I think that's an important thing for me, to be on the same page for any conversation about these differences between women's and men's sports.
Alexis: Yeah. I think that's a really salient point. I think with them not having the same resources and then for all intents and purposes, way less exposure, fewer opportunities, we have this pervading sense that baseball is a man’s sport. And so when we look at baseball, it's all numbers regarding men. It's all men’s statistics that's what men have done in the game. And I think, the fact that women haven't had the same opportunities, the same development, it's incredibly unfair to try to compare years and years of stats from men to women. It's just we don't have the same opportunities. It's not the same resources.
Anna: Yeah. And just to give some examples, obviously, people may know even from personal experience that girls usually don't get to stay in Little League very long. They are either pushed into softball or hazed out of the sport. I didn't even know that girls were allowed to play baseball when I was growing up. And then one thing I learned last year watching the women's baseball world cup is that the women on the American team, they just sort of train by themselves and they're not getting paid to do that. In order to get in shape to try out for the team, they would pay for themselves to fight across the country and meet with other players so they could train together, just so you could have someone catch a bullpen for you and not be in your backyard.
Anna: These are the best women baseball players in the country and they are putting themselves in an economy flight across the country to work out for a couple of days. It's not just maybe women's sports have less support or even fan interest. For baseball, it's basically non existent. There's like no infrastructure to develop women baseball players.
Laura: Yeah. And even in Japan which has been dominating the women's baseball world cup for years because they do have a league for women there. That's the best we have for women in the world but it's still infinitely smaller than what's available for the men. And so you look at Sato, you look at the other players on team Japan who are dominating all the other teams out there. And to me I kind of go, "Oh my god. How much potential is there in this team, in every team?" When even what we see as the pinnacle of women's baseball is still getting so much less opportunity than the pinnacle of men's.
Alexis: Yeah. And I think even women who have made it to college and have been playing baseball for years, there's still sometimes pressure into switching to softball. Even when they get to the hire levels, it's like why don't you just play softball? Why are you trying to do this? And I think that's the big barrier as well.
Alexis: I know Kelsie Whitmore who signed with the Sonoma Stompers. I think she played one season with them Independent League and she plays for Team USA. She was talking about how softball and baseball are different in how you have to train. Your swing is different. I mean the feel is different, the ball is different, everything. And so regarding not having infrastructure, not being able to train, a lot of it is that like people want these women to switch the softball because this is the idea that, "Oh, they're the same. Just let them play softball." I think that's really pervading notion as well.
Anna: I wanted to ask if there are medical or "scientific" reasons given for why softball is a women's sport and baseball is not suited to women. I mean, we’ve talked a lot of medical myths about women on the podcast and in other sports, there's this idea that women shouldn't do ski jumping because their uterus will fall out when they hit the ground. So I wonder if there are things like that in baseball.
Laura: Well, so a lot of it is women can't throw that hard. Your mileage may vary on that. On the more medical side, one of the things that's always seems to be brought up in contact sports is the idea that if somebody slams into your chest and you have breasts, you're more likely to get breast cancer. And A) I actually don't think there's clear data on that. I think if you want to find a case for it, you can but it's not one of those things that there's actually clear evidence for against. But the other thing is there's just not a whole lot of slamming into people's chests in baseball. And you could make the same argument about testicles. I mean, there have been some truly gruesome testicular injuries in baseball and no one is saying that guys can't play it because their balls are going to get damaged, even though they are.
Alexis: Yeah. I think that's the myth that I heard before as well. I think Laura can speak to it a lot more than I could. I think there's just this idea that the women are more fragile. I think especially when you go back to baseball versus softball, it's like they're not going to have the same hand-eye coordination. They can't hit a baseball or whatever. They don't have the strength to hit a baseball. They can't throw as hard. They can't do this and that. It's just like, "we'll put them in softball." It's easier for them to see the ball, blah, blah, blah, stuff like that.
Laura: I don't think anybody's ever actually proven the eyesight thing and so it makes no sense to me that soft balls have to be bigger and neon. I don't even know which myth that comes from. It's not even a medical myth I'm familiar with.
Anna: Yeah. I don't think I've ever heard about women not being able to see as well as men. That's a new one for me. Okay. So I think in the interest of time, I don't want to keep you guys too long. And I'm also having a good time and I don't want to bum everybody out. Is it alright if we skip the domestic violence thing?
Laura: It's fine. Yeah. Alexis?
Alexis: Yeah, that's fine.
Anna: Okay. I want to spend sometime talking especially about your paper Alexis that you delivered at the SABR Seminar last year about fan perceptions of player attractiveness and how that sort of correlates with their success as players. Is that a fair summary?
Alexis: Yeah. I think so.
Anna: Why don't you give us sort of like a run down on that research and maybe some of your findings and why you were interested to do that? I just think it's a really great investigation.
Alexis: Yeah. Let me start off by saying, it was incredibly fun to do that project especially in the survey portion where I was running around SABR Analytics handing out a business card with the link on it and I'm talking to people like Eno Sarris and Brian Kenny and I'm like, "Hey, take my survey on these baseball players. Like choose the one that you think is more attractive. Thanks. Pass it along.”
Alexis: It came out this notion, there's been previous research in football that quarterbacks are perceived as being more attractive. It's the players you can see on the field. And then you go over to economic research and there's this idea and there's actually research suggest that more attractive employees, get paid more for whatever reasons. So I took that basis and looked at baseball and said, "What if there some correlation in baseball? And what if either A) somehow, someway more attractive baseball players do better, or B) fans perception of players changes like the physical attractiveness is determinant on their performance. And unfortunately, the model ended up being pretty noisy and there wasn't a lot of clear data but there was...after I ran a regression, there was something to be said for their performance compared to... their 2017 dWAR (defensive wins over replacement) and oWAR (offensive wins over replacement) and their perceived attractiveness.
Alexis: So there was something to be said for maybe recency bias and stuff like that after I ran the regressions.
Anna: I mean, you said that your model is noisy so there wasn't super conclusive stuff. Are there any specific things that you found, that you thought were really interesting? Who's the most attractive player according to your survey?
Alexis: Yeah. I think that's actually the most interesting part. So maybe I'll give some background on how we select the players first. So it was 10% of active players in 2017 who had played in more than 30 games. So we had 62 players, they're randomly generated, and I think Kevin Kiermaier was number one.
Laura: As he should be.
Alexis: Right. And then it was Nolan Arenado, of course.
Anna: As he should be.
Alexis: Yeah. And then for some reason, three was Chris Heisey?
Laura: Guilty! I'm sure I rated Chris Heisey more attractive when I took the survey. And I'm sure that I'd rated Chris Heisey more attractive than whoever he was up against, mostly because I like Chris Heisey.
Alexis: Yeah. And so I think we'd also talked about that, my adviser and I when we were doing this research. When I presented, I mentioned that there might be fan bias as well but definitely Kevin Kiermaier came in on top. We did Elo ratings based on the survey results. And his Elo score was like 2700 when average is 2200. So he was like a billion standard deviations above the norm. So when I did the presentation and stuff, I was like, "and here's our Greek God." Everyone else is just tagging along.
Laura: If I may, the whole idea of it brings up similarly interesting ideas about women fans and kind of what we are and aren't supposed to do. I would make a pretty clear distinction in this case between women fans and women professionals in baseball. And people who are criticizing either women fans or women professionals don't always make that distinction but I think it's a really important one because women's sports writers, women coaches, any kind of professional role within the game itself or reporting on the game, obviously have the same standards of professionalism that anybody should have in their field of work.
Laura: If you're interacting with a player, you shouldn't be doing anything that crosses the line sexually. And women professionals in baseball, I mean the rates of that happening as far as I know are just incredibly low. But I think they're always getting accused of that because people can't seem to believe that women who are attracted to men could be watching and loving a game played by men without the only reason for them doing that being their attraction to the players.
Laura: Where I come down on that from the fan perspective, not from the professional perspective is firmly from the camp of these things are not mutually exclusive.
Laura: Obviously, for serious baseball journalists, for coaches, they are. You can't at least talk and act on whatever you might be feeling towards the players because it's unprofessional. I mean, I could spend hours on baseball players' butts and that in no way means that I understand the game any less. That in no way means that I take the game any less seriously. I think there's also this whole concept of objectification that finding a person sexually attractive means that you know longer respect them as a fully rounded human being, which I also think is much less true about women fans of the game than men seem to think it is. I can tell you as much as you want to know about Ian Desmond's butt but that doesn't mean I don't respect him as a person.
Laura: I think it's an interesting sticking point where we seem to be getting closer to understanding that fans of the game who are attracted men, and it usually gets thrown at women in the general sense, anybody who's attracted to men. You can be attracted to the players and still be a serious fan whatever that means. We're starting to get a better understanding of that it seems like to me. But there's almost been this backlash of your objectifying the players, it's a double standard. You couldn't see that if it were a women. And it's like if you're dehumanizing them, sure. But does finding someone attractive as a person require that you are dehumanizing them?
Anna: Yeah. I think it's the big crux, I guess. Well, for people saying this and they’re usually men and people's mentions on Twitter, that you're objectifying players whatever. It's like it may be true that you cannot express your attraction to somebody without dehumanizing them but that's not the case for everybody.
Laura: Yeah. Stop putting that on me just because that's how you act towards people you’re attracted to.
Laura: You're telling on yourself there buddy. I can find these guys attractive and still treat them as human beings and if you can't, that sounds like a you problem.
Anna: Yeah, exactly.
Alexis: Yeah and I also wonder if that isn't necessarily a hindrance for women fans but another pressure, another form of gatekeeping because I think... and I don't know how well either of you could speak to it but I know from personal experience like I have faced that. I have gone to games where some man sitting nearby is like, "Oh, who is your favorite player?" And I'm like, "well, Matt Carpenter." Whoever I want to talk about at that time. He was like, "oh, I guess you want to marry him then?" No. I like to see him get on base. I don't know if any of you could speak to that as well but I think that's something that again, some fans particularly women because of this heterosexual bias, I guess, face as fans of the game.
Anna: Yeah. Well, if you are not just here for butts then you must prove yourself by explaining to me the Infield Fly rule, go.
Laura: I literally learned the Infield Fly rule because of that question.
Anna: Oh no.
Laura: And at this point, I no longer answer those people but I didn't quite learn that for awhile and so I've never seen the Infield fly rule come into question in the game that I was watching. I mean I've obviously seen games where it's been in play but I've never seen it like come up as an issue. So I can safely tell you the only reason that I learned the Infield fly rule was because of that question which is disgusting.
Alexis: Yeah. I think there definitely is this idea whether internalized or externalized, this pressure to prove yourself as a fan.
Laura: I think there is again, there's been some backlash against that in recent years. I think it's getting a little bit better, but then I think there's been the backlash against the backlash and it's all very cyclical and can't we just watch baseball?
Anna: Wouldn't that be nice?
Laura: Yeah. I mean, my favorite because I keep score and even if I'm not, I'm pretty much always at a game with someone who is and that person is pretty much always a friend of mine whose female or non binary. The number of times we've gotten the, "Who taught you how to keep score?" Or "I have never seen a girl who keeps score before. You ladies are hot."
Anna: Oh no.
Laura: I swear to god I almost... there are people who can testify to this. I almost punched somebody in the face last season over us being told how hot we were for the fact that we kept score and then this guy who was my grandfather's age just kept turning around and making comments. I don't know what I would have done if he hadn't eventually stopped.
Anna: Oh my god.
Laura: I mean keeping score is something that's rare enough as it is. That people really see the need to comment when they see women or people that they perceive as women who are doing that and it's sort of the extreme. It's really the same as do you know the Infield Fly rule? Who taught you how to do that? Did your dad teach you how to do that? Did your boyfriend teach you how to do that? No, my friend Grace did, shut up.
Anna: Last season, I didn't catch a fly ball, I leaned over the back of my seat so as not to spill my beer and scooped one up––
Anna: ––And then the usher... I gave it to a kid which was a bad idea because that kid was kind of a jerk. I really wanted to keep it but I didn't want people to think I was being stingy. But the usher came over to make sure that no one got hit. And I was like, "Oh no. I just picked it up off the ground. It didn't catch it." And he was like, "Oh did you break a nail picking it up?" So it's just everything.
Laura: And then the guy say they don't know any women baseball fans. And that's like, well no wonder because there are tons of us and none of us want to talk to you.
Alexis: Right. That's exactly how I view it as well. I think it's funny. They are telling on themselves. They come to you like, "Oh wow. You like baseball. I don't know any women want a baseball like you. That's so cool."
Laura: Right. I know 20 and I'm in a whole Facebook group and it's like we exist but there's a reason...
Alexis: There's so many of us.
Laura: ...either you're ignoring us or you've pissed enough of us off that we're actively not talking to you about it. Like there are so many of us. I grew up in Massachusetts. Do you know how many women Red Sox fans there are? Do you know how many women Patriots fans are going out of their minds this weekend? If you don't know us, it's because of something you're doing.
Laura: And it's interesting for me because my aunt was the one who first got me watching baseball. So she was a Yankees fan and I was indoctrinated as a Yankees fan when I was little and then I got beat up a lot at summer camp because I lived in Massachusetts. And so I decided I hated baseball for about 10 years.
Laura: And then in college, a female college friend of mine was the one who introduced me to $6 Nats tickets. And pretty much since then, with one or two exceptions, all of my close baseball friends have been women and non binary people. I have maybe three dudes who are baseball fans that I'm friends with. I would say all of the important baseball figures in my life, in terms of introducing many things, you were talking about your dad, for me that was my aunt, just by chance. And then my friend who reintroduced me to it in college, she's female. And so people have this idea about women fans existing within these male spaces. "Oh, your dad must have been the one." Not that there's anything wrong if it is but your dad must have been the one or your boyfriend must have been the one. And it's like, "well no. I was introduced to baseball by my aunt. I was reintroduced to baseball by a female friend. I co-host a podcast with two women." We've only ever had one man on the podcast ever. And at this point, the only way I could see us having another one would be if it were Sean Doolittle.
Anna: That would be amazing.
Alexis: Yeah that would be good.
Laura: Yeah that's the dream. But yeah, there's just so many of us that if you don't know any, you are doing something wrong and that is a you problem.
Anna: I think that might be a nice place to wrap up.
Image credit: Fenway Park by Eric Killby via Flickr