Roger Angell Was Devilishly Smart About Baseball
I’d been trying to capsulize why I will miss the baseball writings of the late Roger Angell when my friend Joe Connor nailed it: “Because you didn’t need an advanced degree in mathematics to read him.”
Angell, who died May 20 at the admirable age of 101, had the day job of editing fiction for the New Yorker, meaning he worked with some of the great writers of the 20th century.
He wrote for the New Yorker, too, which confirms he was a writer himself.
His avocation — or at least one of them — was repairing to baseball games, which feels like an ideal way to decompress from a day of commas, antecedents and the occasional imprecise metaphor.
He would then write about the baseball he had seen, lovely essays rooted in old-fashioned reporting. He didn’t rhapsodize about the mystical connection of baseball to the greater cosmic truths of life. He explained why things unfolded as they did from the pitcher’s mound when Frank Viola and Ron Darling, both of whom would become accomplished Major Leaguers, faced off in a 1981 NCAA playoff game.
He wrote about the 2000 Subway Series in which the Yankees beat the Mets. He wrote about Steve Blass, a skilled pitcher who one day suddenly could no longer throw the ball over the plate.
By virtue of his birth year and long life, Roger Angell was among the last generation of fans to have seen Babe Ruth in person. He witnessed much of the history he wove into his essays.
Most gratifyingly, he wrote about baseball the way fans talk about baseball, which is where the “advanced degree in mathematics” part kicks in.
I’m now reading The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski, a long-time baseball writer from Kansas City and elsewhere. He counts down his picks for the best 100 players of all time, and it’s a delightful read for a fan, who gets to argue along with his choices and wonder by what strange coincidence Jackie Robinson finished 42nd and Tom Seaver finished 41st, which happen to be their uniform numbers.
No matter. My point here is that like all baseball writers, Posnanski sprinkles his essays with statistics. That’s smart and appropriate because baseball is, among other things, a game of numbers. Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs. DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Josh Hader just tied a Major League record by not allowing an earned run in 40 consecutive relief appearances.
Those kinds of numbers, clear and accessible to all fans, enrich our understanding and appreciation.
Posnanski also periodically dips his pen, however, into the ocean of new numbers that have, over the last few decades, threatened to overrun all of baseball. These include, to note a few, WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), WAR (wins above replacement level), WAR+, Fielding WAR+, exit velocity, launch angle, spin rate and an assortment of even more arcane statistics that lost me several innings ago.
I’m not mocking these numbers, whose ascent has coincided with the rise of Sabermetrics and led to the widespread game management system colloquially known as analytics.
I’m not arguing the numbers are useless or wrong.
In my purely anecdotal experience, no baseball fan talks in that language. No one says, “He’s my favorite player. He’s got a 35 WAR.” Or “Did you see the launch angle on the home run that Aaron Judge hit last night?”
The baseball fans I know employ stats more judiciously. A player who has hit four home runs in the last week is hot. You hate to face a reliever who has converted his last 12 save opportunities. Those simple stats underscore the point.
They also do not impress or even seem to interest the serious analytics devotee. What a batter or pitcher has done in the last week, or month, doesn’t incorporate enough data points to provide a valid assessment of that player’s long-term value.
The goal of analytics, in general, is to quantify baseball, breaking it down into a series of percentages, averages and numbers that collectively explain past value and more accurately predict future performance. Player X is superior to Player Y because over the course of an average season he will have an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging average) of .824 instead of .783, or will field 13 more ground balls.
The danger is that by discussing baseball as the sum of several dozen micro-statistics, we turn it into a computer exercise instead of a game whose infinite range of large and small dramas can no more be predicted by a mathematician or Sabermetrician than by a carnival gypsy.
The fans I know don’t see Justin Verlander vs. Juan Soto as a WHIP number against an OPS number. They aren’t thinking that in 100 plate appearances, Soto would get 24 hits off Verlander or Verlander would strike out Soto 32 times. What they care about is whether in this situation, say with two out and runners on second and third in the seventh inning of a one-run game, Soto will get a go-ahead hit. It’s a pitch vs. a swing.
When fans think about Derek Jeter, they think about the flip that nailed Jeremy Giambi. They know Willie Mays’s catch off Vic Wertz, or the crazy hop in right field that kept the Nationals alive in the 2019 playoffs, or the ninth inning of the fourth game of the 2004 Red Sox-Yankees playoff series, when Dave Roberts stole second base and then scored to tie the game and set the Sox up to come back from a 3–0 deficit.
Statistics foresaw none of that. Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera, by the stats, never would have blown that 2004 save, and the Yankees never would have blown a 3–0 lead. Just as Dennis Eckersley, by the stats, never would have given up a walkoff home run to Kirk Gibson in the first game of the 1988 World Series.
And yet all that happened, as do a thousand other statistically improbable moments every season. It’s the execution of one play, one pitch, one sequence of events, that leave a fan exhilarated or depressed, but engaged. The fact the spin rate on a curveball can be measured doesn’t mean that’s why people watch baseball games.
Based on everything in his baseball writing, Roger Angell didn’t think so, either. He saw games as sequential dramas, with a fan’s excitement about where it would all go and a reporter’s curiosity about why.
Happily, other writers share that understanding and have the skill to convey it. But Roger Angell was a master with Hall of Fame execution — and anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading his work should pick up, say, The Summer Game, and be reminded how an artist in one medium can honor artists in another.