Got to do something fun Sunday night: Went to Bill James’ house to watch The Simpsons. I do realize that under normal circumstances this might not sound especially riveting. But Sunday night, the Simpsons episode was called, “Moneybart,” and the plot revolved around the ongoing fight between statistics and tradition in the game. And Bill had a line.
If you have not seen the episode, you should probably be warned that there are all sorts of spoilers below. In fact, this whole thing is kind of a spoiler. Proceed at your own peril.*
*I assume everyone here as either seen The Simpsons or at least knows the basics … but, as pointless as it feels, I’ll put some very quick basics here: Marge and Homer are Mom and Dad. Homer is one of the great television characters ever. Bart, Lisa and Maggie are brother, sister and baby sister, Moe is bartender, Flanders is fussy neighbor and so on.
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One thing many things I love about The Simpsons is that, often, the main implausible plot is sparked by an even more unlikely mini-plot at the start. In this case, we need to get to the point where Lisa is managing Bart’s baseball team. To get to this point, they bring in a former student who has gone on to attend an Ivy League school. And when Lisa expresses her own desire to go to an Ivy, the woman says that Lisa better get involved in more extra-curricular activities.
Marge: “Don’t worry, you can still attend McGill University, the Harvard of Canada.”
Lisa: “Anything that is the something of the something isn’t really the anything of the anything.”
At this point, Flanders, the fussy neighbor, comes by to say that he can no longer coach Bart’s Little League baseball team because he cannot live with his conscience after not complaining when an umpire calls his shortstop’s foul ball a home run (Flanders: “Call me Walter Matthau because I’m a Bad News Bearer”).
After Homer refuses to take over the team (Homer: “Sorry Marge, last time I stepped on a baseball field I got tazed”), Lisa becomes the team manager.*
*There’s a small moment here I love: Bart is walking by the baseball field when he happens to notice his teammates are practicing joyfully. He goes to the field to find out what’s going on. But in order to express the joyfulness of practice, you can hear the players shouting baseball things, including this shout from Nelson (the school bully): “Look at me, I’m Whitey Ford!” I just love that. It might be my second-favorite line in the show.
Bart, of course, expresses doubt that her sister — knowing nothing about baseball — can handle the job. Lisa has anticipated this bit of doubt:
Lisa: There have been plenty of female managers in baseball: Connie Mack, Sandy Alomar*, Terry Francona, Pinky Higgins.
Nelson: Those are dudes!
*I feel sure that, more than once, the brilliant writers of The Simpsons put in something wrong just to get baseball goofballs like myself to notice. This is one of those. Sandy Alomar never managed in the big leagues.
But Lena Blackburne did. So did Jewel Ens, Blondie Purcell and Jo-Jo White. And if you think that those writers didn’t do this just to get people like me to look up some managers who had women’s first names, you don’t know the evil powers of The Simpsons.
Yes, now, we have reached the crux of the episode. Lisa must learn baseball. For this she goes to Moe’s to seek the council of her father and men watching the game on television.
Moe: “The only thing I know about strategy is that whatever the manager does, it’s wrong. Unless it works in which case he’s a button pusher.”
Moe then points her to the corner … where a mini-SABR convention has broken out. There are four nerdy guys with computers and stat books discussing the game.
Nerdy stat guy 1: As a pitcher Cliff Lee is CLEARLY superior to Zack Greinke.
Nerdy stat guy 2: Yes I completely agree with the following COLOSSAL exception: Before the fourth inning, after a road loss, in a domed stadium. Then it’s great to be Greinke!*
*I would love to believe that I played a small part, just a tiny part, in inspiring this scene. But I think it’s more likely that the word “Greinke” is funnier than, say, “Roy Halladay.”
Lisa is impressed by their knowledge, and here she is told that the key to understanding baseball is sabermetrics: “The field was developed by statistician Bill James,” Nerdy Stat Guy 2 says.
At this point, he shows Lisa his computer, where there’s a picture of Bill. And Bill utters his one line: “I made baseball as much fun as doing your taxes!”
It was quite the moment at the James household. Everybody applauded and, during a commercial break. Bill did the line again for us with some Shakespearean zeal. There have been many achievements for Bill James. The man was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people, for crying out loud. But playing himself on The Simpsons? I’m not sure it gets a whole lot bigger than that*.
*Though I should say that there are plans in the works — I don’t want to jinx it, but there are plans in the works — for me to be a guest DJ on E-Street Radio. More on that as details firm up.
Lisa — armed with her newfound statistics — turns around Bart’s team. She moves the fielders around so that they are always perfectly situated*, which absolutely will NOT inspire me to make a Brooks Conrad joke.
*At one point, Lisa moves her first baseman into the crowd, and sure enough a foul ball is hit right to him. A good gag, but once again they did something for goofballs like me to notice: The first baseman was left-handed when he was put in the crowd. But he turned into the right-handed Ralph when the foul ball was hit to him. I wonder how much fun they have over there putting in these little details they know 99.999% of the people won’t notice, but will drive the other .001% mad.
Lisa’s maneuvers are making the team a winner, but Bart cannot help but feel that the joy of the game is being drained. When Lisa tells him to not swing — the pitcher is wild — he is furious.
Bart: “But I’m on a hot-streak.
Lisa: “Hot streaks are a statistical illusion.”
Bart: “I wish YOU were a statistical illusion.”
Lisa: “Well, there’s a 97% chance I’m not, so do what I say.”
He disobeys her and hits a walk-off home run. His teammates pick him up and chant his name (“Bart! Bart! Bart!”) and while they’re doing it, she throws him off the team leading to a new chant (“Conflicted! Conflicted! Conflicted!”).
Now, of course we have family strife. Marge and Homer take sides:
Marge: Flyballs and fungoes come and go. But families are forever.
Homer: Sorry Marge, I’ve got to call bullcrap on that. The ’69 Mets will live on forever. But you think anyone cares about Ron Swoboda’s wife and kids? Not me. And I assume not Ron Swoboda.”
Marge: Think of Bart’s feelings!
Homer: Boys don’t have feelings. They have muscles.
That night, Marge reads to Bart a slightly altered version of the three little bears. Homer reads to Lisa the story of Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse in the All-Star Game.
The baseball season goes on without Bart (Lisa: “He thought he was better than the laws of probability. Anyone else here think he’s better than the laws of probability?”). Lisa moves Nelson into the leadoff spot because of his on-base percentage*. The team wins again and earns a spot in the Little League Championship (Announcer who sounds quite a bit like Vin Scully: “It’s a triumph of number-crunching over the human spirit, and it’s about time.”)
*OK, this has little to do with The Simpsons … but I have watched just about every inning of every postseason game so far. This means two things:
1. I have now seen so many “Glory Daze” promos that it is now beginning to invade my own personal memories. I find myself thinking about that time I agreed to have myself branded. Also, I would love to strangle that guy who goes on that emergency run for the doughnuts in that car commercials. I do not believe in hate. But I hate every single thing about that guy.
2. I have noticed that national announcers, in general, still call games almost EXACTLY like they did 25 years ago. I mean exactly — with batting average, home runs, RBIs, pitcher wins, the idea that pitching is 75% of baseball, the same cliches about bunts and intentional walks, like there’s no other side.
I’m actually OK with this for the most part. I think baseball games are to be enjoyed, not to be infused with a lot of statistical analysis. And I know most fans want what is familiar to them, I get it, I really do. It might drive me nuts, but I’m not a typical viewer.
Just one thing: I really wish that they could at least mention on-base percentage. Just that. I get that many people are never going to like advanced stats, never going to appreciate the Dewan plus/minus or WAR or xFIP or whatever. I get that. I know that people don’t necessarily want a discussion of BABIP in the sixth inning of a 2-2 game.
But if I could have any impact on the game at all, any impact, I would love for it to be helping to making OBP more mainstream. Just that.
In The Simpsons, there’s a funny little moment where Lisa is looking at her stats book and there’s a confusing looking formula for OBP. It looked like so:
H + W + HBP / AB + W + HBP + SF
That does indeed look confusing, doesn’t it. Probably would not look as confusing if you did this:
Times on Base / Plate Appearances (minus sac hits).
Yeah, that looks a bit simpler doesn’t it? Frankly I don’t even like the sac hit adjustment. Personally, I would just do times on base over plate appearances, simple as it gets. But even so, it’s still pretty simple. OBP tells you as simply as possible how often you get on base, and how often you make an out.
Now, let’s look at batting average. Most people think the system is simply “Hits / At-bats) and it is. But let’s look at it in a different way.
TOB – W – HBP / PA – W – HBP – SF – SH.
There’s your simple, not-advanced batting average statistic. At-bats are a completely invented number that removes a bunch of pretty important things — especially walks, but also illogical things like sacrifice hits. You already know that if you BUNT a runner over from second to third it’s a sacrifice and doesn’t count in your batting average. But if you give yourself up by hitting a ball to the right side, and move the runner from second to third, it DOES count against your batting average. And so on.
And don’t even get me started on the hit/error conundrum.
Batting average as calculated IS a complicated thing and an advanced stat. It’s just an advanced stat that we grew up with so it seems simpler than it really is, not unlike the plot for the Star Wars movies. On-base percentage is a much simpler statistic, I have no doubt in my mind about this. It is NOT an advanced stat, not compared to batting average. OBP is also a much more telling statistic.
And I just wish these national baseball announcers would mention it every so often. Just mention it. Instead of wondering why Carlos Pena with his .196 batting average is even in the lineup (“Well, he hits with power”), you could at least mention that he walked 87 times, and while his .325 on-base percentage is not good, it’s not tragically bad either.
The last few minutes of the Simpsons include a fine performance from Mike Scioscia (when he loses a World Series ring while riding on a roller coaster, he says: “That’s OK, I’ll win another one”), the obligatory steroid mention (Ralph is juiced — he is surrounded by juice boxes and is saying, “I didn’t know what I was putting into my body!) and a classic shot, best line of the show, from the radio/television announcer:
Announcer: “That’s why anyone who invested with Lenny Dykstra really should call that number, lawyers are standing by.”
And it ends with Bart trying to steal home, which leads to two plot breakthroughs. (1) It allows Lisa to finally see the excitement of the game beyond the numbers; (2) Cost his team the championship because of course he is out at the plate. That sounds about right.
“You made me love baseball,” Lisa told Bart afterward, “not as a collection of numbers, but as an unpredictable passionate game beaten in excitement only by every other sport.”
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UPDATE: I did not mention the opening, because it was not baseball. But I suspect for Simpsons fans, it will be what it remembered from this show. It was done by the guy the Internet calls “Infamous graffiti artist Banksy.” It’s a brilliantly dark portrait of laborers making Simpsons merchandise — including the making of DVDs using a worn-down unicorn.