How Minnesotan Is It, or: What Comes After Data

Weston Cutter


As of last Saturday, on August 8, 2015, the Minnesota Twins had a 55-54 record for a .505 winning percentage, putting them in second place in the AL Central. This info’s of note or not to you depending on one of several factors, probably chief among which is if you even care about baseball at all (which you should, and not for any national pastime thing, but because baseball is still among the most useful and satisfying metrics to measure time’s passage, at least from the start of April till October [1]). However, even if you don’t care that much about baseball, the Minnesota Twins having a winning record at present is of note because of how unlikely such a scenario was in March, at which point most analysts picked my (full discloser: deeply beloved) MN Twins to cellar not just their division but all of baseball (in fact, a piece I started on the Twins before season’s start began “There’s literally no chance the Minnesota Twins will be playing in the post-season this year, again”). Their reasons for such presumption relied on faultless, beautiful logic: by all standard, useful metrics the Twins entered the 2015 season woefully inadequate, many details of which are usefully explicated here, but the summary simply goes: they sucked donkey balls. Starting pitching was gonna be maybe-okay till they lost Ervin Santana on a drug-suspension 80-game bit; the bullpen [2] was gonna be bad; the offense would maybe be okay if players continued to play about/above their historic norms, and the defense was gonna be live-sans-anaesthetic-surgery pleasant.

Regardless of one’s awareness of or interest in baseball we’re all at least alive enough to note that data plays an increasingly large role in day-to-day life, and baseball actually might be the realm in which we first discover what comes after data’s rule. That’s not at all to say that data’s fallible (it ultimately cannot be), but that—to state the romantic obvious—we as measurers may not have yet worked out every last factor requiring measurement on the field (any field). Slower, for those unversed: in Moneyball, Michael Lewis recounts the early ‘00s Oakland Athletics and how the front office began using Bill James’ Sabermetric methods (methods developed in the 70s) for player evaluation in place of the old, romantic, hugely subjective measurements that’d till then obtained (representative metric, no joke: scouts once evaluated players on ‘confidence,’ which isn’t egregiously terrible until you begin—as these scouts did—to consider that maybe the player’s confidence might take a hit if he’s ugly enough to not be able to keep a girlfriend, meaning some scouts actually ranked players lower because they were—the players—to them too ugly to get girlfriends, which lack’d deleteriously affect, of course, on-field playing through declining confidence). This shift-in-metrics has basically worked entirely through professional baseball, with some teams (Bill James literally works for the Red Sox) utilizing it more than others (my beloved Twins seem almost allergic to lots of any but the most obvious applications of Sabermetrics).

Even if you know and care nothing about any of that, it takes no effort to note that Sabermetrics establishes pretty rigid Germanic notions of Efficiency and Utility to the sport [3], and the argument against Sabermetrics—for lots of reasons—has been made elsewhere and will annually continue to be made. I actually like Sabermetrics a lot, and find it useful, and find fighting it far less interesting and fun than thinking about or attempting to tease out where Sabermetrics runs out, since literally *any* system has, at its edges, things it can’t perfectly understand/explain/account for (theoretical physics being a real fun example). Plus there’s just the simple fact that every encounter—from forgettably banal to profoundly profound—features tiny discrete elements so impossible to quantize as to make the exercise feel grotesque (think for just a minute about the song you’d get if you were to have to, through analytics, quantize the best aspect of all your favorite songs; more disturbingly, think of the image of the being you’d end up with were you to be required to evaluatively quantify all the discrete data points that have something to do with why or how you love/appreciate/honor your partner). This isn’t to say baseball specifically or sports in general constitute ‘profound experiences’ (though for lots of us, they do), but it’s very much to say that we’re at a strange historic moment in which our reliance upon and love of data-crunching may have, in baseball, found its limit.

So back to the Twins. Granted, of course, sure: the season’s just past halfway over, and craters appear in pro sports as unexpectedly as in Oregon or the Gulf of Mexico, meaning it’s certainly not inevitable that the Twins finish the season as strong as they began (it’s already happened: they had a 20-7 record in May and a 11-17 record in June; if they continue to decline algebraically at this rate they’ll win negative sixteen games in September). And, sure, they’ve happened to play well-above average in a certain quantifiable metric (specifically, they excell with runners in scoring position [RISP]), meaning the entirety of their season has not been some numbers-be-damned, down-with-measuring freakshow.

And yet. And yet.

I’d venture that everybody who loves the place they’re from feels the place wields some weird power, and toward MN I feel no different; it’s the land of the Replacements, Prince, and Bob Dylan, and is the place where progressive politics took deepest and most lasting root (our Governor—a kid from an insanely rich family—just vetoed a spending bill because it didn’t spend enough on education; not, reader, because it spent too much elsewhere, but just that it didn’t spend enough, period, on education; what state executive does thus anywhere else?), and it’s a place of stiff-upper-lips and folks who are offended if you don’t ask them six times how they are (it’s just common good manners to say you’re fine or okay when asked how you’re doing, and you can’t just go ahead and spill your guts unless someone does the three-four-five-six times work of asking, really, how you are), and it’s a place where, once, while driving, I was trying to describe to my wife just what Minnesotan means, and as I failed we watched a woman out running in the snow, puffing little clouds of exertion before her, as she cut across a street to—mid-stride, didn’t break—push a car that’d gotten stuck in a bank, free it, get it moving, and toss back a wave as she crossed the street, and it’s the place whose fans were first and most heartily thanked and shouted-out by Garnett when he (finally) won a ring in Boston (before, of course, coming back [like Torii Hunter] to Minny to end his career) and for these and plenty more reasons I feel a deep abiding love for the place and am ever on the hunt for Minnesotan-ness as I find it manifest in daily life, and this year’s Minnesota Twins sure seem among the most Minnesotan teams ever assembled.

It’s not just that Plouffe is a stud at third, as legit a great infielder as we’ve had in ages, and that he came from relative nowhere, and it’s not just that Mauer, one of the greatest catchers in the history of baseball, is now manning first base and playing far below not just his own but all of baseball’s average (which stumble’s traceable to his 2013 concussion), and it’s not just that Molitor’s coaching now, and that Molitor and Mauer are both Cretin kids, and it’s not just Meyer and May and Buxton and Sano all getting call-ups, and it’s not that Pelfrey’s doing okay and Nolasco’s thankfully still struggling well beyond the big game’s lights: the fact that the Twins are doing as well as they are is someone both about all those aspects and not at all about any of those. Maybe this is just a simple sum-of-its-parts routine. Maybe it’s impossible to say this stuff. What I’m trying to say is there’s something beyond numbers, which we all know but don’t necessarily want to have to contend with, day-in-day-out (how bullshit many what-Muppet-are-you-most-like [or whatever] quizzes have you taken recently? Each of those is quantification, each crunchable data [4]).

What I’m trying to say is that maybe what’s most beautiful and essential is the stuff that’s not only beyond numbers but that actively evades slotting into the programmatic systems quantifying and ranking and numbering provide. This is such obvious bullshit I feel stupid having now spent 1620 words getting to it, yet all I’m trying to say is that three months ago most experts looked at the team I love and wrote them off, dismissed them for so flagrantly ignoring the numbers-are-fate memo, and here that team is, not only not a joke but something of a contender, at least for now, and maybe all I mean is that what’s most Minnesotan is stuff that can’t be measured, or what’s most Minnesotan is the chip on your shoulder the size of the midwest you earn on being evaluated according to metrics that leave out some of the most primal and beautiful elements, or what’s most Minnesotan is the underdog that knew all along it wasn’t.


[1] Lots of folks dog baseball—legitimately—because of its almost catatonia-inducing sloth, yet I’d argue the pace of play’s actually by design, not only not accidental but purposeful (plus the last minute of any NBA or NFL game grows increasingly slow as the seasons pass and the hacks and time-outs multiply like algea blooms).

[2] For those without baseball terminology: ‘Rotation’ refers to a team’s (usually) 5 starting pitchers, and ‘Bullpen’ refers to the guys who come in after a starter either gets knocked around or reaches his max pitch count.

[3] It’s not as if these notions were, before Sabermetrics, unknown or -considered: players were dropped all the time for failing to produce, plus sports themselves, with the lights and uniforms and rah-rah stripped away, are just clock-races against inevitable decline; eventually everybody steps or is forced down, despite our fervent wish to just once see Talent so great it could literally defeat Time.

[4] (Feel free to not believe that, but let’s not pretend we don’t all understand what’s meant, reducibly, when we compare someone to Kermit the Frog, or Gonzo, or Piggy, or whatever.)