Question: How Do You Prove That The News Media Lies To You?

Answer: Know a lot about something.

This is about baseball, and is a little technical, so I’ll try to be brief for you (unfortunate) non baseball fans.

Manny Machado is a 26 year old super-star baseball player who just signed the biggest free agent contract in MLB history, a guaranteed 300 million dollar deal for ten years with the San Diego Padres. Baseball writers have been trying to get free agents huge contracts this whole off-season rather than just reporting on the negotiations and signings. Why? Because sports journalists are overwhelmingly pro-labor, pro-union, and anti-ownership, aka. business, capitalism, billionaires. (The players are just millionaires, so they’re cool.) The writers and sports pundits have been working overtime to get public opinion on the side of the players, even though the huge salaries make being a fan more expensive, especially for families.

After Machado signed, the pundits on the MLB cable channel put up a graphic justifying the contract by showing that Machado had a comparable WAR—that’s statistically-calculated wins his teams got (theoretically!)  by having Machado playing rather than some borderline, mediocre shlub—to all-time greats like Willie Mays by the same age. The chart was a lie, but you had to know something about baseball history and how they calculate a player’s WAR to realize it.

Machado’s WAR, as with all players, is made up of his defensive value and his offensive value. Machado is a terrific third-baseman, and gains a lot of points through his fielding prowess. Several decades ago baseball analytics took a giant leap forward because of computers, televised games and the emerging field of sabermetrics, which is the science of baseball statistical analysis. Now defensive ability can be measured more accurately than ever before, because records are kept of where every batted ball goes, how hard it is hit, and what the situation was when it was hit. None of this was available when Willy Mays was playing. We know he was one of the best-fielding outfielders of all time, but it is safe to say that his defensive WAR is severely undervalued, because the data to calculate it the way modern players have their WAR calculated didn’t, and doesn’t, exist.

Thus it is intentionally misleading to compare Willie Mays to Machado using WAR, and to conclude, as the MLB comparison did, that Machado was a good bet to have a Hall of Fame career like Mays did. It was an apples and oranges comparison that people on that channel know was a false analogy: we know this, because they have some qualified sabermetrics experts on staff.  They put the comparison up on the screen anyway.

Now, I know a lot about baseball, more, I can confidently say, than the average casual fan, and I have been this way since I was in high school. I have caught baseball writers in similar deception or misinformation countless times, and as a result I have little respect for the integrity of baseball journalism. I have also had the same experience with many, many other fields that I happen to follow more closely and understand better than the average citizen. I have also had the experience, more than once, of being interviewed on a complex topic only to find that the reporter completely garbled what I said, because he didn’t understand the topic. Journalism was untrustworthy even before its decided to try to manipulate public opinion to the extent it does now, in part because journalists are, as a group, young, not unusually intelligent, and under-educated.

I mark this as one more way baseball has enriched my comprehension of life and ethics.

33 thoughts on “Question: How Do You Prove That The News Media Lies To You?

    • They’re young these days but in the past they were older. But dumb, d_d.

      Anyone who’s ever had any first hand involvement with anything that’s reported in the papers knows how invariably inaccurate the reporting is. It’s stunning.

      Newspaper people are also salaried workers. They HATE business owners and people who own stock. Listen to NPR. When they report on the stock market, they are invariably happy when they can report the market is down, but entirely muted when they have to report the market is up. They can’t control their voices well enough.

  1. Point taken: even by a relatively amateur — but dedicated — baseball fan.

    To me, the Machado/Mays differential is reminiscent of Ted Williams’ exhortation that players in the old Negro Leagues should have a shot at the Hall of Fame. It’s not just race, of course, because the baseball world has changed. But Williams was right:: today’s stats were impossible even five years ago, and the Negro Leagues simply had to be part of baseball lore.

    So, years after baseball writers derided Bill James’ saberemerics, this has become the raison d’etre for all evaluations, contract negotiations, etc.

    The fact that Manny Machado should be elected immediately to the Asshole Hall of Fame should not be the issue, I suppose. But I certainly hope the Padres live to regret their decision. If you’ve seen Machado on the field, he looks and acts like a sociopath. Skill is not the only thing: It’s just ONE thing that makes for a great baseball player.

    I’m just sorry that Bill James’ contribution to the game has become a negative, not a positive, to the game.

    A neighbor mine, formerly with a major investment firm, joined the NBA as an advisor to young basketball players who were making more money than they had ever dreamed of. His job: don’t put the money up your nose, don’t get caught paying child support for 10 kids, live well and invest, so when you’re out you still have a living. Don’t see this in baseball, and in the case of Machado, it doesn’t matter: he’s a total jerk and will have a hard time spending his money in whatever way he chooses. My only hope is that Machado, a first class jerk, doesn’t reach the standards set for him. Any team that has the money to pay him what they’re paying deserves a huge disappointment. Looking forward to it.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather see players — who have unique skills held by much less than 1% of the population — make the money the owners would prefer to keep. But Machado — the worst representative of the ‘sport’ of baseball — doesn’t deserve this benefit. Horrible of me to say, but I hope he fails, miserably, or is called out for trying to hurt other players.

    Watch Mookie Betts: the best of the best, with dedication to the game and his team, a kind and positive and unbelievably enthusiastic individual play for at least 10 more years and really, really, earn every dime he makes.

    Machado will always, always, be an asshole, and the worst representative of the game for a long, long time.

  2. If one has extensive knowledge of a topic, whether local zoning laws, automotive safety, software development, or baseball – any topic really, then inevitably one will be able to recount multiple instances of the media getting things wrong or simply not understanding an issue pertaining to that topic.
    Why anyone would then assume that the media do a good job on any other topic is mystifying.
    With the low level of ability of most journalists to grasp any topic of complexity, the Dunning-Kruger effect kicks in. One interview and a quick Wikipedia search makes any journalist an expert on anything. Sometimes they need to explain it in a two minute meeting with an editor who knows even less than they do, before publication.
    So a mistaken, unreliable news item is almost inevitable, especially with breaking news, even before accounting for bias and outright position-advocacy. The bias is now built in to the source, which isn’t really new. It’s just more obvious.
    “Everything is simple when you don’t know a fucking thing about it.” -Williamson’s First Law

    • I get a particularly huge kick out of newspaper kiddies becoming military policy and even strategy and tactics critics. They despise everything defense related but they know more than the defense people do about defense. Awful.

      Another favorite: using the word “algorithm” as if they knew what one was if it came up to them and bit them in the ass.

      • That dates back to the Civil War when Robert E. Lee said “Why, sir, in the beginning we appointed all our worst generals to command the armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers.” Of course in those days the editors at least were somewhat educated and erudite. Once the sixties hit, then the college kids got into the act. I was personally acquainted in college with at least a score of people who knew more about defense than the civilian officials and general officers, more about intelligence than the analysts and field officers, more about law, especially international law, than the lawyers, and more about theology than the pope. This is before Wikipedia, btw. What’s more, a lot of these self-proclaimed polymaths (who, admittedly, mostly did well in their classes) had huge egos and more-than-healthy libidos. I think it’s an Ira Einhorn/Philip Berrigan kind of thing, where someone sets himself up as a messianic figure. He calls for a sit-in, people sit in. He makes a speech, his followers lead cheers. He says this is how it is, and his followers say “right on.” You know the rest.

    • I’m currently in the middle of a discussion with peers in my area (IT) over something so badly reported it would be like discussing Machado’s rebounding. Either the reporter was told nonsense, or they badly mangled what they were told (more likely). The problem is the article is being held out by higher-ups as something to consider and learn from.

  3. There a battle of WAR’s since there are two in competition”fWAR (Fangraphs) and bWAR (Baseball-Reference). There are al $WAR and $VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) that attempts to assign a dollar value for each WAR point for position players and pitchers.

    Defensive metrics have improved dramatically but two areas that have long concerned me are Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Out of Zone (OOZ) plays. Both are depended upon pitch type and defensive alignment being called by coaches. But I’ll leave it at that.

    I did not see the offseason maneuvering to get players a large contract. Oh, it existed, but I just did not see it as overwhelming. Granted I limit what I read and invariable stick to MLB Trade Rumors, but I concur a dramatic shift to the left with the cavalier dismissal of Curt Schilling and the ever-rising vote totals of Bonds and Clemens.

    Great article, Jack.

    • I’ve concluded Curt Schillings only actual mistake was despising sports writers and not hiding it. Frankly, I think Schill’s politics are a ruse when it comes to keeping him out of the HOF. He’s being punished for thinking sportswriters are, for the most part, lazy jerk jock wannabes in search of the buffet table who tell players how to play and how good or bad they are.

      • A few years ago at a local (Boston area) SABR meeting, I discussed what I have considered an untouched area in metrics with a few involved in the really advanced stuff – intangibles. We use that term all the time. Just what value do you place on an out that was the end result of an 11-pitch at-bat? Or a pitcher who “takes one for the team” Example: Several years ago Clay Buchholz was getting killed but stayed in – he volunteered for extra innings – to save the bullpen. I believe he gave up four more runs. But he gets killed on H/9, xFIP, ERA, WHIP, etc. I was told that there is examination of that and internally some teams actually have devised rubric’s on it. Your thoughts, Jack?

  4. “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”
    -Michael Crichton, who may have been an inconsistent writer, but did an impressive amount of actual research for his books

  5. A little confused here.

    Jack said this: the MLB cable channel put up a graphic justifying the contract by showing that Machado had a comparable WAR…to all-time greats like Willie Mays by the same age.

    Is the lie that they said that Manny had a similar WAR to Mays, who pre-dated WAR?

    Because you also say this: The chart was a lie, but you had to know something about baseball history and how they calculate a player’s WAR to realize it.

    Or is the lie that they are making a comparison of Manny’s actual WAR numbers to May’s “reverse-engineered” WAR.

    Because, as you suggest, if he had no WAR, it is a lie to claim he did. However, if they have come up with a WAR number for Mays, it is not really an apples and oranges comparison necessarily. It is just a problem that your data set for one is less complete, making the comparison less reliable.

    Or is the lie that we are talking about statistics in the first place.

    -Jut

    • Offensive WAR can be calculated in retrospect, because all the stats are there. Defensive WAR cannot. Estimates of the older players’ defensive WAR is per se misleading, because it can’t be “reverse-engineered.” How many times did Willie catch a ball no one else would have? We don’t know. We do know how many times Manny made a play on a sure hit with an average third-baseman.

      The lie is using flawed stats to “prove” what anyone who knows the players at all knows is impossible.

      Statistics are very useful in analyzing baseball, more than in any other sport.

  6. Machado had a comparable WAR … to all-time greats like Willie Mays by the same age.

    Leaving aside the technical issues in calculating WAR, this supposed fact is preposterous. Compare Machado’s WAR for the last three seasons to Mays’ at the same age:

    Age 23 – Machado 6.9 / Mays 10.6
    Age 24 – Machado 3.4 / Mays 9.1
    Age 25 – Machado 5.7 / Mays 7.6

    For those who aren’t familiar with WAR, Machado’s numbers are not even remotely comparable to Mays’:

    For Mays: 10.6 is a stupendous season, one that even the greatest stars seldom achieve; 9.1 is a MVP season in a normal year; and 7.6 is an MVP season in a weak year.

    For Machado: 6.9 and 5.7 are both all-star quality years, but far from MVP seasons; and 3.4 would qualify him as a solid starter but not an all-star.

    Another way of comparing them: So far, Machado’s best season ever was a 7.1 when he was 22 years old. At that age, Mays was in the Army, but in the next 13 years from age 23 through age 35, Mays’ lowest WAR was 7.6, which is to say that Mays never had a season that was even close to being as BAD as Machado’s BEST season.

      • I didn’t see the spot, so I’m just guessing. They might have compared Machado’s career WAR (33.8) to Mays’ s WAR through age 25 (33.5).
        Three facts work to the detriment of Mays: (1) it took him a year or so to work his way out of the mass of players who were moving from the Negro Leagues to the majors; (2) he lost almost two full season to military service; and (3) there’s a little convention that a player’s “age” in a season is as of June 30. Machado’s birthday is July 6, so he’s always among the youngest guys in his age group. The upshot is that about 900 of Machado is would becompared to about 600 games of Mays.

    • Good stuff…my mind closed down when the graphic went up, since the argument was so absurd. Then I just examined the defensive WAR issue, because Bill James had made the point in explaining why the stats made Andruw Jones seem better than he was.

  7. Yup.

    I thumbed through an issue of Newsweek years ago, when the cover was for an article called “Our Mutual Joy” and the premise was that the Bible was in favor of gay marriage.

    Regardless of what you think about it, that premise ain’t true. The article, by Newsweek’s official religion editor, Lisa Miller, was just pages of total bunk, including this statement: “nowhere in the Bible do its authors refer to sex between women.”

    Thought I, “well…that’s…just completely wrong.” Romans 1 says, “For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another…”

    That’s one of only a tiny handful of scriptures that directly mentions homosexuality…you’re writing an entire article about the Bible and homosexuality…and you get THAT wrong? (I didn’t know at the time that Newsweek had just come under new management and basically tossed out any pretense of journalism.)

    This is not going to get better. Intelligence, integrity and honesty cannot be imparted by college. You either want/have them or you don’t. At best, a university can teach principles, plain facts, and disciplines that can develop a person’s internal desire for goodness and truth as much as possible…but universities don’t even do that anymore. The entire culture has bought into the lie that any individual can be pumped through a college and will come out wise, qualified, and trustworthy (the diploma proves it!) This was never true, but it’s even less true now. If universal education happens, it won’t even be a little bit true. Graduation will be about as significant an achievement as having a birthday.

    Major media outlets are cranking out subpar, illogical, and dishonest content created by 20-somethings who didn’t learn anything helpful in college and who lack any sort of life experience. The next generation of aspiring journalists will have grown up reading THESE clowns.

    • And so we leave the realm of baseball, statistics and intelligent, meaningful discourse to travel off-planet to the universe of irrelevant homophobia . . . .

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