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Meta-Blogging: On Baseball Writing

Did anyone read Jeff Passan's take on the Pirates from a couple days ago?

Two years into the Neal Huntington regime, the Pirates have indeed changed. They are a new variation on an old kind of suck, of course, but at least fans get a whole new set of players to boo. The Pirates will almost certainly spend their record 18th consecutive season under .500, as no long-term fix exists from within and no short-term fix is available for the dollars given to Huntington. So goes his handicap: general manager of a franchise whose greatest ally is hope. Sure, the Pirates could rock a particularly good draft – though going safe with catcher Tony Sanchez fourth overall last year is the sort of low-risk maneuver that doomed past Pittsburgh regimes – but come on. These are the Pirates, futile as ever, and down here is where they belong.

I don't know why this makes me so angry, and I think generally Passan makes a lot more sense than most people who try to write about all 30 teams, but--who is this written for? I don't think anyone really cares what Jeff Passan's take on the Pirates is except Pirates fans, and so the only ones who really care, at the end of the day, about that unbelievably dismissive remark about the Bucs being in the cellar "where they belong" is people like us. Now, it would be useless to deny that the Pirates are bad, but there are ways of saying so without being dismissive for its own sake.

And if one must be dismissive, it surely helps to also be saying something that's important and true, which Passan isn't. In fact, the bit about Sanchez obscures things considerably. When taken in the context of the entire draft, the Sanchez move was downright bold--the Pirates were trusting their opinion that none but the most exciting pitching prospects were worthy of their money and the fourth overall pick. Given the dicey track records of first-round pitchers of all stripes, this is an opinion that is well supported by empirical evidence, but one that (for whatever reason) most teams have been reluctant to adopt. In picking Sanchez instead, the Pirates angered most of their remaining fanbase, which is surely not a low-risk thing to do. They then picked up a number of pitchers in the late rounds for well-above-slot bonuses, quietly spending much more in the draft than most other teams did. Drafting Sanchez and then picking up guys like Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, Trent Stevenson and Jeff Inman in the late rounds is not a low-risk strategy, or at least it is not a low-upside strategy, which is what's most important. 

That's the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, it takes more than a sentence to explain (as would a serious counterargument about why the Pirates' draft strategy was in fact bad; the side Passan took is not really the point), so it's no good for someone like Passan, who'd rather fudge something in the pursuit of a pithy, snarky little blurb. 

Like I said, though, Passan is hardly the world's worst offender in this regard. He's just the one who happens to be annoying me right now.

Writing is a weird profession. Most people who do it are schooled in writing (or in nothing at all) and not, y'know, whatever it is they're writing about. I've been writing about the Pirates most days for the better part of six years, and what I do is still an abstraction--I've never played baseball for a living, I don't know the players personally. I live in California and watch games and little clips of minor leaguers on my computer. If I'm lucky I'll see the team live a couple times a year. That's weird, and I'd like to think I'm one of the people who tries hard to get things right. I really try hard to check my facts, and admit when I get things wrong, and to avoid shortcuts that might improve my writing style but that miss the truth. Sometimes I fail--the speed of blogging encourages failure--but I think I try harder not to than most, and I've been writing about the same team for a very long time, so at least on a basic level, I do know what I'm talking about. A lot of other Pirate bloggers who've been around for a while, like Pat Lackey and Matt Bandi, do too.

In contrast, I know someone who is paid to write product reviews for a website, and he recently told me that on at least one occasion, he wrote a review of a product he had never used--he just went to the customer reviews of the product on Amazon, and rewrote bits of them. And as anyone with a band will tell you, an amazing percentage of CD reviews will just compare a band to whichever other bands they name-checked on their press release. This kind of thing happens all the time, and so when it's a few days before Opening Day and a bunch of people who never write about the Pirates suddenly show up with their little content-free blurbs that show no evidence of serious forethought, it's entirely fair for people like you and me to shrug our shoulders and say, "Yes, but... what do you know?"

The internet is a funny place, but at least most people know that when they go to some random blog, they have to find their own ways of judging its credibility. What has long mystified me is that people who write for established institutions (who get paid more than a few bucks a day and should have some sort of professional investment in writing well) are often just as hit-or-miss, particularly when they're writing about something they don't cover regularly. They're writing to fill space. Opening Day certainly brings a lot of these sorts of people out of the woodwork, but they're around us all the time. The ridiculous baseball opinion writing in the Post-Gazette makes someone like Jeff Passan look downright circumspect.

Whatever. I've been frustrated about this for a while, both for baseball and non-baseball-related reasons. But I should mention here that the Post-Gazette's announcement that they're about to move the PBC Blog to a pay-to-read format could not have been better timed. I don't always agree with Dejan Kovacevic, but he is a writer who works hard to get things right. And he has access to the team, and he uses it well--rarely do I read one of his articles and wonder about some important question that he left unanswered. A writer who can and will do what Kovacevic does is rare indeed. The paper's baseball opinion pieces may be awful, but what Kovacevic does is well worth paying for, and I know I'll be among the first to place my order once the transition is made.