17 June 2010

Baseball Magic and Sabermetrics: A Research Agenda

 George Gmelch's article "Baseball Magic" is justly renowned. You may have heard about its central conclusion, which is that baseball superstitions vary rationally with the positions players are in: pitchers are always superstitious, but fielders are only superstitious when they are hitting, since fielding success depends more on skill than does success in either hitting or fielding.

Yet for all the stark beauty of Gmelch's theory it remains tested only by qualitative evidence. Accordingly, quantitative social scientists should unite with sabermetricians to devise new ways of measuring both the essential validity of Gmelch's theory and also the analytical foundations. In particular, science must know: Do fielders actually behave normally when they're fielding and like Pacific Island fishermen when they're at bat? Does superstition vary with team effects or park effects? And, most crucially: which fetish is the most successful?

The last question may not be valid social science, but it might be valuable to MLB players--especially if provided them by consultants armed with graphs and impenetrable white papers. Social scientists are well placed to provide this service.

(Creative Commons image by DeusXFlorida.)

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