Telling stories with data.

Jonah Keri writes about baseball for a living. For many of you, that alone is a disqualifying sin. And so, despite the fact that Keri is very good at his job, you’re not going to read any more of this post. That’s fair enough. But for those of you who care about the relationship between numbers and narrative, it’s worth taking some time — time not to read what I have to say, but to read what Keri writes (that link above is as good a place as any to start).

I say that because Keri seems to understands two things: first, that so-called advanced stats, data produced by an ascendant generation of sports analysts — many of whom toil in the long shadow of the great Bill James — who use numbers to paint a much clearer and more complete picture of athletic success and failure, and who, in the process, are changing the landscape of sports, can tell very powerful stories; and second, that traditional narrative remains incredibly compelling and can be enhanced by the inclusion of advanced stats.

In other words, Keri is using data, complex data generated by very smart people, as a complement to his storytelling chops, as a kind of plot point in his well-told tales, rather than as the protagonist in the yarns he spins. One can contrast what he’s doing to, say, Bill Barnwell, who, though also very talented, sometimes seems to use his articles like a bucket into which he pours as much data as he possibly can, until finally the advanced stats spill all over the floor. I think that style maybe works for truly dedicated stat heads, but it’s pretty difficult to read for people who are used to (and fond of) more traditional storytelling.

Anyway, the upshot is that Keri’s style may be an applicable model for historians who conceptualize themselves as social scientists, convinced of the power of data-driven analysis, but also as more traditional humanists, eager to tell a story that people will want to read.

Leave a Reply