TITLE: Baseball, Graphics, Patterns, and Simplicity AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 08, 2010 8:56 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I love these graphs. If you are a baseball fan or a lover of graphics, you will, too. Baseball is the most numbers-friendly of all sports, with a plethora of statistics that can extracted easily from its mano-a-mano confrontations between pitchers and batters, catchers and baserunners, American League and National. British fan Craig Robinson goes a step beyond the obvious to create beautiful, information-packed graphics that truths both quirky and pedestrian. Some of the graphs are more complex than others. Baseball Heaven uses concentric rings, 30-degree wedges, and three colors to show that the baseball gods smile their brightest on the state of Arizona. I like some of these complex graphs, but I must admit that sometimes they seem like more work than they should be. Maybe I'm not visually-oriented in the right way. I notice that many of my favorites have something in common. Consider this chart showing the intersection of the game's greatest home run hitters and the steroid era:
home run hitters and performance-enhancing drugs
It doesn't take much time looking at this graph for a baseball fanatic to sigh with regret and hope that Ken Griffey, Jr., has played clean. (I think he has.) A simple graphic, a poignant bit of information. Next, take a look at this graph that answers the question, how does baseball's winningest team fare in the World Series?:
win/loss records and World Series performance
This is a more complex than the previous one, but the idea is simple: sort teams by win/loss record, identify the playoff and World Series teams by color, and make the World Series winners the min axis of the graph. Who would have thought that the playoff team with the worst record would win the World Series almost as often as the the team with the best record? Finally, take a look at what is my current favorite from the site, an analysis of interleague play's winners and losers.
winners and losers in interleague play
I love this one not for its information but for its stark beauty. Two grids with square and rectangular cells, two primary colors, and two shades of each are all we need to see that the two leagues have played pretty evenly overall, with the American League dominating in recent years, and that the AL's big guns -- the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels -- are big winners against their NL counterparts. This graph is so pretty, I want to put a poster-sized print of it on my wall, just so that I can look at it every day. The common theme I see among these and my other favorite graphs is that they are variations of the unpretentious bar chart. No arcs, line charts with doubly-labeled axes, or 3D effects required. Simple colors, simple labels, and simple bars illuminating magnitudes of interest. Why am I drawn to these basic charts? Am I too simple to appreciate the more complex forms, the more complex interweaving of dimensions and data? I notice this as a common theme across domains. I like simple patterns. I am most impressed when writers and artists employ creative means to breathe life into unpretentious forms. It is far more creative to use a simple bar chart in a nifty or unexpected way than it is to use spirals, swirls of color, concentric closed figures, or multiple interlocking axes and data sources. To take a relationship, however complex, and boil its meaning down to the simplest of forms -- taken with a twist, perhaps, but unmistakably straightforward nonetheless -- that is artistry. I find that I have similar tastes in programming. The simplest patterns learned by novice programmers captivate me: a guarded action or linear search; structural recursion over a BNF definition or a mutual recursion over two; a humble strategy object or factory method. Simple tools used well, adapted to the unique circumstances of a problem, exposing just the right amount of detail and shielding us from all that doesn't matter. A pattern used a million times never in the same way twice. My tastes are simple, but I can taste a wide range of flavors. Now that I think about it, I think this theme explains a bit of what I love about baseball. It is a simple game, played on a simple form with simple equipment. Though its rules address numerous edge cases, at bottom they, too, are as simple as one can imagine: throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball, and run. Great creativity springs from these simple forms when they are constrained by simple forms. Maybe this is why baseball fans see their sport as an art form, and why people like Craig Robinson are driven to express its truths in art of their own. -----