Batting Average on Balls in Play

The party last night was great — I’m not a party person, but we made it out alive, without crying in a corner or spilling beer on a rare book, so chalk it up as a win.  I didn’t think to bring a camera, so there will be no pictures, unless Red Hen posts them on Facebook, but there was a good turnout, a merry atmosphere, plenty of interesting small talk, free wine, good music…  Just an overall nice night.

I wasn’t really thinking of the party as a place to sell books, more just a place to show them off, but we sold well, too — as many copies as we sell in two days at the AWP.  Everywhere I go with a selection of issues, it’s the same.  With a list of interviews and features like these, the magazine sells itself. (Which is good, because I’m no salesman.)

I was talking to someone about acceptance rates — a topic which often comes up in settings like this — and it occurred to me how poetic success works a lot like baseball.  A few years ago I used baseball as a metaphor to lament the lack of an amateur/professional split within the poetry world: no one thinks they have to be a major leaguer to have fun taking hacks at the batting cage, but for some reason the idea of being an amateur poet and having fun in the same way with words strikes us as embarrassing.  In wishing poetry acted more like baseball, I didn’t realize a way that it already does.

Baseball’s often been called a game of failure.  If you fail 70% of the time, that means you’re a .300 hitter, which is what everyone strives for — fail 70% of the time for 20 years and you might make it into the Hall of Fame.  What’s more, there’s not a whole lot of difference between a .300 hitter going to the all star game, and a .200 hitter headed back to the minor leagues.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find it on YouTube, but there’s a scene in Bull Durham, where Crash explains that the difference between him and a major league hitter is one bloop single a week.  And it’s true.  Ty Cobb holds the record for the highest career batting average, at .367 (meaning he failed to get a hit 63.3% of the time).  The record for lowest career batting average is Bill Bergan’s .179 (82.1% failure) a century ago.  In a season of 600 at bats, the difference between Cobb’s high and Bergan’s low would be 113 hits — 4 hits a week, and you’re playing every day.

How does this relate to poetry?  Well, I was in an online community a few years ago that focused on tracking submissions — everyone posted their acceptances and rejections in a friendly and supportive environment.  Poets of all ages and publication histories.  The shocking result was that everyone had an acceptance rate somewhere between 5% and 30%, and most were very close to the mean 15%.  You’d think poets with books published and tenure-track teaching jobs and literary connections would run circles around the high school seniors in AP English, but you’d be wrong.  The difference on average was only a couple hits a month — so the best indicator of success wasn’t how big your bio was, or even how good your poems seemed to be, but rather simply how often you submit.

There’s a relatively new principal that baseball purists haven’t accepted yet, but statisticians like Tangotiger have demonstrated repeatedly.  Once a baseball is hit into play, there’s nothing the batter can do, really, to change the outcome.  A batter can effect the number of balls not hit into play, by striking out (bad) or hitting home runs (good), but once you hit the ball where someone can catch it, the only thing you’ve got left is chance.  This is counter-intuitive, because some batters hit the ball harder than others, and it seems obvious that hard line drives are more difficult to catch than pop-ups, but statistically, that difference is negligible.  So if you take a player’s batting average and subtract out the at bats that became home runs or strikeouts, you get a stat called Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which amounts to a measure of how lucky you’ve been.  If you’re BABIP is higher than the league-average, you can count yourself lucky, and nothing more.  And since we all know that there’s no such thing as luck, other than a human’s interpretation of chance, we know that your luck isn’t going to last.

What I’d like to posit here is that the same principal applies to submissions of poetry.  Sure, the quality of the poems seems like it should matter, but poetic taste is so subjective that once you drop your envelope into the mailbox, success is entirely out of your control, and is nothing more than a chance display of an editor’s whim.  If you’re well-known and frequently published, some editors will publish you for that reason alone (you hit a home run), and some editors will ignore you unless you have a nice CV (you strikeout).  But removing those factors, everyone has the same BABIP.  Or at the least (and yes, it’s depressing to say this), the actual quality of the writing is statistically negligible.

As a poetry editor, this is a very difficult concept to accept — reading submissions, it seems very obvious which poems deserve to be published and which don’t.  But the counter-intuitive evidence is very strong.  Not only do we have the statistics from my online group, but there’s also the universal experience of having editors choose the “worst” poem from a packet as the one they’d like to publish.  This happens to everyone, and happens to me all the time — when I put together a submission packet, I including at least one “golden” poem that I really love, and then fill out the remaining 5 or so selections with dreck from the indifferent bin.  And as often as not, when acceptance letters come, it’s for the dreck.  Removing my own subjective editorial opinion from the equation, there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to another editor’s taste.

I can’t come to my conclusion without mentioning one potential caveat — there is an inherent normalizing factor within any body of acceptance data.  Poets who have had more success are naturally going to shoot increasingly higher on the ladder of “prestigious markets.”  Once you’ve published a good number of poems, you no longer bother sending work to magazines you’ve never heard of — you start submitting to the heavy hitters and nowhere else, which lowers your acceptance rate.  Conversely, novice submitters tend to submit more often to the fledgling journals, where their odds are going to be higher.

But so what?  I’d argue that what’s really being normalized are your home run and strikeout rates.  When I submit poems to the Podunk Review (Googled to make sure that’s just a hypothetical journal so as not to offend anyone), I say I’m the editor of Rattle and they say, “Wow!”  I hit a home run at the Podunk.  I submit the same packet to Poetry, say I’m the editor of Rattle, and they say, “So?”  I strike out in the bigger market.  No matter where I send the poems, my BABIP is the same.

And that’s the lesson here.  Your BABIP is always going to be the same; you’re going to fail 85% of the time, more or less, and that’s part of the game.  If you enjoy the game, play it — and keep playing it.  You’ll never get a hit unless you keep stepping up to the plate.