At this point, we know that baseball is run by “analytics”. It is a bit of a broad concept meant to include everything that goes into evaluating players intelligently and efficiently: For advocates, it is meant to convey a broad set of data points that indicate which players are worth an organization’s time; For criminals, it’s a summary meant to disgrace “Ivy League nerds,” as I’ve seen frontline members call it. As we go through a largely uneventful offseason and push ourselves towards the 2021 season, which we hope will not face significant delays or cancellations, I can not believe how many fans continue to lob grenades on “analytics”.
The history of baseball is unique and contrasts with other sports; While many sports have a record book, and fans have some indications as to which players did what and when, baseball – and its fans – are religious about the statistics. It’s right now we’ve done it new statistics. As it turns out, things like stroke averages and races that are beaten in are not quite the strong calculations we thought they were for years. With the advent of various evaluation tools, such as wRC +, FIP and WAR, we are much better at measuring a player’s performance; In some cases, we are also much better at determining whether a player is actually a valuable resource that deserves a contract extension or large free agent money.
I think the grip with a heavy reliance on data is due to concerns about product on site. This is where I want to make a differentiation: Just because baseball is now played with the actual best players for the job, and because the game is more efficient than ever, does not mean it is not always boring. We have entered the age of the three true results, as it is called: Strikeout, walk, home run. While it’s sometimes fun to watch a starting pitcher cut up opponents late in the game, a lot of time on strike can be a tedious proposition. Trips are boring. When it comes to home runs, while many people like them, it sounds like more and more people prefer the “old” way of baseball industry: hitting, bundling, running and mixing in some triples. I myself would prefer that method much of the time. But that’s not where we are.
Those who want death by analysis, I have news for you: Our dependence on data is not diminishing; it just gets stronger. The next wave – and in many ways, the current wave – is biomechanics. Will those who are strongly opposed to deeper statistical analysis eventually part ways with their objections? It is hard to say. But once they have agreed and joined the “dark side” – or at least will endure the dark side – I will not be surprised if Greg Amsinger on MLB Tonight shows elaborate breakdowns of cast throwing mechanics in computer simulations. This is where the game is headed.
We have come to refer to baseball as a “thinking man’s (person’s) game”, and it becomes even more so; why is there such resistance? Instead of railing against the inevitable, let’s imagine solutions that can make the game more fun for the audience again. At The Athletic, Joe Posnanski had written an article about what the former front officer leadership Theo Epstein should do next. He concluded that a new position was established for the intelligent, analytically knowledgeable Epstein, and gave him the responsibility to modernize the product on the spot in a way that is both enjoyable and compatible with the game’s current state, as well as the future of it.
IN Washington Nationals’ case, a current, relevant example of a guy that analytics liked, is the recently retired end hero Howie Kendrick. The 15-year-old veteran did not have the typical make-up of a guy that analytics prefers in some ways, but he hit the ball hard, something the National Analysis Department noted. By making a smart, computer-informed decision, Washington brought in the player who, unaware of them at the time, would be a major driving force in finally bringing a World Series title to the country’s capital. There is a fairly long list of players who credit a shift in approach thanks to analyzes of their on-site production, especially for checkouts.
Despite all this, we have dissatisfied fans who take to Twitter to air their complaints. Admittedly, these angry types may be a vocal minority, but still the mess is spilled. It’s one thing when the average tab decides to ridicule the shift the game has taken – it’s another when players (and usually former players) decide to do so. The driving force behind this article was something I saw earlier Detroit Tiger Brandon Inge tweet about.
In a video where an apt coach talks to his player about hitting line drives and being able to hit the ball both in front and deep, Inge interprets it as a diatribe against informed hits. Inge says, “This is how 99% of the best MLB hitters do it !! Study this and forget the ridiculous launch angle thoughts! Compete !!! What Inge fails to understand here is that teaching a player to hit line drives is not contradictory to an analytical or “launch angle” approach – do not remember that Inge treats the launch angle not as a data point, but as an approach. Coaches do not teach launch angle because it is not a teachable item. Changing other parts of the turn results in a change in the launch angle, not the other way around. It is not the case that the coach asked the player to hit the ball on the ground; that would be the opposite of the new approach to strike.
Finally, our data points must be correct in some sense, because when they are sorted by these calculations that someone mocks, the undisputed best hitters still appear at the top of the list. Ted Williams is still there, Babe Ruth is still there, Barry Bonds is still there. What the front offices are doing with this approach does not devalue previous greats; What they do is form a more comprehensive understanding of what these players did, and try to figure out what qualities modern players share with them. As Carl Sagan said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” Just as science changes, so must our understanding of baseball to paint a better picture of the past.
When colleges like the University of Pennsylvania write articles about baseball, it’s one good things, not a bad thing.
So, instead of focusing on how bad the game is due to “analysis”, let’s try to come to conclusions about what to do next time to make the sport better.