Chapter 2: The Analytics Age
Second installment in our State of Baseball series.
How does baseball compare to when you were young?
The game is more enjoyable today: 34.5% The game is about the same as it was then: 39.5% The game is less enjoyable today: 26.0% (Fox Sports/Joe Blogs survey)
Maybe you've heard my 10-year-old baseball theory: It's that baseball is never as good as it is when you're 10 years old.
I was 10 in 1977. That was a bit of an outlier year in baseball -- it was the only season between 1951 and 1987 in which hitters slugged .400 collectively. Apparently, there was something goofy about the baseballs. Anyway, lots of interesting stuff happened. Rod Carew threatened .400 before falling off to .388. George Foster mashed 52 home runs. Tom Seaver got traded to the Big Red Machine, Ron Guidry just showed up and was kind of unhittable, Bobby Bonds had his fourth 30 homer-30 stolen base season, the Yankees and the Dodgers met in the World Series like it was the 1950s all over again.
Duane Kuiper hit .277 with a career-high 62 runs scored, 169 hits, 8 triples, 50 RBIs and, yes, 1 home run.
Magical season. I will spend the rest of my life comparing baseball to THAT baseball, when players and baseball bats were interchangeably thin, when uniforms were constructed with the cheapest polyester, when Howard Cosell droned on about whatever on Monday Night Baseball, when so many of the games were played on Astroturf, when we still called stuff Astroturf, when teams averaged five strikeouts per nine innings, and when 100 RBIs and 20 wins told you who were the real stars.
Was that baseball better than today's baseball?
Only in my heart.
[caption id="attachment_24231" align="aligncenter" width="275"] You can't beat baseball in 1977.[/caption]
But ... my heart counts. Your heart counts. That's the great thing about baseball. Yes, baseball is MUCH better today than it was in 1977. Pitchers throw much harder, and hitters hit the ball much harder, and fielders somehow cover more ground in less time, and ballparks are cathedrals, and television offers every imaginable camera angle, and the food is so much tastier. Baseball doesn't seem better. Baseball IS better, in countless quantifiable ways.
That doesn't mean that baseball is more enjoyable for you or me, though. That's something personal.
So we asked: Is baseball more enjoyable to watch now than it was when you were young?
About a third said yes, it is better.
About 40 percent said that it's about the same.
And a little more than a quarter said that baseball is not as enjoyable as it used to be. An even higher percentage of those 55 and older -- about 35% of them -- said the game was less enjoyable.
It's the group of people who find baseball less entertaining that's particularly interesting to me. We asked them: Why is the game not as much fun for you now? We gave them a dozen or so options and asked them to check as many boxes as they liked.
Two issues jumped to the top of the list:
-- 41.4% said that the game is less enjoyable because the pace of play is too slow.
OK, that's not a surprise. We'll get into the pace-of-play issue in a future chapter.
-- 41.4% also said that the game is less enjoyable because analytics choke the joy out of the game.
And that's something of a surprise, at least to me. But because Fox did this poll, and they actually know what they're doing with polling, we were able to drill down into the numbers.
Ages of people who said that analytics are choking the life out of the game:
18-24: 25% 25-34: 33.3% 35-54: 30.9% 55 and older: 53.8%
Whew, look at that oldest bracket -- an age bracket that I will be hitting in three years. These are the people who are most likely to tell you that the game is becoming less fun, and for them, the proliferation of analytics is BY FAR the biggest problem in the game. Pace of play (42.9%), teams using too many pitchers (41.8%) and the de-emphasis on starting pitching (38.5%) were the next three, and they weren't especially close.
I think this polling offers a fascinating insight into where baseball is today. Maybe you've wondered -- I certainly have wondered -- why most television announcers (there are exceptions) and many baseball writers still build their broadcasts and stories around old-time statistics such as batting average and pitcher wins and RBIs when there are so many more interesting and revealing statistics to use. It's jarring, after spending so much time reading the cutting-edge commentary on FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus or Statcast, to turn to a broadcast and hear people say stuff like, "His ERA doesn't reflect the fact that this guy's a gamer!" or "[Left fielder X] has made only one error all year -- he's as good as you get out there."
I've generally thought that the reason came down to time and convenience -- new stats need explanation and context, so it's hard to introduce them, and for the flow of the game it's probably better to just move on without them.
But I now think about what one broadcaster told me: "People absolutely don't want the new stuff. They hate the new stuff."
I'm thinking: He might be right -- as long as we make it "SOME people." A rather large segment of the population -- mostly older, but not always older -- really doesn't want all these new analytics. You and I can say that the new analytics are so much BETTER than the one ones, so much more revealing, so much deeper, so much more thoughtful. Sure. But like the difference between 1970s baseball and today's baseball, "better" is not necessarily what we're talking about.
We're talking about the heart.
I think a lot about the old Cleveland broadcaster Herb Score, and how he used to avoid offering strategic guidance during broadcasts. He wouldn't say, "Well, this is a bunt situation," or "The manager will probably bring in the lefty to face the lefty." When asked why, he said, "Well, that's for a father to tell his son."
That was such a sweet thought -- father telling his son, mother telling her daughter, cross-reference -- that I've never forgotten it. I could visualize that, parent and child listening to the game on the radio, parent explaining the game. And it never really occurred to me that these new stats, well, they might encroach on that sacred passing down of baseball. My father taught me how to figure both batting average and ERA. It would be a lot trickier to teach my daughters how to calculate wOBA and FIP.
It would be a whole lot less fun if the parent felt like, "I used to know the game, but I don't really understand it now."
So, yes, I can see why these new stats for some can make the game feel more distant, less tangible somehow. We grew up believing in RBIs, and now you're saying they don't reveal much? We grew up believing in pitcher wins, and now you're trying to get rid of them? Why are you taking my game away from me? Why are you using all this computer stuff to move the shortstop into right field, and why have you taken ground ball singles up the middle away, and why have you outlawed the bunt, and why won't you let guys steal bases and go for triples and do the risky stuff that made the game fun?
I get it.
But here's the conundrum. The above is undoubtedly true of many older baseball fans (and some younger ones).
However, many younger baseball fans (and some older ones) are DRAWN to the game because of the advanced stats. For us, these stats open new worlds, give us a deeper understanding of what we're watching, allow us to spend countless joyful hours pondering which starting pitchers had the lowest FIP numbers of the 1970s.*
*FIP -- Fielding Independent Pitching -- analyzes pitchers based on how many batters they struck out, how many batters they walked and how many home runs they allowed. It's weighted so that it scales with ERA. It's really cool because it focuses in on those three areas where a pitcher has the most control.
The best FIP seasons of the 1970s:
Tom Seaver, 1971, 1.93 (second in Cy to Fergie Jenkins)
Stever Carlton, 1972, 2.01 (Cy Young)
Don Sutton, 1971, 2.16 (no Cy votes)
Ron Guidry, 1978, 2.19 (Cy Young)
Vida Blue, 1971, 2.20 (Cy Young and MVP)
J.R. Richard, 1979, 2.21 (third in Cy to Bruce Sutter)
Don Sutton, 1972, 2.24 (fifth in Cy, to Carlton)
Bob Gibson, 1970, 2.29 (Cy Young)
Bert Blyleven, 1973, 2.32 (seventh in Cy, to Jim Palmer)
Tom Seaver, 1975, 2.35 (Cy Young)
And, if we're being honest, each kind of baseball fan feels frustration consuming the game through the other's lens. We know that anti-saber types get ultra annoyed by WAR and Win Shares and the rest, and we know that saberheads get at least as annoyed having to endure ballplayers talking about baseball in old-school ways that no longer seems relevant. You have people on all sides rolling their eyes, one side when the talk revolves around launch angles and spin rates, the other when baseball talk revolves around clutch-hitting or heart.
So what does the future look like if -- at least for now -- people enjoy baseball through different prisms? Well, we might have seen a little bit of that future with a little experiment that ESPN tried last year, the StatCast Broadcast, with my friends Mike Petriello, Jason Benetti and Eduardo Perez.
We asked a question about that too:
Thinking about the Statcast broadcast, which of the following best expresses your opinion?
A brilliant concept/I liked it a great deal: 21.4% Better than the usual info available on an MLB broadcast: 35.6% Not interesting to me: 17.6% I'm not aware of it: 25.5%
Pretty fascinating, right? More than 50% of baseball fans polled liked or loved the Statcast broadcast. And most of the rest simply had not heard of it.
That's telling, I think. Sure, it might have been the novelty of the thing that excited people; maybe after a while, everyone would get sick of it. But I don't think so. I think the biggest market, right now, is for traditional baseball broadcasts. There will be a lot more about baseball on television in a future chapter.
But I think there really is a growing audience for a new kind of broadcast, particularly on national games.
Here's what I think happens in the next few years: As it becomes more viable (with rights fees and network responsibilities in mind), I think the national networks will start offering multiple options for baseball fans. It will be like the SAP button to watch a broadcast in Spanish. I think there will be a more traditional broadcast (the vast majority will watch that) and then more statistically bent broadcasts for those who want something else. There will be digital options along those lines as well.
Where will it all lead? That's a wide-open question. With new technologies measuring everything from exit velocity to the precision of an outfielder's route to the ball to the ability of catchers to frame a ball into a strike, we know that how we consume baseball will not stay the same. For some, that's daunting. For others, it's endlessly exciting.
And this is another tightrope for baseball to walk. I do believe that advanced statistics will be an entry-point for young fans raised on complex video games and intuitive gadgetry. And I do believe that what draws many other fans is that connection to the past, to childhood, when the game felt big and bright and a 20-win season meant the world and Steve Garvey wrote "200" in his glove and then went out and got 200 hits every year.
Finding a way for baseball to be what it has long tried to be -- the ultimate shared experience -- that's the challenge.