The Real Problem With Baseball
Joel Sherman is one of the really good baseball guys out there. I readily admit that I disagree with him a lot -- and, plainly, he disagrees with me a lot -- but it's fun to disagree with Joel, because I know he's coming at every argument with passion and energy and honest intentions. He's saying what he thinks. And he loves baseball.
So, I can tell you without fear of offending him personally that I profoundly disagree with just about everything in this column.
And I even more profoundly disagree with Miami Marlins announcer Glenn Geffner's retweet of said article.
I would rather not sum up Joel's piece, because you should read it in full. But I guess you might not, so let me give you a quick, three-pronged summation of Joel and Glenn's baseball jujitsu:
1. Joel (and presumably Glenn) concede that baseball's more advanced statistics are much smarter than the old statistics, and teams are right for chasing new knowledge.
2. Joel (and presumably Glenn) thinks that the growing irrelevance of old stats, such as wins and RBIs, is hurting the game, because those stats were a connecting point between fans and baseball. He writes about his own love (and his father's love) of the chase for 200 hits or 100 RBIs, the lifelong chase of 3,000 hits or 300 wins, and how important and special it was to keep up with such achievements. Joel believes that advanced stats like FIP and WAR and the like might be more accurate and useful, but they do not fill such needs.
3. Glenn takes this one step further, saying that baseball is making it harder for new fans to come aboard to this increasingly more complicated world of baseball statistics and analysis.
I intensely disagree with all this (and particularly the last part) on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin.
So I'll begin here: Baseball has had a substantial downturn in attendance in 2018. This has led to a flurry of "Why is baseball dying?" stories, which is what happens every single time baseball attendance has a downturn. It has been happening for, no kidding, more than 100 years. There were stories in 1918 about baseball no longer fitting the fast pace of America.
This is not to downplay the current threat. Baseball attendance IS down substantially. There is a growing feeling of distance between some people and the game. It could be because of the rise in strikeouts. It could be because of pace of play and other fundamental flaws in the game. It could be because tickets are so expensive. It could be because it has been a bad weather year (more on this in a minute). It could be because of the lack of parity; half the teams in baseball are hopeless. It could be because of defensive shifts, too many pitchers, length of games, lack of action or, as Joel writes, because the game has lost its connection with the statistics that engaged and thrilled fans for so many years.
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It's surprising how many of these stories have the phrase "the real reason" in it. You'll see that phrase, or some version of it, in a lot of headlines, including the one on this blog. Everybody seems to be nailing down "the real reason." But are they?
A friend brought up a very good point to me the other day: Have you tried the How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown thing at The New York Times? Really, really interesting.
Let's take 1975 as an example, and look at how many 90-degree days there were then and now.
Cleveland in 1975: One 90-degree day. Today: 4 days.
New York in 1975: 7 days. Today: 11.
Washington in 1975: 14 days. Today: 30.
St. Louis in 1975: 32 days. Today: 44.
Atlanta in 1975: 29 days. Today: 51.
Los Angeles in 1975: 56. Today, 67.
You get the picture. Watching baseball in 90-plus-degree weather is pretty miserable. Who wants to sit outside in that kind of heat for anything? This is my friend's argument. We talk about attendance being down, but local baseball telecasts are the No. 1-rated cable show in every single baseball market except for Miami. In more than one-third of the markets, baseball is the No. 1 show on television, period, including network. Baseball is being watched more on a day-to-day basis than at any point in the history of the game.
And yet: Attendance is down. Hmm.
The REAL problem, my friend says, is that baseball has not adapted to the warmer weather and still expects most fans to sit outside, even as the heat grows more and more scorching.
See how easy it is to come up with a cockamamie theory and just write it confidently? I have absolutely no idea if this theory holds any water whatsoever, but it sounds plausible. Most of the theories sound plausible. Joel and Glenn's theory sounds plausible.
But I think Joel and Glenn's theory is ludicrous for two reasons, one which I think is much more important than the other. First, I'll give you my less-important reason: Is there really a shortage of talk about those decrepit stats like the RBI? I keep hearing about how they're disappearing from the game. All I know is that every baseball broadcast -- radio or television -- is SWAMPED with that stuff. Every announcer talks about that stuff. Game stories are filled with that stuff. Talk radio hosts blab incessantly about it. Ex-baseball players never stop talking about that stuff.
Brian Kenny is just one man.
Was it not a big deal when Derek Jeter or Adrian Beltre reached 3,000 hits? Yeah, it was a big deal. It was a big deal when Albert Pujols hit his 600th home run (even though the home run stat is tied up in a whole different controversy). Jacob deGrom's lousy win-loss record is a big deal. It sure seems to me that 3,000 hits or 300 wins are still an automatic Hall of Fame ticket, unless PED suspicions interfere. Our lives as baseball fans are bludgeoned with old-fashioned stats. True, there is some mockery of them here in the bloggy world, on Twitter, in various groups, and yes, MVPs are no longer given to RBI leaders, Cy Youngs no longer given to the guy with the most wins. But the Joel/Glenn line makes it seem as if those stats have been thrown in the incinerator. They sure seem to be everywhere I turn.
Now, you can argue -- and maybe this is implicit in Joel's argument -- that the game of baseball ITSELF moves away from these statistics to its detriment. I can see the argument there, not so much for wins, but maybe for stolen bases or triples or complete games, things that many fans liked but are not nearly as much a part of the game today. I have a lot of thoughts about that. But I do think that's something else entirely.
The second reason -- and I really think this is directed more toward Glenn than Joel -- is that the very idea that old stats could bring in new fans is... well, I want you think about this for a minute. You're telling me that kids who grew up designing full playbooks on Madden NFL, who are drawn to ever-more-complex breakdowns of the NBA, who delve deep into the engineering of Formula One cars and the geometric possibilities of soccer formations, you're telling me that THOSE KIDS are going to be drawn to counting down dusty stats like 20 wins or 100 RBIs?
And this is my biggest beef -- I think the Joel/Glenn argument is not just wrong, it's diametrically wrong. I think that clinging to horse-and-buggy statistics is exactly what might make baseball feel old and doddering to a new generation of fans.
You might know that over at Passions in America we are studying passion, and one theme we have seen again and again is how quickly something can go from Nostalgic to Just Old to Irrelevant. It's a huge error that companies make all the time -- they mistake nostalgia for a business model. They choose tradition over their customers' wishes and cravings. They forget that the reason they had success in the first place is that their product was once exciting, new, thrilling, it got the heart racing.
I have a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots game on my bookshelf. I love it. But I didn't play Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots as a kid because it sparked feelings of youth or because it prompted memories of a simpler time. It was the best and coolest game available. It was cutting-edge toy technology. It's now a piece of junk. I still have feelings for it, but toys are just much better today.
So it goes for baseball statistics. Counting RBIs or wins was exciting because it was still the best method we had for calculating baseball value and determining the best players. That's no longer true, something Joel himself says repeatedly in his column. I can understand how older people who grew up with wins and RBIs as the end-all might feel put off by baseball's turn to more in-depth and revealing and complicated statistics. In many ways, this is a bigger story, as so many of us try to make our way in an increasingly bewildering world.
But I would argue that baseball needs to embrace change in a much, much, much bigger way. I'll tell you this: I watched a baseball game on television this week -- I'm not going to say which one -- and it blew my mind how much it sounded like a game from a quarter century ago, how old-fashioned the stats were, how the announcers kept trotting out clichés and platitudes that probably would have sounded hackneyed 25 years ago. I thought about my kids and their friends, and how boring this would be to them -- not the game, but the presentation of the game. They're being given immersive experiences throughout their lives now. They're being given the opportunity to dive deep into whatever world they want -- fashion, music, film, engineering, programming, esports. Their minds work on multiple planes. They're multitaskers. They're interested in authenticity.
You think baseball is going to court new fans by engaging them on the power of WINS and RBIs and BATTING AVERAGE?
I'll end this with the words of our friend Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets, baseball fan and someone who believes deeply in embracing the new.