Earlier this week, Tom Verducci wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated on the proliferation of home runs and strikeouts in MLB. While he doesn’t make an explicit claim, he hints at the premise: Analytics usage is changing baseball for the worse.
Verducci argues three true outcomes (home run, strikeout, walk) play creates “yawning gaps of nothingness” within games. Teams emphasize power at the expense of strategy (sacrifices, hit and run plays, stolen bases). Some may term those “plays less likely to make your baseball team win.” Deliberate sabermetric hitting makes games last longer, engendering ill-considered “pace of play” reforms.
I have some quibbles with that premise. I’m not sure a significant portion of the fanbase laments the rise of power hitting. (Gentlemen, will you please stop hitting so many home runs?) What brought baseball back after the 1994 strike was roided-up guys hitting dingers.
Nor are the pace of play changes unnecessary. I’d love living in a world where fans utilize play stoppages to discuss the finer points of baseball strategy. But if you sit in the crowd, that’s not happening. Fans aren’t talking about baseball. They aren’t talking. One has enough trouble prying people away from their smartphones during the game to avoid getting beaned by a foul ball.
— Christopher Horner (@Hornerfoto1) March 6, 2016
That’s not to say a pitch clock or other proposed tweaks will achieve anything. But the impetus to bring the sport into the modern entertainment era needs to be there. Four hours of sedate pastoral nostalgia is not pulling kids away from video games 160-plus nights per year.
Verducci does, however, touch on an operative point. Analytics makes teams perform better than conventional wisdom. But analytics is indifferent to entertainment, a prime concern for what is an entertainment product. Teams are getting more efficient. That does not mean efficiency is better to watch.
Sports must engage fans. Inherent to fan engagement is a working understanding of what’s happening in front of them. That’s true whether it’s the child fantasizing about running his favorite team, the adult arguing over a beer, the blogger, the fantasy sports player, or the degenerate gambler. Organized sports arose to facilitate betting on them.
The danger for baseball (and other sports) is not the lack of strategy. It’s too much strategy by inscrutable mandarins behind closed doors. As Keith Law points out in his book, Smart Baseball, we’re heading toward an era (if not there already) where competitive edge comes through marginal edges in data processing. Where does that leave fans?
“Sports Talk” has moved away from sports toward politics, hypotheticals, media spats, hot takes, and miscellaneous nonsense. That has happened because the reasoning behind what occurs on the field and in front offices is often beyond most fans’ comprehension. Why do we watch sports and track free agent moves if we can’t criticize them?
Accessibility is vital, especially for young fans trying to get into the sport. I cannot foresee my son being riveted in five years as I explain how MLB Statcast data led to precisely tailored defensive shifts. He’ll stare at me weirdly, go back to what he was doing, and probably not be all that interested in watching professional sports in 20 years.
Using analytics has clear benefits. Players, teams, and fans are smarter. Advances in knowledge get us closer and closer to true player evaluation. Better data may keep players healthy, a particular concern in MLB where teams break young pitchers like they are wedding gift glassware. That magical Chicago Cubs team that finally won a World Series was built top-down on analytics.
There’s no rewinding the clock on analytics in baseball or other sports. Teams aren’t in the business of getting dumber and less competitive (the New York Knicks excepted). But the goal of analytics usage is to compete, not to put forth the best entertainment product. Sports have changed and will continue to change because of analytics. It may not always be for the better.