I’ve got baseball on the brain today.
Baseball is awash in data. Aside from people who make a living out of disseminating and analyzing said data, who else pays attention? Just asking.
Anyone who wants to know has a means to know. And I mean everything. What happens on the field in major league baseball has been broken down into the most infinitesimal detail. Who does what on which counts. Where every batted ball has gone, and if it’s airborne, whether it can be categorized as a fly ball, line drive, or something in between. Though not yet as well-defined as the data concerning offense and pitching, defensive analysis is becoming increasingly sophisticated, although some of the defensive judgments are just that — judgments. Should so-and-so have caught that ball? Well, I don’t know. Was the wind blowing at that moment? Was it an opposite-field hit with the ball spinning away from the outfielder? That’s a judgment, isn’t it? And how can a judgment be incorporated fairly into creating a statistic?
All the new data is of surpassing interest to the brainiacs in baseball front offices and dugouts, and pretty much woe to the modern skipper who scoffs at the metrics. I think it’s safer to say the Danny Ozarks are gone. The highest compliment that could be paid to someone in Ye Olden Days was that he was a “good baseball man.” This meant that he had a knowledge of situations and perhaps little tell-tale things about players that could be brought into the discussion. When someone said that so-and-so was a “good baseball man,” the rest of us would nod our heads. We kinda knew what was meant.
You don’t hear that so much anymore. Being a good baseball man nowadays means a willingness to embrace the new numbers. We have come a long way since Dr. Charles Steinberg was preparing those little index cards for Earl Weaver, the ones that told him Lee May was 2 for 21 against this guy or that guy. No, I’m not making that up. That was the first step in Dr. Charles Steinberg, a dentist who loved baseball, becoming Charles Steinberg, front office man. Anyway, those little index cards gave Earl Weaver an edge.
Where I’m going with all this is that I’m wondering if all this, to borrow a phrase, Inside Baseball is just, well, Inside Baseball, of interest to the working baseball people and to the new breed of baseball writers and analysts who are perfectly comfortable micromanaging every game they encounter. I read some of these people, and, yes, I learn. But I feel like I have to follow them because I don’t want to be perceived as a baseball Luddite.
My question is, does the average person care? Is the average fan still content with batting average, runs batted in, and earned run average being the Holy Trinity of baseball stats, even though the modern Smart Guys have discredited all three? Oh, and — how could I forget? — wins. Speak not to the modern baseball analysts about a pitcher’s wins, those being the most circumstantial of pitching developments, at least in their eyes.
I’m guessing that most fans are oblivious to all the new statistical stuff. They just want to watch and enjoy a game. They will continue to evaluate players and teams by giving everyone the Eye Test, just as their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did. If this means they are then wallowing in some kind of statistical ignorance, then so be it. I think the average fan really didn’t understand the recent fuss over whether Miguel Cabrera was worthy of an MVP. He won the Triple Crown in 2012, didn’t he? Isn’t the Triple Crown supposed to be baseball’s crowning offensive achievement? Hadn’t we been waiting since 1967 to see another one? Of course, Miguel Cabrera was worthy of being MVP. Next question.
And didn’t he put up even better numbers last year? He should have been the MVP a second time, and he was.
But wait. The New Breed Stat Guys were apoplectic in both 2012 and 2013. They stopped short of declaring Cabrera a fraud, but they did say he was unworthy because, after all, he was out-WARPed by Mike Trout in both seasons, 10.9-7.3 in 2012 and 8.9-7.5 last season. End of story, as Tony Soprano might say.
For those of you old-timers who don’t know, WARP (or WAR), stands for “Wins Above Replacement Player,” and it is the be-all and end-all number for the New Breed Stat Guys. As defined in Baseball Prospectus (an indispensable preseason guide even diamond Luddites can enjoy), WARP attempts to quantify “the difference between the ‘replacement level’ (derived from looking at the quality of players added to a team’s roster after the start of the season) and the league average.” You are allowed to remain skeptical about its validity in my view, but the New Breed Stat Guys swear by it.
What ultimately matters is whether you can still appreciate a given baseball game. I wonder if the New Breed Stat Guys ever actually enjoy a game, because they are so obsessed with what the manager is or isn’t doing, based on the data in front of them. They’re often upset before the game even starts, because the lineup isn’t sufficiently stat-based. And God forbid the skipper who doesn’t properly handle what they have termed “high leverage” situations. Sometimes lost in all this is an appreciation of the aesthetics, whether it’s a great play in the hole by a shortstop or a snappy inning-ending 5-4-3 double play or a base runner cleverly taking an extra base. Or even a game-winning hit in the ninth inning if it happens to be delivered by someone other than the guy they thought should have been up at the plate. Sometimes the New Breed Stat Guys aren’t so good about accepting the vagaries of a very complex game.
On another baseball matter, somewhat related . . .
Defensive shifting is all the rage. People do it because it works, although it’s kind of irrelevant if one of the targets hits two home runs. It will be interesting to see what the effect will be in the long run, because the obvious answer to it is for lefthanded hitters, in particular, to be more conscious of hitting the ball the other way. I realize that for most people that is far easier said than done, but perhaps sufficient training in the minor leagues can produce a new generation of hitters.
All sports involve the need for constant adjustment, but this shifting business is a massive challenge that may take years to offset.
Goodness, gracious, how far ahead of his time was Lou Boudreau?
68 years, apparently.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.