CHARLOTTE, NC: Buster Olney, a baseball analyst for ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight”, wrote a column recently about the changing face of baseball and how it is rapidly disappearing thanks to analytics, fears of slow play and the attitudes of players and managers alike.
Almost no broadcast of a baseball game passes these days without some comment about record numbers of strikeouts, walks and home runs dictating strategy.
Add in the panic in baseball management circles about finding ways to speed up the game along with the invasion of analytics and suddenly baseball has become unrecognizable. For a purest, analytics are the kudzu of baseball. They are a parasite which provides so much meaningless data that fans can no longer enjoy a hot dog and a beer without thinking about “launch angles” and “barrels.”
Let’s go back to the ole’ ball game
The game survived for more than a century without knowing how fast a line drive or a home run came off a bat. What difference does it make? Who cares?
As Olney points out,
“The game’s three true outcomes — the strikeout, the walk, the home run — have increased exponentially, and like invasive species, they are swallowing other parts of the game.”
Just because those elements have become standard fare, doesn’t necessarily mean the game has gotten better, however. Professional football is undergoing similar challenges with the increase in instant replays which are also interrupting the flow of the game, making the games far too long.
Let’s consider Aaron Judge
As Major League Baseball commentators will tell you, Judge, and other players as well, don’t care how many times they strike out so long as they hit mammoth home runs now and then to placate their fans.
Recently Judge struck out 8 times in a doubleheader. Sorry baseball fans but paying good money to watch him do that could just as easily be accomplished for free at any Little League field.
Using round numbers to keep things simple, let’s say Judge bats 500 times in a season and gets 50 home runs, 125 hits and strikes out 200 times.
That means Judge hit a home run 10% of the time, while striking out 60%. His batting average would have been .250.
As a batter who gets 1 hit in every 4 trips to the plate, if Judge had put the ball in play in each of those strikeouts, he would have had 50 more hits, or percentage-wise five more home runs. His batting average would also dramatically rise from .250 to .350 not counting the addition of the number of walks which would amount to even more time on base.
That seems pretty significant.
Now take into account how often Judge appears at the plate with a runner at third with less than two outs. If he strikes out, that plate appearance is wasted. If he makes contact, a potential run can score.
Finally, of the 50 home runs in Judge’s stats, which also account for 50 RBI, how many of those dingers came during games when the runs mattered? A solo home run in a 10-0 game is meaningless regardless of how far it is hit, how fast it came off the bat or if it had a launch angle to that would reach the moon.
In other words, facing Aaron Judge in a crucial situation in ten games with a top-notch pitcher on the mound is a gamble worth taking because percentages say he will more likely strike out than hit a long ball.
The Curse of the Bambino
Analytics are also changing baseball instinct. Had analytics been as dominant in 2004 as they are today, the Boston Red Sox might still be facing “the Curse of the Bambino.”
With 0 outs and Dave Roberts on first in the bottom of the ninth of a 4-3 game against the Yankees in the 20-04 ALCS, Roberts barely stole second.
Computer analytics would have probably voted that move down due to the risk. However, the Red Sox were facing baseball’s best closer in Mariano Rivera and the odds of getting two hits off Rivera to score a run from first were far greater than having three chances to get one hit and score from second. Boston gambled and won.
Third baseman Bill Mueller delivered a single, Boston tied the game and won it in extra innings and, in the process, became the first team in professional sports history to rally from 3 games down to win a 7 game series.
Obviously, that is only one case, but the point is that baseball has gotten along just fine for decades without diminishing how it is played.
As for speed up rules, some of the suggestions are so ridiculous they are laughable. If baseball wants to change its dynamic and ruin the game as we know it to speed it up, here are two more stupid suggestions:
Limit the number of foul balls after two strikes to three.
Reduce 3 strikes to 2 and see how fast a game will be played after that.
Stop tinkering and over-analyzing and let’s just “Play Ball!”
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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