Recently on these pages, a new stat was introduced to followers that apparently is “all that” in ranking pitchers. Over the past decade, sabermetrics and sabermetricians have become as popular as flies on a cow’s tail, and while many of those stats may have merit, those of us old schoolers are often pessimistic, skeptical and hesitant.
It all started with the Oakland A’s and Moneyball, but has taken the baseball world by storm. Most recently, the stats came home to Houston with the Jeff Luhnow train and created new non-traditional positions in the front office.
With the stats available today, it’s almost possible to know how many times a player blinks between pitches and how many times he thinks about going to the bathroom on a 2-2 count in a night game with the roof open. But this is America’s past time. It’s different from any other sport, the only game where managers where uniforms and where every field has different dimensions. Umm, and the only game without a clock.
Now, I’m quite sure I’ll start a fray, and I’m prepared to take the hits. Before I delve into the abyss, though, let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that teams shouldn’t use everything at their disposal, including stats, data and technology. But where is the old school hunch from a manager who spent time getting to know the players, their tendencies, their psyche and makeup? Baseball has become something of an automaton. I fear that soon balls and strikes will be the job of 5-6 cameras, taking away one of the final “judgment” calls in the game we have come to love.
As some pointed out in Luhnow’s early days, he didn’t get to know the players, it was all about the numbers. Now, in the last couple of years, his tactics and approach have, in many ways, been borne out while he seemingly has also put a more human face on his position.
But consider this. Back in the 1988 World Series, would Tommy Lasorda have inserted Kirk Gibson into the lineup against Dennis Eckersley if he’d had all the stats, matchups and sabermetrics at his fingertips? Closer to home, remember the OMG Homer? In that scenario, would Brad Lidge have ever seen the mound in that crazy playoff game in 2005 if Jeff Luhnow had been in charge?
The sabermetricians seemingly take the game out of baseball, if that makes sense. They remove the mystique and the old-style strategy of two managers matching move for move based on something they saw during batting practice or a player simply saying “coach, I got this!” or some little twitch from a pitcher that gives away a particular pitch.
Okay, maybe a little over the top, but you get the point. Where is the human part of the game anymore? Do the numbers and human factor actually meet anywhere?
Yes, stats provide a guide for the game. But they shouldn’t guide the game and change the game, they should only be a mirror of what’s happening in the game, right? Yes, it’s important to know that Jeff Bagwell hit .300, though the real baseball ministers can watch him and easily recognize he can hit. They don’t need to know he’s successful 3 out of 10 times he steps up.
Give me Tony Larussa, or Jim Leyland, or Sparky Anderson, maybe even Bobby Cox. Or maybe even Don Zimmer, but certainly Yogi Berra. Tell me, what would those guys do if you asked them to trust the next game to all these new-fangled stats? These new guys know their job and they’re just doing what they’re hired to do, but the job has changed. The game has changed.
But it’s me who’s changing more slowly. And maybe that’s the problem.
So, with those thoughts in mind, here are a few more questions for you to ponder before you begin to pound your computer keyboard into oblivion.
- What is your favorite pitching stat?
- What is your favorite stat for hitters?
- Your most despised stat?
- Has baseball gone to far with statistics, sabermetricians, shifts and odds?
- Over/under for the year baseball begins to use cameras and computers for strikes and balls?
- At its current pace, where will the game be in 50 years?