Friday, July 13, 2018

Have Statistics Killed Baseball?

For 55 years I have been saying "no, statistics are what is most interesting about baseball," and for the last 30+ years I would say it has been dying baseball's salvation. Listening to Bill Simmons discuss the declining popularity of baseball with Chuck Klosterman, I am having strange thoughts.  Simmons noted that no one has baseball arguments anymore. He gave as an example whether having Wade Boggs on your team was a good idea. People used to complain about empty stats because he didn't drive in runs, while his defenders would point to his batting average and walks, and the critic would respond with walks not being that important, and he was a leadoff hitter who didn't steal bases, on and on. Now there are answers to that.

I turned them off* and went on thinking in that vein. I talk baseball with a few people at work, but most of them don't really understand statistics all that well, they just have impressions. They "don't trust" Joe Kelly. I am betting that they are still thinking of Opening Day, when he was terrible, and let them talk.  They both immediately reference that game, no others. He had no bad outings in April or May.  None. He had one bad and two very bad outings in June in July.  41 appearances, 4 of them bad. I try to work this in, but they "just don't trust him."  This is common, and I think the people who understand statistics don't get into arguments with such people because there is really no point.

Statheads have their favorite ways of looking at things, and are always looking to uncover a new statistic that will explain some phenomenon even better.  But that window is narrower now. I might prefer ERA and you prefer WHIP, but both will tell similar stories. We will both find "Saves" unsatisfying as a measurement. You can still get into arguments about steroids and the Hall of Fame, but that is a different type of argument. Baseball stories are now about how to build a team, or how the style of swing is changing.  Mike Trout is having a spectacular season.  You can go to Single Season Leaders to find out how spectacular (projecting to full season required).  It's one of the top 20 of all time, and might hit top 10. Up there with Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and not many others. That's it, that's the whole discussion.

So half the baseball fans can no longer talk to the other half, other than grim politeness.They can't even read the same writers that smoothly. This is a serious blow to a game that takes too long to watch.

*I like both but find them frustrating.  Both know many things, and frequently have interesting observations that have eluded others, as above. Both can be witty. However, neither seems to critique his own ideas very well, and will run off into some fairly stupid stuff and keep going. Klosterman in particular seems to think by flashes of lightning, then go dark. His But What If We're Wrong? was a great concept, with mediocre execution. I commented years ago on one of his cultural claims. (The posts overlap. Pick one or the other.)


Sam L. said...

I lost interest in baseball 55-60 years ago. Basketball was never interesting. Football went 45-50 years ago. I must admit the biggest cities I lived in did not have pro teams in any leagues.

Galen said...

Go to a minor league game. You can see what the players are trying to do in order to advance their careers. You can see the sinews strain and hear the grunts. Physical and mental imperfections are more apparent. This pitcher is working on his change up. He's a little too predictable when he throws it, and tips his pitches. Watch the center fielder. He's not always locked into every swing, consequently gets a late read, and doesn't always get a good jump. Or maybe there's an obvious hit and run situation and you can see the batter thinking too much. These guys are good, so good, but nowhere near the machine-like level quality control of mlb players.

This is where the rubber meet the road. The stats are the residue of performance that you read about later, but in real-time, the effort exists in the moment and consists of the wheels spinning, especially in the minor leagues. By the time they make it to "the show", the eye test fails because the level of quality is so uniformly high that you need statistics to parse the differences.

Tom Grey said...

A key purpose of watching sports is social -- feeling emotions together, winning or losing together, and sharing your own feelings & thoughts & ideas & regrets & mistake analysis with others. Sharing - talking.

If statistics are reducing the talking, they're contributing to the decline.

With slo-mo American Football the almost ideal watching sport, baseball was doomed to be less watcher friendly.

I was never big on baseball -- too slow; 2 times in the park not really good for bonding with the lousy father I had; even slo-mo doesn't make it interesting enough (tho I haven't even watched in years).

Now living in Europe, "Football" means soccer -- France just won the FIFA. I don't like soccer so much, but it's good to know the rules and have the ability to talk about good plays.

For the ability to be part of the community, mostly of guys, who are talking together.

As e-sports (like DOTA or LoL) become more popular and take over the conversation time of boys (like my 3 sons), all of the outdoor sports will be on a slo decline in popularity path, both playing and watching.

It's not statistics -- it's losing market share to other pursuits.

Christopher B said...

Maybe by the end of the summer you'll have Tim Tebow to talk about.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

We watched Tebow when he came to play against the local AA affiliate. The hotel near the stadium has a restaurant with outdoor seating just over the left-field wall. The local team is fun, too, with the sons of two Hall-of-Famers and an All-Star playing. Vlad Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio.

Relatedly, you would think that would drive attendance skyward. It's really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a baseball fan, especially in a place like NH. But the NH team is affiliated with Toronto, and attendance is only up a bit.