Eric Bergeson: Baseball, Inc. is destroying the romance of the game
Advanced statistical analysis has changed the game of baseball, and not for the better.
With ruthless determination, computer nerds have proven that statistical probability governs the game of baseball more than anybody ever imagined. “The law of averages,” my Grandpa used to call it.
But Grandpa meant that if Hrbek was 0 for his last 10, the law of averages said he would more than likely get a hit his next time up. The computer nerds go much deeper.
Statisticians have found just what type of ballplayers and what type of strategies contribute to winning games over the long haul. They found that the traditional measures of individual success, batting average for hitters and wins for pitchers, mean little in terms of winning games.
What matters is getting on base any way you can. What matters is taking pitches so the pitcher gets tired out. What matters is striking batters out, since any ball hit into the field of play has a statistical chance to be a hit.
So now we have some guy standing up there and fouling off ten pitches, then grounding out to second base, only to have the announcers congratulate him for a great at-bat.
Statistically, forcing that pitcher to throw those ten pitches increases the likelihood of a win.
Wilkin Ramirez ripped the cover of the ball for the Twins in spring training and was rewarded with a spot on the roster.
Analyst Aaron Gleeman scoffs. Ramirez’s 40 at bats this spring are statistically insignificant, he says. What matters are Ramirez’s 4,000 mediocre minor league at bats. He’ll be gone soon.
Meanwhile, rookie Aaron Hicks is taking over in centerfield for the Twins. He has great minor league statistics. He had a great spring. He could have a great career. But what do the computer nerds advocate doing with Hicks?
Statistically sound long-term thinking, they say, would have the Twins send Hicks to the minors until June in order to prevent him from becoming a free agent for an additional year in 2018!
Thank goodness Twins management has a little old-fashioned romance in them. They’re bringing up Hicks right away because they know he’ll put fans in the stands.
Billy Beane, the pioneer of statistics-oriented baseball management, would have sent Hicks down.
Although I admire Beane, it says something that he is impatient with the actual baseball game as it is played. He can’t bear to watch.
To Beane, and to the statisticians, baseball isn’t beautiful until it starts to conform to the averages.
A second-baseman who hits his first home run in 1,000 at bats to win a game doesn’t make Beane’s heart flutter with joy. In fact, that second baseman and his odd-ball home run are an irritation to Beane and the statisticians.
Statistics say pitchers who consistently throw over 100 pitches wear out. A pitcher can be cruising along pitching a beautiful game, but if he reaches 100 pitches, out he comes.
The obsession with long-term thinking breaks down during the playoffs when too few games are played to allow statistical probabilities to kick in.
No wonder the World Series has become a bore. The teams best prepared for the long haul don’t get there. Some other pipsqueaks, namely the Giants, sneak in and steal the ring.
So conditioned are baseball people to long-term thinking that a team which wins the title on inspiration and an a good run at the end is viewed with suspicion.
Let’s get this straight: Our national pass time is so tied up with long-term thinking that fun and serendipity has been stripped from the individual games.
Meanwhile, our national government can’t think beyond next month, they’re so tied up trying to win today’s news cycle!
We’re facing an age wave that is going to bury our nursing home system, but anybody who sounds the alarm is ignored.
We’ve got things backwards. Politics has become our baseball and baseball has become as bureaucratized as government.
Let’s make a trade. I propose sending all of baseball’s statisticians to the federal government in exchange for a hot dog.
There they can analyze Social Security, Medicare, defense spending and the like and come up with winning solutions for the long haul.
Meanwhile, put all the short-term thinking politicians and media in the stands of a baseball game where they can boo loudly when Casey strikes out, or cheer at the top of their lungs when the Babe knocks one out.
For the general good, let’s return romance to baseball and rationality to government, where they both belong.