Is Math Ruining Baseball?

It’s the age of sabermetrics. Numbers and predictability models rule the scouting report. Everything in baseball is now calculated beyond batting average and ERA. Every action and reaction in the game is captured, given a value and analyzed. Baseball has entered the 21st century.

Now, the concept of analytics is not new to the game. In fact, sabermetrics started coming into play in the 1980s. So no, Moneyball (sorry Brad Pitt) did not usher in this change, but it made us more aware of it. In all honesty, the first time I heard the term “sabermetrics” was 2018 when I dived head first back into the game. Yes, I know I’m about 10 years late, but I’m sure I’m not the only one.

While the game still feels the same, it sure looks very different. In just the first three months of the season, I have seen shifts at almost every at bat, graphics showing the percentage of what pitches a pitcher is using, the batter’s batting average in different strike zone spots, and my new favorite, and even the predictability of an outfielder making a catch based on the speed and distance covered.

The statistics gods have taken over baseball, and it seems MLB wants to convert the masses to the new ways, but not everyone is on board.

Complaints have emerged from the traditionalists that the game is not what it was, when fundamentals of bunting, hitting and just pitching until your fingers became numb were the norm and now the plays on the field are determined by a computer. Basically, the human element of the game and figuring out how to developed better players is not solely on the hands of coaches and scouts.

On the other hand, modernists say that this is the future of developing baseball and it’s players to become more productive and competitive. Yesterday, I heard an interview with a player who said that the analytics helped him understand the importance of getting on base and that he considers walks just as important as hits. I found it a bit shocking that a player would say something like this, because I assumed that that was something basic of the game.

But it made me realize that perhaps players weren’t being guided properly on the role that they specifically played on their teams. You can’t expect to wake up and win if you come to the plate without a strategy plan. Analytics allows players to understand how they can contribute to helping their teams win and gives them control of their success.

Teams are trying to win the World Series, period. They will find every tool allowed by MLB to execute that goal. So if that means that shifting and pitching changes occur every other inning, than so be it. Professional players play to win, and fans watch to be entertained.  The game is not fun for either side if there is no winning.

This means that a balance needs to be struck between the old and new ways of baseball. No one is arguing (at least to my knowledge) that the old ways of managing a team need to be thrown out the window, and no one is arguing that analytics is the sole way forward to building strategies for success. If there are people who think this way, they are in for a rude awakening.

We already saw the frustration of Phillies’ Jake Arrieta regarding the shifts. People who execute decisions without critical thinking will often fail. Just because there is a 87% chance of hitting into a groundout doesn’t mean that a player will every time they come up to bat. Coaching staffs need to be equipped with the critical thinking skills to understand what the numbers are saying and analysts need to be able to communicate their findings in baseball terms. The failure of both will mean the failure of the team.

Statistics in baseball is still determined by human beings. The game will never lose it’s human element and if it does, than it deserves to cease to exist. Players will continue to compete and do their best to beat their opponent, and a new way to do this is to out perform their own performance numbers. The bunt, opposite hit, line drive down the third base line or bloop single will always be part of the game.

Baseball is not being corrupted, it is evolving. Teams need to balance their tools and build their organizations to understand how to best use these tools. Fans need to embrace the change as well, but MLB and their media outlets need to do a better job at helping them understand why the change is good for the sport (again, if executed properly).

I’m still trying to make sense of the “new” sabermetrics wave. I’m not fully on board with all of it, but I am embracing it. It’s making me a better fan of my team and of the sport. But I also realize that some of it has not been good. Not because of statistics are bad, but because some teams do not fully understand them well enough to make good decisions.

Baseball will be fine and I’m excited to be witnessing a new chapter of the sport.

What are your views and experience on sabermetrics/statscast? Share your thoughts and join the conversation. 

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