Make Baseball Great Again

(Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

What’s Bryce Harper’s batting average this season? It’s .264.

But what about his batting average against left-handers? Hm. It’s .267.

And what about vs. left-handers that are throwing breaking balls? But then again, who cares about that, you idiot. It’s all about batted balls in play. What’s his BABIP this season? Actually, that has no context. What’s his BABIP vs. left-handers? Scratch that, what’s his BABIP vs. lefties throwing breaking balls on the inside corner of the strike zone, a strike zone that’s changing, mind you?

You know what, none of that matters. What’s his BABIP vs. lefties throwing breaking balls on the inside corner of the changing strike zone when the shift is on?

Ah, obviously. How can you say that Bryce Harper is a good player? Look at those numbers! You idiot. You know nothing about baseball.

Are we having fun yet?

***

Baseball is under attack. I repeat: America’s National Pastime is under attack.

Despite the rising cost of live events and the amount of TV money thrown at live sports, the argument that baseball is losing its audience holds weight. In a study done two years ago by The Atlantic, their data shows that the MLB audience is getting older, not younger. With half their demographics at 55 years-plus, it’s clear that America’s Pastime isn’t quite connecting with younger viewers as much as say, the NBA or NFL. We’re in an age of instant gratification, one where Snap Stories and 45 second video clips reign and faulty resolution and buffering frustrate. The very principles of baseball don’t seem particularly relevant in 2016. After all, it’s a game where a guy that looks like this can still play professionally:

Much like Bartolo Colon’s home run trot, baseball is slow. By its very nature, it’s slow. The wind-up, the four ball count, warm-up pitches, walking to the batter’s box . . . it’s . . . slow. Passive. A pastime. It’s aptly named.

But MLB isn’t helping itself. In the vein of Bryce Harper’s complaints, the league, seemingly working in the vein of the game’s “unspoken rules,” consistently cracks down on personality. Jose Bautista is reprimanded for tossing his bat in one of the most emotionally charged playoff games in recent memory. Bryce Harper gets admonished and suspended for his (sometimes misdirected) passion. Yasiel Puig gets treated as a toxic commodity for “showboating too much.” It’s a bizarre contradiction for a sport that knows it so badly needs to attract a younger audience, and yet, seems to try and control its most marketable stars. Put that into contrast with the NBA, which embraces exuberant players like Russell Westbrook, Draymond Green and Stephen Curry, or the NFL, who does the same with Cam Newton.

This is what Bryce Harper is railing against. He wants the game to modernize, to accept that the time-tested way of building stars and “respecting the game” isn’t necessarily relevant now. Baseball needs to change to keep its moniker. Baseball needs to modernize. Baseball needs to keep pace with how technology and speed have changed the popular culture. It has to happen.

Concurrently, as the very image of MLB and its stars are in debate, the interpretation of the numbers the game is built upon is rapidly changing by the day, with no end in sight.

Decades ago, in an effort to better understand baseball, Bill James started the advanced statistics revolution by delving into box scores and trying to find greater meaning in the numbers on the newspaper page. Could three categories—batting average, RBI and home runs—be the end all, be all in regards to determining how great a player was? How much did defense really mean when evaluating a player? More to the point, how would one go about establishing anyone’s value in a sport that relies so greatly on chance?

And thus, sabermetrics were born. Though slow moving at first—after all, these new numbers were changing how we viewed baseball after one hundred years of play—eventually advanced statistics became adopted into the logic and decision-making of baseball organizations, as well as the writers and fans that watched the sport day-in and day-out. With a greater reliance on high-resolution video and an endless stream of information from the world wide web, all the numbers we thought were tried and true in determining a player’s value, well, turns out they didn’t mean shit.

We’ve gotten to a point now where batting average is singularly interpreted as an antiquated mathematical equation without meaning. RBIs? Nothing more than a function of luck, not skill. ERA? A complicated set of numbers that don’t give enough credence to on-field situations the pitcher can’t affect.

According to many—writers, fans and baseball professionals alike—the statistical revolution has made it so that baseball can be spoken about intelligibly. We’ve used technology to more accurately determine the real value behind every swing, every pitch, every throw, every inch of the diamond and every blade of grass in the outfield. These numbers have uncovered the glorious truth behind this game that this country has loved for over a century. Now, the core of the game—the core that’s always been there—can finally shine.

But the truth is . . . none of this makes the game more fun.

What about BABIP makes this game more fun? Does knowing a catcher is a better pitch framer make you more engaged in the contest? When the ball is hit, is my sense of suspense going to be heightened because I know a guy’s UZR is in the negatives? And why is it that if I don’t know any of this, or care about it, or use this in my analysis of a game that I love so much, that it makes me an old-fashioned passe baseball fan?

The truth is, many of these numbers—most of them, I’d argue—don’t make baseball fun again. The very idea that these new statistics were founded upon—bringing the game forward and looking at it in a new, modern context, isn’t really accomplishing its stated goal. As much as they’re pushing the game into a contemporary context, these complicated statistics, with more new terms and definitions coming every season, aren’t making this game more accessible to a fan. They don’t make me care more about baseball. Will Leitch, in one of the very first pieces posted on Eephus, said it best:

“[U]nderstanding what makes a baseball player or a baseball team better, understanding the best utilization of payroll and personnel resources, understanding how to build a winning team in the macro sense – none of this has anything to do with the actual experience of watching a baseball game. I know everything sabermetrics has to offer us is true and helpful. I just don’t care about it when I’m watching a game. All those advanced statistics can keep me occupied during the long cold sad months when there is no baseball. But during an actual game, I just want to see people hit the ball and throw the ball and run and jump and pitch and slide and all of it. I just want to see action.”

Like Will, my problem isn’t with the numbers. I know they’re right. I know they give me a better understanding of the game. I know they give more meaning to Bryce Harper’s excellence and why Yadier Molina may be a Hall of Fame player already. It’s just that the statistics are moving faster than a majority of the fandom can accept. The evolving definition of the game isn’t creating more fans—it’s fostering a sense of exclusivity. By its very nature, baseball is a complicated sport with strangely complicated rules. Why is there so much focus on finding even more nuances in the most nuanced game on the planet. I mean, how many friends have you had to explain a balk to? Do you even understand what it is? I think I do. Maybe. And we’re adding layers to that?

More to the point, where does this statistical evolution turn to next? Are we soon going to be putting caveats on a guy’s slugging percentage because 56% of the time he faced a pitcher with an ERA+ of less than 100? Are we going to curb Bryce Harper’s home run count because he hit 10 of them off guys throwing less than 90 MPH?

Constantly learning and re-learning the changing statistics just to stay up to speed and feel like I really understand the game I love so much is exhausting. I just want to know how often a guy hits a ball, how hard he hits it and if he’s making his team better. I want my players to tell the story through their charisma and personality. I want to remember what a guy did on the field because he tossed his bat with disdain or ran so hard that his faux-hawk flailed in his wake.

I want baseball to be fun again. I’m just not sure the ever-evolving definitions of what make a player valuable are doing it.

 

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The Great Mambino has contributed to SB Nation, Silver Screen & Roll and twice moonlighted on Grantland’s Cheap Heat professional wrestling podcast, one of which was mysteriously deleted and was never heard by human ears. He lives in Los Angeles and hates underdogs.