‘‘If you have a metric that never matches up with the eye test, it’s probably wrong. And if it never surprises you, it’s probably useless. But if four out of five times it tells you what you know, and one out of five it surprises you, you might have something.’’ – Bill James as told by Tom Tango.
The 2018 Baseball season will be here before you know it, at least in my view. Well, at least Spring Training. While many good players still remain unsigned and this off-season started off with a bang with the Stanton trade and Ohtani signing, since then it’s been mostly filled with names that would’ve been a much bigger deal 3 years ago (Adrian Gonzalez, Howie Kendrick,Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen).
Yet baseball will be back, players will find new homes, and new teams will rise up. Likely at least one of the names I just mentioned as ho-hum will be a key player in a team making it into October this year.
Baseball finds itself in a bit of a quandary with its audience. Over half of its audience is 55 or older according to Nielson ratings. Add to that and the number of youth 7-17 has dipped from 9 Million in 2002 to just 5.3M in 2013. That is not exactly a strategy of growth. It also means it has to appease its core audience while looking to the future to an audience it may lose if not careful.
Statistics has become a major component of the sports lexicon, and now instead of announcers yelling “It could be, it might be, it is!” they are yelling out, “That high launch angle just generated some unreal exit velocity numbers.”.
The debate, of course, is what we can learn from sabermetrics to speed up the game. The MLBPA recently rejected the commissioners attempt to implement pitch clocks and other pace of play issues, though some factors like limiting mound visits and at least some version of a pitch clock are expected to be implemented unilaterally. I watched an Arizona Fall League recently with a pitch clock and saw no issues.
Besides that though – there are elements of baseball itself that can’t be changed. Baseball is the only of the major 5 sports (including soccer) where ALL of the action is contained around one ball. In the NFL, the QB may have the ball but receivers are running around, cornerbacks are looking for the ball, while in the NBA there is a side game of small fouls and not getting caught. In baseball, when the pitcher has the ball – the left fielder is standing in left field.
Exit velocity is a fun statistic because people can see it. WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is not a fun stat. The concept of a “Win” is really more complicated than the average fan would think anyway, so does seem ready to be phased out by something better accomplishes the idea of a “job well done” by a pitcher. Whether Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which essentially gets rid of that pesky “Earned” part out of Earned Run Average seems like a good place to start.
Many older fans don’t want to need a math degree to watch baseball or understand what is on the scoreboard, and I think many stats will never go away like basic batting average. Isn’t it kind of fun though, to know how one player compares against another player, or how much “luck” (BABIP) he might be seeing from one year to the next? Baseball is a great sport, and while other sports are dealing with head injuries and 3 or 4 teams teaming up together and ruining the concept of a regular season, baseball has a big chance to gain new fans and keep them.
The last two World Series have been some of the best in recent memory, with the Cubs winning it all in 2016 and Dodgers and Astros duking it out until Game 7 this year including two of the best games you could ever ask for – people have seen just how good baseball can be. The stadiums are interactive, watching a game at the ballpark is as much as a social experience as a sporting experience, and many owners are doing what they can to make the game more affordable including the Braves offering a game-subscription model.
When in doubt about the future baseball can build, we can always remember the mystical voice in the cornfields of Iowa, “If you build it, they will come.”