I don’t hate baseball analytics or their use by crafty baseball operations folks. I look at analytics gurus like Billy Beane, Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman as smart guys who figured out how to exploit market inefficiencies in the game.
But they’ve also inadvertently damaged the game as a fan experience and entertainment product.
There’s a lot of standing around on the field as players and fans watch a bunch of strikeouts and walks while waiting for a long ball to happen. As Chicago Cubs manager David Ross said, we’re no longer playing baseball; we’re playing home run derby.
Baseball is action-challenged. A typical 2020 game featured 33 per cent fewer balls in play than an average 2005 game. The impact of analytics on baseball strategy is the biggest reason.
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The numbers folks have told players they can hit more home runs if they swing with a bigger launch angle (uppercut). Moreover, they’ve told players to forget about choking up with two strikes in an effort to increase their chances of putting the ball in play. Keep swinging for the fences; strikeouts be damned!
On the other hand, Pitchers have been told to worry less about walks and more about increasing their spin rate so they can fire fastballs up in the zone that the uppercutting hitters can’t easily get to. We want more strikeouts!
Moreover, the analytics department has told managers to quit attempting stolen bases because the risk/reward tradeoff isn’t good enough. Third-base coaches have been discouraged from pushing players to take the extra base. Better to be safe, run station to station, and wait for the home run. As such, triples are increasingly rare.
From the fan’s perspective, we’re left with an increasingly boring game.
“Executives like me, who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures, have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game,” said Epstein when asked about the impact of analytics on the fan experience.
Epstein, a former president of baseball operations for the Cubs, has been hired by baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to explore ways the business side of baseball can neutralize the negative impact that analytics have had on the game as an entertainment product.
Let’s wish him luck.
Analytics have turned baseball into a game of computers and robots. The art of the game, the gut feel of managers and the human element are all being eliminated by data scientists.
In fact, for some teams, the manager in the dugout isn’t even needed. According to the folks in the data den, a starting pitcher must be pulled at 100 pitches no matter how strong he looks, how great he feels or how effective he’s been at getting the other team out to that point.
Another new analytics ‘rule’ for managers is to take starters out before they face the opposing lineup for a third time. Because of that, we got the fiasco of Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash pulling starting pitcher Blake Snell out of a 2020 World Series game he was dominating against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Snell had a one-hitter going through five innings and had struck out nine. He got another quick out in the sixth and then allowed a single. Despite only having tossed 73 pitches, and with his team leading 1-0, he was pulled. His replacement struggled, and the Rays went on to lose.
Former Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, the mastermind behind one of the best starting pitching staffs in history, gets upset about managers making decisions strictly by numbers.
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“If you have to have a number for an inning, or a number for a pitch count, to determine whether you leave somebody in, then you shouldn’t be coaching,” said Mazzone.
And Mazzone disagrees with the current wisdom that pitch counts keep pitchers healthier.
“What professional baseball is doing now with pitchers clearly does not work because baseball has set a record for DLs (disabled list) and arm surgeries,” said Mazzone. He believes pitchers need to throw more between starts, not less, to keep their arms strong and healthy.
Analytics is here to stay and they should be. They have a legitimate role to play in baseball operations departments when it comes to player analysis and strategy formulation. But there has to be a better balance in the game between science and art.
As for the business operations folks in the game, like Manfred, there needs to be an ongoing effort to develop new rules and policies that neutralize the negative impact of analytics on the game’s fan appeal.
Baseball, as a whole, will be better for it.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
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