In the daily newspaper biz the sports section sells papers. Since that’s always been the case, it’s easy to understand why the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is a sinking ship. Apparently all you need to be a sports columnist for the Startlegram is a box of crayons and a false premise.
Exhibit A: “Mathematics is not a friend of baseball,” Mac Engel’s column from Monday on how the fan emphasis on statistics is ruining all sports, especially “America’s second favorite past-time.”
For people unfamiliar with the sabermetric trend in baseball, the quick explanation is that some smart people came up with different sets of data to establish historical statistical trends in the hopes of predicting a player’s future performance and ways to judge that player’s current value. Here is a great resource.
People used to judge baseball players by the fanciness of their mustaches, then someone came up with wins, ERA, and batting average, and fans were better able to understand why their teams won or lost. Now we have new, more precise data that go a little deeper. Informed fans who don’t need to be told how to feel make the Mac Engels of the world shit their pants.
So, predictably, Engel slithers onto the “old school” baseball bully pulpit, casting those who are interested in learning more about stats as “scores of math whizzes, nerds and live-in-their-parents’-basement geeks.” He employs the same rhetorical tactic used in middle school cafeterias all around the country.
So back to the article: First of all, I’m not sure baseball has been ruined. He never says how or for whom the sport has become tainted. Is the quality of the game any worse than it was before sabermetrics? If so, surely attendance or revenue numbers *gulp* would support that.
As it turns out, attendance has dipped a little this year. The Sports Business Daily reported that MLB’s attendance was down 2.9 percent compared to last year. But that dip comes on the heels of an entire decade of record-breaking attendance and revenue figures. The last nine baseball seasons (2004-2012) have produced the nine best-attended seasons in the history of MLB, including four successive record-breaking seasons from 2004 to 2007. The 2012 attendance total ranks behind only the 2007 (1st) 2008 (2nd), 2006 (3rd) and 2005 (4th) seasons. Many observers blame this season’s declining numbers on inclimate weather, the declining performance of major market teams, and the Miami Marlins (who no one goes to see).
So by Mac Engel’s logic, when attendance numbers for a sport that has thrived for a decade in one of the worst economic climates in our nation’s history dips a little all those scary numbers (sabermetrics) must be scaring off casual fans.
In the column, Engel pins his entire argument against sabermetrics on pitch counts. He cites someone’s (?) outrage at manager Ron Washington’s use of Yu Darvish. On how pitch counts are sissyfying fans:
“There is no better example of this than Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, who threw 99 pitches against the Royals on Sunday,” Engel writes. “So that’s terrible because he only threw 99, and he was ‘gassed,’ according to his manager. A few weeks ago, Rangers manager Ron Washington was the second coming of noted arm destroyer Dusty Baker, when [Washington] had the audacity to allow Yu to throw 130 pitches against the Detroit Tigers.”
While pitch counts are a relatively new phenomenon in baseball, they are not a huge part of sabermetric study. Strictly speaking, counting pitches does involve… counting, which requires math. But this illustrates his lack of understanding of what saber-heads are all about. A sabermatrician might say, “Historically, after a certain number of pitches, x-player tends to deliver y-performance.” No one in the field of sabermetrics would ever say absolutely, “A player can’t throw more than x-number of pitches, or he’ll get hurt.”
“Baseball was never intended to be math homework,” Engel continues, “but now baseball fans are watching pitch counts more closely than we do wins/losses, strikeouts or ERAs.”
In other words, the numbers that Engel is comfortable with are OK. Furthermore, if fans are watching pitch counts, they are arguably watching the game more closely than the casual fan. So is Engel’s argument that fans are paying attention to the wrong aspect of the sport? He never gives the correct way to watch a game.
Here is my favorite line in the whole story:
“But it is still sport, and nothing will ever be able to trump the inherent unpredictability of baseball,” he writes. “After all, the stats say Nelson Cruz makes that catch in Game 6 in the 2011 World Series. But he didn’t, so where is your math there?”
Which stat said that Cruz was going to make that catch? There are defensive metrics that attempt to predict a player’s defensive value, but there’s no crystal ball. Had Washington gone with an outfield alignment based solely on defensive stats, he would have subbed Craig Gentry in for Cruz, who had just the inning before reportedly tweaked his hamstring trying to beat out a throw to first base.
The reason I think Engel’s column is such a shit-show is because it proves how disconnected he is with a huge (and growing) number of ravenous baseball fans. Is there any doubt that someone who pores over data is a huge fan of the sport? Yes, maybe he or she relates to it differently, but advanced stats provide a peek behind the curtain that was once exclusively the province of scouts and front office types. Knowing and understanding the game’s advanced metrics brings fans closer to the sport. It allows them to play armchair general manager and make more educated second-guesses about what the front office and the manager are doing. In other words, it makes fans smarter and gets them more involved.
In a confusing twist, even Engel concedes that the advanced stats have their place in the sport:
“All of this number-watching obviously does work or sports teams would not be spending millions and creating new departments to research tendencies, strengths, weaknesses, etc.,” he writes.
So his argument is basically that all of these big, bad numbers are necessary but best left to the pros. Thanks, Mac, for letting me and all of your readers know the proper way to admire the sport, your way. His column illustrates the kind of stinging certitude and paternalism that turns readers away from blowhard “old school” print sports columnist and onto smart, saber-friendly baseball sites like Lonestar Ball, Baseball Time in Arlington, and LoneStar Dugout.
And if Mac Engel thinks I’m just some nerd who never played and lives in my parents’ basement: I played the game for 14 years. I live in a house with my girlfriend and dog. My parents’ house doesn’t even have a basement.