Sabermetrics Is Making Baseball Worse
Print Friendly and PDF

The big lesson in late 20th Century statistical analysis of baseball was that in the ancient debate over baseball strategy between Ty Cobb (make contact, hit line drives, and steal bases) and Babe Ruth (hit homers, take walks, or strike out), the Babe was right, just like his tens of millions of fans believed. Baseball insiders found Cobb's athletic style more elegant, but fans liked the professional wrestling aspects of a huge man bashing the long ball. 

Bill James and his followers proved that Ruth's philosophy was better at winning ballgames, and that baseball men had not fully embraced his philosophy out of aesthetic prejudice: Cobb's style looks better.

Sabermetric sophistication encouraged steroid use and sabermetricians like James overwhelmingly turned a blind eye to the causes of the absurd statistics of the 1990s and 2000s. There's drug testing now, but the sabermetrics continues to make baseball less elegant. Baseball used to have customs about how things were done that were generally good for the game overall if not for the individual team, but today's emphasis on exploiting weaknesses in the structure of the rules to win, win, win is making baseball more of a stand-around bore. When I was a kid, there was slow pitch softball semi-pro circuit where various businesses hired giant oafs to try to hit three or four homers per game. I don't hear about it anymore, but it seems like a lot of the kind of guys who would have been stars in this sideshow game in 1975 are now gainfully employed as MLB first basemen.

I realize that Bill James is a huge hero to a lot of guys like me (including me), but we need to keep in mind that most things in life that succeed run into diminishing marginal positive returns and increasing negative returns. Bill James made baseball more intellectually interesting, but many of the trends he set in motion eventually had negative consequences.

Drug testing has reduced homers, but strikeouts continue to rise (here's the WSJ on the subject, and the NYT). Matthew Futterman writes in the WSJ on the rise of strikeout pitchers:

Sabermetrics, the data-centric approach that prizes doubles and home runs over singles and stolen bases, hasn't done hitters any favors either. ... The problem for baseball over the long term is that the strikeout is the one offensive event that hardly ever sets into motion an unpredictable result. The batter generally mopes back to the dugout. Some fans find it boring, and some purists find it lame.

By the way, I suspect that one thing that's going on in the rise of strikeout pitchers is that tall, athletic white youths have largely given up on basketball, so that leaves more tall talent to concentrate on pitching. 

Coaches now emphasize developing sheer velocity in child pitchers, because the way you get recruited is by wracking up high numbers on the radar gun. You can work on control when you are older. I wonder what this is doing to the enthusiasm for the game of little boys who have to come up to bat against bigger little boys who are trained to throw as hard as possible and not worry about where the ball goes, such as at the batter's face?

Print Friendly and PDF