Monday, September 13, 2004

Take Me Out of the Moneyball Game

As the baseball season winds down, I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't been checking to see what the standings are, and I haven't watched a televised game in some weeks. I used to be a huge baseball fan, and I still enjoy reading about baseball, but I haven't really followed it closely for a while. I could ascribe this to the lack of a team to root for -- I was raised an Expos fan, but if rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for General Motors, rooting for the Expos is like rooting for the Packard or the De Soto -- or to the strike of 1994, but my problems with baseball started before that. I think my biggest problem with following baseball now is that it's just not the game I fell in love with as a kid. The game I liked was the baseball of the '80s: it was, or at least it seemed to be, a game of aggressive baserunning, diving catches, strategy, and above all speed. It was fun to see a big guy hit a home run, of course, but it was especially exciting to see all the base stealing and runners on first playing mind games with the pitcher and all that other stuff that you get with fast singles hitters, as opposed to slow power hitters. Now, of course, the game is based around slow power hitters, and around home run hitting, and that doesn't thrill me as much. I guess there must have been people who reacted the same way to the change between the "dead ball" era and the Babe Ruth era; not that the '80s were the equivalent of the dead ball era, but they definitely had more speed and athleticism than we usually see in baseball today.

I won't go over the reasons for the change, because they're all pretty familiar (new parks, steroids, etc). But one other thing that may have contributed to this is that more and more people, in and out of baseball, basically discovered that the kind of baseball playing that looks the most exciting isn't necessarily the kind that produces the most runs or wins the most games. That's the theme of the recent, over-quoted book Moneyball: the Oakland A's succeeded on a shoestring by bypassing the spectacular athletes -- the guys who look good and run fast -- in favor of guys who may not be grade-A athletes but do the things that create runs, namely hit homers and draw walks. Intelligent baseball men always knew about the value of walks and other "sabermetric" things (Branch Rickey knew it, and even hired a statistician to create formulas for analyzing hitters' effectiveness, just like today), but conventional wisdom, both among insiders and outsiders, was mostly that in looking for a great ballplayer, you start by looking for a great athlete. But now everybody knows that a slow guy who walks 100 times will score more runs than a fast guy who walks 40 times; there's hard evidence, available to all, that players who aren't exciting to watch may be winning more games than players who are. Which is great -- if all you care about is winning.

But the thing is, it's the teams that are supposed to care only about winning. As a fan, and particularly a fan with no emotional attachment to a particular team, I care as much if not more about the entertainment value of the game -- about seeing a good show. And a game built around walks and home runs isn't a very good show, at least not for me, at least not compared to a game with fewer walks, fewer home runs, but lots of speed and aggressiveness and displays of athletic ability. In other words, if I'm watching the Yankees play the Red Sox, and I don't care who wins (the Yankees are evil, but the Red Sox have all that annoying fatalism associated with them; I can't root for a team that seems to have been created by Jean-Paul Sartre), then I want to have fun, and I don't really care if the fun stuff I'm seeing is the optimal strategy for creating runs. So while I know that a slow bulked-up steroid-popping player with a .400 OBP and a .600 SLG is a better player than a fast, hustling singles hitter who doesn't walk a lot but drives the pitcher crazy whenever he's on base, I also know that the latter is much more entertaining to watch, at least for me. (By the way, I fully admit that the optimal baseball player is a guy who's a great athlete and aggressive and a patient hitter who walks a lot, someone like Jackie Robinson or Joe Morgan or Mickey Mantle or, from my beloved 1980s, Rickey Henderson or Tim Raines.) This isn't just about the kind of player teams use, though; it's also about strategy. Statistical studies, backed up by common sense, demonstrate that base stealing isn't a winning strategy unless you have a very high success rate, and that the sacrifice bunt is basically a bad play. I accept this. But I also know that I love to see base stealing, bunts, all that dead-ball stuff. And, again, as a fan with no dog in most of these fights, I'm interested more in what I like to see than what the optimal run-maximization strategy should be.

But now that more and more fans and baseball men understand the reality -- that the guy who puts on a good show may not be the guy who wins the most games -- will baseball ever go back to being entertaining? Maybe if the steroids go out of the game and managers have to start thinking about how to occasionally get runs without constant home runs, but until then, I guess it's going to be a game where winning is everything. Darn it.

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