Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Root, Root, Root for the Home Team. If They Don't Win it's Slightly More Likely They Will Next Game Due to the Law of Averages.

Less than a full week into the Major League Baseball season, I’ve noticed a pattern that I had previously dismissed as unimportant. It would seem that fans and sport pundits everywhere are already attempting to put a mere four games worth of stats to use in predicting trends for the remainder of the season. This has caused me to take a closer look at the current state of baseball analysis.

For quite some time, I had been amused by people’s desire to break everything that happens during a game into some sort of rating. When I was a kid, growing up and learning baseball, you had batting average, RBI (I will not put an s after that as the R stands for Runs…it’s already plural), ERA and a smattering of other stats like stolen bases and home runs. Simple stuff.

Now you hear constantly about batting average with runners in scoring position, Slugging Percentage, OBP (on base percentage), OPS (on base plus slugging percentage), WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), OOPS (opponent on base plus slugging), K/BB (strikeouts per walk), CGPG (crotch grabs per game), LSG (loogies spit per game) and GOF (gross-out factor, which is calculated by adding crotch grabs plus loogies spit per game). All of these stats (even those last few, trust me, someone is keeping track and it’s only a matter of time before you hear about it) are part of the analytical technique that objectively mines the depths of baseball minutiae never before seen by human eyes known as Sabermetrics.

It would seem that somebody decided that baseball wasn’t enough fun. Sitting down at the ballpark or in front of your television with a beer and a hot dog and cheering on your team just wasn’t cutting it for some. They had to find a way to completely eliminate, or at least look past, the human element of the sport and break it down to raw data. Keeping an accurate scorecard these days takes more calculating than preparing my taxes. And while I mention taxes, I’m beginning to think that the proximity of Opening Day to the income tax return deadline is not exactly a coincidence. It would seem that the people in charge (I didn’t say Illuminati. Did you say Illuminati?) just couldn’t get enough number crunching.

It is precisely this realization that caused an epiphany of sorts on my part. I realized that baseball is becoming a sport of nerds. Think about it. Once you open your mind to the possibility, you will see it everywhere. Should you still resist accepting this fact, allow me to provide you further evidence:

Bud Selig. Complete nerd. He looks more like that physics professor you hated in college than anyone who should have anything to do with anything even remotely involved with athleticism.

And speaking of athleticism, you still have guys playing this sport that look like they are more suited to sitting in a darkened room typing out line after line of code or playing World of Warcraft than running, even if it is for only ninety feet at a time. Case in point (I know he’s been out of the game for awhile) if you were to take John Kruk at the height of his career and fashion his mullet into a ponytail, it would be difficult to deny that he bares a striking resemblance to the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.

Decision after decision in baseball is made through analysis. If A, then B. Managing can be reduced to following a flow chart. What could be nerdier than reducing a sport that is played outdoors to a precisely defined set of rules that must be executed in an exact order.

Old school managers who want the sport to remain nerd free outwardly resist the trend toward statistic-based decision making. Joe Torre, Jim Leyland and Ozzie Guillen are baseball purists who make decisions based on their gut feelings. They are the Alpha Betas while those who religiously follow Sabermetrics are the Tri-Lams.

The ever-growing popularity of fantasy baseball speaks to this. You have people who may never watch a single game, who simply pore over stats in spreadsheet form, winning their leagues. There are baseball fans out there now who could accurately predict how many runs Albert Pujols will drive in this year to within a two run variance, but who could not tell you a single thing about his swing or his stance.

When it comes down to it, baseball is being reduced (or enhanced, depending on how you look at it) to a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The likelihood that a guy might have a bad game or injury can even be accounted for. There is nothing left in the game that can’t be analyzed or that involves more chance and randomness than exists in the roll of a d20.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about nerd power. I think it’s great that there’s a sport that actually involves athletic ability that nerds like to follow. But I encourage you all to put down the pencils for just a game and lose yourself in root, root, rooting for your home team. Maybe even go to the stadium (yes, outside in the sunlight) and enjoy a cold beer and the sounds and smells of the game while you watch it. You may find something enjoyable about baseball that is in danger of being lost.

And don’t buy a scorecard. Pay attention so that you don’t take a foul ball in the face. I would hate to see your day ruined by a flashback to that summer when your dad forced you to play little league and you were minding your own business in right field when a pop-up came your way. Nobody remembers that anymore. Let it go.

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