How America’s pastime has drifted from humanity to a science.
Baseball season is upon us. Grab your glove, a ball, a bat, a bag of sunflower seeds, some hats and pinstripes, and enjoy the pastime of our country.
Once upon a time, baseball was art. It was the imperfect practice of hitting a round ball with a round bat. If you could do that three times out of ten, you were good. Pitchers threw all they had, and if they left the game with a lead and few runs given up, they were good. Simple.
Once upon a time, baseball was a historical tale. The greats were iconic names: Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Lou Gehrig; the list goes on. Kids collected cards of these men, idolized their artistic magnificence on the field. The plays they made were works of beauty. The iconic point of Babe Ruth and pressing question of his motive makes every baseball fan smile. The running, behind-the-back catch of Willie Mays before tossing out the tag-up runner at first base was athletic, striking, breathtaking. And Jackie Robinson’s stealing of home, right under the glove of everyone’s favorite quote book Yogi Berra, was a piece of art.
Once upon a time, baseball was a cultural movement. Images of Robinson and Reese, standing arm around the other, edging on racial unity for the country, moved much of the country to tears, as equality — for a moment — did not seem so far off. On a much smaller level, Ken Griffey Jr. flipping his hat backwards during the homerun derby spiked a trend that resulted in the youth of America doing the same.
Once upon a time, baseball was a literary tale. Gehrig’s address to the crowd upon retiring due to his fatal illness is considered to this day one of the greatest and most heartbreaking speeches delivered by an American. Meanwhile, the quips and remarks of the aforementioned Berra have become almost clichéd in today’s society as parts of our daily dialogue and satirical sayings.
Baseball was a humanity. It had art, history, culture, and literary magnificence. It was more about the people and less about the numbers.
But now, baseball is a science. Starting in the early 1990s, and gaining steam in the twenty-first century, Bill James and an army of statisticians coined the term sabermetrics, as baseball became a game for the Nate Silvers of the world to decipher complex formulas and numbers and formulate bold predictions based on the formerly ignored. Baseball is now a statistics class, aimed at figuring out who the best players are, not by watching and enjoying the art, but by calculating obscure numbers like Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Total Player Rating, and Range Factor.
To the average baseball observer, these words mean nothing. But to the format of the game — they mean everything. The concept of Moneyball engaged a nation with Michael Lewis’s book and the subsequent movie narrated the impact of playing behind sabermetrics. Teams now look for players with good Ultimate Zone Ratings (UZR) and that have strong On Base plus Slugging (OPS). The concept of watching a player, and acknowledging the beauty of his swing, the fluidity of his fielding, and the power of his fastball has left the field.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. On the contrary, the revelation of which statistics project greatness and which are only average predictors of success is clearly beneficial to the development of America’s pastime. Teams with less money can now find ways to compete through statistical analysis. Teams with more money, on the other hand, can better utilize the money in the acquisition of players that will do well in the ways necessary to win. In the end, sabermetrics is probably a net positive to the game of baseball.
But what is now lost from the game is the mystical feel of our pastime, found in the greats who once played the game. Sure, we still have legends. But even those are diminished in some respects. Take Derek Jeter, for instance. Many call him one of the greatest players to wear a uniform. But now, through advanced statistics, picking him apart for his below average UZR (which, in case you were wondering, measures the amount of space a fielder can cover). With sabermetrics, names like Ben Zobrist are thrown into the conversation as some of the most important players in baseball, while the Rays’ utilityman sports numbers that wouldn’t strike any onlookers as otherworldly.
The art of the sport is mostly lost, as the scientific backing for greatness is what many now look towards, rather than the intuitive feeling of watching good players play a sport.
This is not supposed to be a bitter, nostalgic rant against a movement that may indeed be improving how we think about baseball as a sport. Baseball is still America’s pastime. It is imbedded in the past, present, and future of our culture. That being said, it’s still worthwhile to embrace the beginning of spring and the sport the starts with it. Just know that it won’t be what your parents and parents’ parents were watching.
Sean Frazzette ’16 (sfrazzette@college) tries not to think too much about numbers. They hurt his head.