Last week, during the increasingly gruesome Tigers-Yankees ALCS, TBS analyst John Smoltz got a burr in his bonnet. I’m not sure precisely what was going on in the game, but something came up that got Smoltz thinking about sabermetrics. At least I think it was sabermetrics; he could barely stand to even mouth the word.
It went something like: “So … [audible snort] … there’s all these people with their … [choked-off inhale, as if he had entered the Cardinals clubhouse bathroom right after Lance Lynn had left it] … mathematics, trying to understand … [grasping of the microphone as if it is the neck of Bill James] … the game. It’s … it’s just …” I don’t have the exact quote right, mostly because it was hard to hear Smoltz through the blood vessels bursting and his teeth grinding. As the immortal Twitter account @oldhossradbourn succinctly summarized, “‘Sabermetrics? What’s next? Marrying an animal?’ - J. Smoltz.”
The disconnect between the way advanced statistics are used in baseball front offices -- the Philadelphia Phillies perhaps being the lone, stubborn exception -- and the way they are used in media coverage of baseball is so vast that you’d almost think television is covering a different sport entirely. Inside the world of baseball, WAR and OPS+ and so on are simply the way general managers and team staff talk about their jobs, the way CPAs talk about spreadsheets and financial advisors discuss Roth IRAs, the way any profession talks about anything.
But outside, on our televisions, they’re treated as some wonky dork sorcery, pencil pushers trying to pretend they understand baseball more than those who have far more experience (and who may currently be wearing protective cups). Baseball broadcasters treat advanced statistics like Billy Bush and other red-carpet Oscar idiots would treat an experimental short film about lesbian sects in Uganda. They act like they don’t matter, when, in many cases, they’re almost all that does. It would be as if political reporters said, “Who cares about all those math nerds in their mother’s basements with their ‘electoral college’ charts? I want to know what’s in these candidates’ hearts.”
There are exceptions -- Jon Sciambi tries to fit in what he can, David Cone has professed an interest in the subject and Steve Berthiaume is about to make Arizona Diamondbacks fans a lot smarter -- but by a dramatically large majority, those who describe sports to us on television have mindsets a lot closer to Smoltz’s, and sometimes they sound just as disgusted by it. (Joe Morgan was the most famous practitioner of this.)
Baseball is being described by people who are actively hostile to how baseball is being practiced at its highest levels. We have flat-earthers making all the maps.
The main reason for this is, of course, because most of the people who describe baseball games are former players, or loyalist company men unlikely to challenge an athlete hero. (Or perhaps baby boomers who are still angry that baseball isn’t like it was when they were 12 anymore.) Understandably, I suppose, former baseball players tend to not like theories that -- to them -- seem to be saying players are statistics-generated robots whose inherent skillset has a thousand times more to do with their success than their grit, heart, determination or “clutchiness.” They are a clubbish, cliquish, part of The Baseball Fraternity. Outsiders, the ones who best have the ability to step back and see the bigger picture (like sabermetricians, baseball bloggers and, you know, people who work in baseball front offices) can’t possibly understand what it’s like between those lines, out in the dirt. TV stations hire former athletes to comment on games because people know who they are. Needless to say, this is not an inherent qualification to discuss baseball. In many ways, it’s like asking the subjects of a science experiment to write the report.
There is obviously value in some guy-who-has-done-it analysis, most recently displayed by MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds, who made a terrific case as to why the infield fly call in the Cardinals-Braves wild-card game was, in fact, the correct call. But even Reynolds, whose enthusiasm for the game is so evident that it’s inevitably contagious, has his blind spot in this area. And the times when a former player illuminates the audience on a confusing play like that, when they truly bring us behind the dugout, are few and far between. It’s too often just backslapping, ex-athletes pretending to laugh at other ex-athletes’ jokes.
This is how a show like “Clubhouse Confidential,” one of the smartest shows on MLB Network (and a very promising development, simply on a professional television level), ends up being reduced to a “recurring segment” during the season but Kevin Millar is still screaming catchphrases in my face for an hour every day.
And look: This is not simply just some nerd complaining that the people on the TV aren’t using his nerd states. (It is that; it’s just not simply that.) This is how baseball is being played and discussed and assessed in the year 2012. By the front offices, by the arbitrators, by the people making all the decisions … heck, increasingly, by the players themselves. This is simply television doing a poor job of describing what we are watching. It’s the trading of reality for John Kruk and Mitch Williams to hang out with their friends and be paid for it.
This is going to take time. Four years ago, you’d never see a player’s slash-line and a starter’s pitch count shown on broadcasts; they’re regular features now. Pitch-f/x data and Hit-f/x data are too impressive technological breakthroughs not to be used on broadcasts. Many younger broadcasters are embracing the data as a way of breaking through to an audience that’s hungry for something more than the old broadcasting tropes.
But we’re not there yet.
Maybe someday we’ll have a broadcaster describe the way baseball is being played, managed and evaluated without, you know, spitting the words at us as if they were venom. A fan can dream.
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I know: Nerd writer, nerd stats. Got it. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.