I once had a fairly modest wish for the 2014 baseball season. I hoped Fox would replace Tim McCarver with someone who at least understands the concept of advanced statistics. I did not get this wish.
It's a bit of a tired trope to point out how advanced stats have irrevocably changed the very way that sports teams operate. Such statements make the sabermetric revolution -- or advanced stats or whatever phrase you choose -- sound far more innovative than they actually were. As Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats correctly pointed out in a recent post, advanced stats are nothing more than an application of the scientific method. You probably learned about the scientific method in grade school; it predates baseball by a good two centuries.
This is partly why I've always found the idea of rejecting advanced statistics so odd. You might not use them, but to say they're hogwash is to reject the same process which led to nearly every major scientific discovery since the 17th century. Advanced stats are the DNA of modern sports: Both were discovered through the same basic line of intellectual inquiry, and both have changed the fundamental nature of how we think of their respective fields.
I mention this because Harold Reynolds, the newly appointed analyst for Fox broadcasts, as reported by The Big Lead, does not like advanced stats and everything they represent. In a now-infamous debate with Brian Kenny, Reynolds argued for the legitimacy of the pitcher win:
"Win the game, that's what this is all about. You pitch to win the game ... the game is about winning games, period ... CC [Sabathia] is not worried about ERA, he's worried about winning the game."
After Kenny rattled off a series of pitching performances in which the starter gave up no runs but his team still lost (also known as Felix Hernandez Syndrome), Reynolds replied, "You're not gonna win every game you pitch good," as if this were a total non sequitur. This ought to have been Kenny's cue that no further discussion would be fruitful.
Aside from the sometimes-incorrect grammar, Reynolds has proved himself unequipped for live television, an anthropomorphic cliché-spouting machine turned all the way up to Ludicrous Speed. Let's go back into the Fire Joe Morgan archives and see what Reynolds was like during his Baseball Tonight days:
"This generation gets too caught up in stats and we forget how the game should be played. [Derek Jeter] knows how to PLAY baseball."
On why the AL's lineup is favored over the NL: "Their offense is so versatile. They can bunt. They can steal..."
"It's not on-base percentage. If you don't score runs, it doesn't matter."
"I think a lot of times you see these clubs with great pitchers, and the great pitchers struggle to get runs, I think a lot of times, teams go in there and go, 'We're not going to get a whole lot of runs today, you know, with this guy pitching.' I think a lot of times when you have poor pitching (he really punches these two words) going, you know you gotta score some runs! (Really emphatic there.) And it becomes a mindset. You change the style of play that you play, you end up trying to bang a little bit more, you do a lot of things differently. I think when you know you have to score runs, it changes your style of offense."
If you've watched even a single baseball game, you know how off-base much of this is. Please do yourself a favor and read the FJM posts to see hilarious explanations as to why this is not sound logic.
The way baseball is discussed in front of a mass audience is strongly related to its image. In case you haven't heard, kids aren't watching very much baseball and ratings for the sport overall continue to trend downward. There's no single reason for these developments, but one potential explanation is that baseball is no fun to listen to, in that so few of the commentators have anything worthwhile to say. For a sport with such a casual pace, a ton of dead time between plays and so many games per year, this is a huge detriment to the viewing experience. (For comparison, attendance was down in 2013 by only 333 people per game, a far slower decline than the viewing audience; half the teams actually saw attendance increases.) The only people who want to spend three hours listening to old people ramble on about grit, heart, desire and bunting are other old people.
Along these lines, it's likely no accident that Reynolds, 53, is the same age as the average 2013 World Series viewer, 54.4. It says a lot about MLB's perception of age that Reynolds is considered a fairly youthful presence despite being nine years older than Phil Simms when he became CBS' lead NFL analyst and 17 years older than Troy Aikman at the time of his promotion to lead Fox NFL analyst. But Reynolds' perception of baseball is far more antiquated than his numerical age would suggest.
The default state of modern sports viewership is to watch in spite of the people talking, but I carry a religious insistence that it doesn't have to be this way. Sports commentators have not adapted to a more intelligent viewership, still talking to us as if the entire history of baseball is not at our fingertips. The commentary ranges from inane to demeaning.
This isn't to say that the commentators should be the spectacle, but they shouldn't be offensively inadequate either. It would be nice for them to treat us like semi-intelligent beings who may know a thing or two about the sport, and even if they don't agree with certain concepts, to be able to articulate them properly. Reynolds has proven unable to keep pace with the advancements in his own sport. I have spent my entire life hearing unfalsifiable claims about the winning team "wanting it more" or how statistics and effort are two separate, hierarchical entities; I don't need to spend the rest of my life listening to the same clichés, and neither do you.
Bill Barnwell, writing at Grantland before the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, examined why so many major figures in pro sports -- analysts, coaches, players alike -- still don't fully grasp or buy into the concept of advanced stats. His conclusion:
"There is the misnomer that statistics need to encapsulate everything to justify their usage, a baseline that doesn't apply to any traditional method of analysis. And there's a characterizing of concepts that might otherwise be too difficult to understand as a waste of time, which is unfortunate. Because of that, I'm really inclined to think the most important thing stat geeks can do in 2014 is not develop new statistics, but do a better job of explaining the metrics that already exist."
I think this is exactly right. Fox had an opportunity to put someone in the booth with Joe Buck (who, it should be stated, can and has discussed advanced stats) to help drag baseball's broadcast into the era in which it resides. Fox didn't need to, as Will Leitch said here on Friday, create a booth with Keith Law and Joe Sheehan (although I'd watch every baseball game if they did). It just needed someone who isn't hostile to the concepts.
But this is not Reynolds. Rather than replacing McCarver, Fox hired a younger version of him. Reynolds will continue to profess backwards logic to a national audience on a weekly basis and during the World Series. He will continue to argue that OBP is superfluous because scoring runs is all that counts. He will profess the importance of pitcher wins and Kenny will pen a strongly worded tweet. Reynolds will praise a sacrifice bunt as an Aristotelian expression of a noble virtue (but not in those words). The irony of broadcasters spouting their old-man-yells-at-cloud views is that it exacerbates the feedback loop in which fans utilize other means to truly learn about the game, only marginalizing commentators further.
Baseball needs to do all it can to appeal to the next generation of fans, but growing up with Reynolds won't help anyone learn about baseball in the 21st century. Reynolds is already an antiquated relic from a time that no longer exists.
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Disagree? Check out Sarah Bunting's take.