One of my (Evander) heroes, Mel Stottlemyre, is gone. With a 2.97 ERA and possessor of one of the great sinker balls, Mel was headed for the Baseball Hall of Fame if not for shoulder problems. I remember his first game vividly, a classically hot August day-game in 1964. Mickey Mantle hit what might be his longest home run in Yankee Stadium, over the distant center-field wall. Mel would win nine games his first season and be called on to start two games in the World Series: to repeat, as a rookie. He would see two sons in the major leagues and become one of the outstanding pitching coaches for both the Mets and Yankees. R.I.P.
The Right off the Bat (ROTB) project was angled for the hallowed halls of Cooperstown this week. Since we have rescheduled for 2019, permit me (Evander), in this our 601st blog and with little else to do but count them, to consider baseball-by-the-numbers and its impact on a sport, on the major-league level, which is in revenue-and-national-interest decline if regular-season attendance and World Series-viewership figures are to be believed. (Attendance fell by more than three million: below seventy million for the first time since 2003. Already-dismal Series ratings plummeted 23 percent from 2017.)
Before considering this jaw-dropping numeric Decline of the West (or Western Divisions), here on numbers….
The earliest king of figures in space (geometry) and time (music), Pythagoras of ancient Greece and Egypt, defined numbers in three ways: quantitative (counting things), mathematical (abstract calculations), and qualitative (number as symbol: the refined-differentiating aspect of each number).
But aren’t numbers informing an orderly cosmos exclusive markers of the predetermined? The predictable? The boring? Is reality solely expressible in rational (“ratio”) units? Whence lieth the elements of Mystery and Drama?
None exists in a platonic, Newtonian, or pantheistic (cf. Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus) cosmos; nor does God play dice with the universe. Hello!
So what does any of this have to do with baseball? It is still a most-day-in-day-out-lifelike sport of the unpredictable and “intangibles,” right? The miraculous? We don’t know who will win or lose, correct? Or do we? Was the 2018 postseason the most predictable in memory? Yes, yes, and yes; and the trend is clearly turning off the fans.
Since the dawning of Bill James, baseball, especially professional baseball, has been dominated by so-called analytics. Organizations hire younger, faster, “scientificker” general managers and managers who spend hours, in stress and strain, crunching the numbers.
These can get pretty sophisticated. ROTB surveyed some of this trendy modulation five years ago in (Im)probabilities, a genially impudent and mostly subjective look at objective probability. A portion from that blog on the array of stats will cause all but the most spectral-eyed fans to number their days with their favorite pastime:
Twenty-first-century major-league talent is now regularly monitored via Statcast (essentially, a refinement of traditional Sabermetrics) with such generally accepted as well as esoteric stats as WAR (wins above replacement, sometimes rendered WARP); FIELDf/x and Reaction Analysis (respectively measuring a player’s defensive value and how much ground is covered, as well as how quickly); UZR and ISO (Isolated Power, derived by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage); wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus: a stadium- and league-adjusted power measurement); JAWS developed by someone named Jaffe to determine Cooperstown worthiness; UBR (Ultimate Base Running: self-explanatory); Launch Angle and Exit Velocity; line-drive rate and contact rate (these also self-explanatory); Scoring Efficiency (SE); Scoring Load (SC%); and undoubtedly others, even a little older, like one of the first of the new-breed stats WHIP (walks-hits-innings-pitched: the lower, and even below “1,” the better) or DIPS (defense-independent-pitching-statistics); or, for offense, OPS, which combines on-base-and-slugging percentages.
Beyond attendance, think I’m exaggerating? Amid all the numbers, the records’ keeping, once more permettez-moi to disclose that 2018 featured more MLB strikeouts than hits. Did you know that for the first time ever eight teams lost 95 games? In contrast three won 100, and the Boston Red Sox set a franchise-hallowing record of 108. We have not seen this degree of quality-polarization since the 1950s, when perhaps three or four clubs dominated a decade and attendance fell off the (multiplication) table. It all became too… probable and predictable.
Oh yes: two of the three clubs that spent the largest sum in payroll, needless to say, were the Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
There is another number, which is music to no one’s ears, and it involves the measurement of time: The Baby Boom Generation, which supported baseball for decades, is passing into hypereducated oblivion. Youngsters largely find baseball an irrelevance.
Some at the top obviously hold sports gaming or the fantasy service DraftKing would be the way out of predictability, the ho-hum. This reality and thrill of gambling would be injected: no one fathoms what would happen next. Yet we do know that professional baseball and gambling have a long (and rich) history of being, well, at odds. Fans trust they are seeing results at the same time the players do. We soon “celebrate,” if any word could be right, the centennial-conspiracy of the Black Sox Scandal. This anniversary would coincide with our pilgrimage to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Other wet blankets maintain, perhaps correctly, that analytics may be the end of Hot Stove League leverage among even elite-level free agents. The numbers don’t lie. Baseball is an ever-more data-driven endeavor. There may be a logic to collusion among owners. But more likely, analytics show certain indubitable patterns with respect to players’ fall-off in production. That age is 32. We will not be seeing the Joe Nuxhalls or Bob Fellers anymore. Only the NBA signs teens. The baseball players’ union ought to examine its CBA with respect to when a player becomes eligible for full free agency.
MLB, as always (from ongoing discussions between Martin and myself), could take lessons in the entertainment department from the cricket world: successes and cautionary tales. To counter the stodgy universe of test cricket, T20 was hatched in the early 2000s. The more-fluid defensive positioning in cricket came way ahead of analytics-bred defensive shifts. (Tho there are negative whispers, to put the shift into the same category as the zone defense of basketball.) International cricket has had its recent share of gambling-related woes.
I’ll say it: Baseball is clearly in danger of becoming an old exercise in paint-by-number.
Whence goeth the fun?
Relentlessly, the English medium-fast bowler James Anderson is climbing the list of all-time wicket takers (in Test cricket). At the time of this writing, he’s placed fifth (with 544), a mere 19 wickets below the great Australian quick Glenn McGrath, and in sight of becoming the fast bowler who’s taken the most Test wickets. What’s more, Anderson’s body shows no signs of breaking down or his heart of losing interest, in spite of the fact that he just turned thirty-six and has been playing international cricket since 2003.
In fact, although the pace at which Anderson delivers the ball has slowed to the low- to mid-eighties (m.p.h.), he not only keeps on taking wickets, but keeps on improving. One lingering asterisk over his greatest-of-all-time status has been the number of runs he’s conceded per wickets taken. Anderson’s career got off to a very rocky start. Between his debut against Zimbabwe fifteen years ago and the last day of 2009, his average was an unremarkable wicket every 34.65 runs conceded—a consequence of tinkering with his action that caused him to slump in form and confidence. Between 2010 and today, however, his average has been a world-class 24.33 runs per wicket—an improvement of a full ten runs per wicket. The result is that Anderson is not only the most durable, reliable, and successful of England’s Test bowlers, but (with an aggregate average of 27.19) at the heavily policed border of unquestionable GOAT territory.
Anderson’s continued improvement is not only a testimony to his extraordinary fitness, intense enjoyment of the game, and fine cricketing brain, but also to the elegant and efficient mechanics of his bowling action and his remarkable control over the ball as it leaves his hand. Able to swing the ball both ways, he is now no longer reliant on England’s cloud-cover and cool temperatures to make the ball do enough through the air or off the pitch to fool the batsman—although he still remains more successful in English conditions. His best-ever figures (7 wickets for 42 runs) came last year (beating out his 7–43 of 2008). Not only did he average a miserly 17.58 runs per wicket in 2017, but he allayed the skeptics during the dismal England tour of Australia in 2017–18, when he was his team’s most successful bowler in harsh conditions. He is now a man for all pitches and climates, maintaining tight discipline over the line and length of his deliveries, and making scoring runs off him difficult.
The three bowlers above McGrath in the list—Anil Kumble (619 wickets), Shane Warne (708), and Muttiah Muralitharan (800)—were all spinners of the ball, an art and science with less wear-and-tear on the body than for those who run up to the wicket, ball after ball after ball. The spinners’ records, each a testament to their greatness, are unlikely to be beaten, although Kumble and Muralitharan were thirty-eight when they played their last Tests. It’s, therefore, conceivable that Anderson could play for another two years, and, if he maintains his current trajectory, would end up with an astonishing 626 wickets. Given England’s ongoing trouble with finding a frontline seam bowler to replace him, and Anderson’s ever-ripening skills, it’s not out of the question that he could take more wickets, even more rapidly, and go on even longer. Either way, it’s hard to imagine another fast bowler will ever catch him.
The synchronicity of nostalgia. Events that rhyme in time. A circling of the sun. The revolution of the cold-blooded moon. Fantasy and fact orbit one another!
It is 60 years ago today, July 21, 2018, that “Joe Boyd, a middle-aged real estate salesman, met the man who was to change the course of his life and, indirectly, the standings of the American League.” It is also 13 days since the death of Tab Hunter, who plays Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees, a musical based on the novel from which the quote is taken. It is one of Hunter’s signature roles.
Author Douglas Wallop, whose surname, according to family legend, was earned by ancestors for what they did to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings, was peering even further ahead for Yankees’s failure…to 1958, when the truly cataclysmic would occur: the lowly Washington Senators (several times removed from the present-day Nationals, definitely not patsies) would take a league championship from the Yankees.
The movie-musical and the novel from which it derives are fresh and entertaining. Wallop’s influences were several, real-life and fictional: the burgeoning Adonis-myth of Mickey Mantle (in My Favorite Summer 1956: “I was never much for plays. People said the author patterned this Joe Hardy after me. I don’t know if that’s true. Another thing I don’t know is why the club would want us to see a play where the Yankees lose the Pennant.”); the sizzling and (ultimately) doomed relationship of Joe DiMaggio (who, 77 years and 3 days ago at this writing, embarked on a less-famous 16-game batting streak, thus to hit in 72 out of 73 games) and Marilyn Monroe; plus a nocturnal-cynical narrative of bad karma and redemption called The Natural (1952), which itself would be adapted as a 1984 film.
I have no idea if Tab Hunter is routinely compared to Robert Redford, who stars in The Natural: respectively, leading men in much-different times. Hunter’s death, along with others of a generation, represents a closing of the Hollywood studio-system mind.
Below, Ray Walston, the Yankees #1 fan, muses on the bad-old days.
As the 2018 MLB season dawns and hope springs eternal, it precedes the draft by nine weeks (June 4 to 6). Months before that and earlier in blooming careers, Perfect Game, once a term solely relating to pitchers mowing down 27 (or more) straight hitters, is the late-September go-to source/showcase for/of talent. Held in Jupiter, Fla., PG brings prodigious high-schoolers to the attention of college programs as well as to the pros. Since 2003, David Rawnsley, tho he may not be a household name among even more-than-casual baseball fans (he’d be known locally for his 1990s stint with the Astros), is vp over 60 full-time PG staff and hundreds of part-timers. (Baseball America is another well-accepted source of talent-rating.)
The sort that they look at: 2017 high-school prospect Jake Eder.