Musing on the State of the Game

What a week, huh?

Monday saw us pretty much declare the MLB season dead. Just two days later, we were reviving it, hopeful it could happen. But now, as I write this, I don’t know how any season could be possible. Not only are the owners going to reject the players’ 70 game proposal, it seems like COVID’s continuing impact on the country is going to supersede anything else.

As if it weren’t abundantly clear already, there really shouldn’t be sports in the United States this year. The first wave that we felt here in New York is finally reaching other parts of the country, especially places that opened up early, including Florida and Arizona, necessitating that MLB teams do Spring Training–if it even happens–at their home parks, excepting the Blue Jays. That may be good for the Yankees and Mets, but it could put the Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Rays at risk, not to mention the Rangers and Astros, given the similar situation in Texas.

Other countries are enjoying sports right now because their governments and authorities handled this situation much better than ours did. For that, we as sports fans are paying the price. It’s a trivial price, sure, but this is a sports-focused site, so we’ll pretend it’s more important than it is.

In the vein of pretending, let’s also imagine that things are okay enough to start baseball again and it’s just the labor issues that are holding things up. If you’ve listened to the podcast–and you obviously have, right?–you know how we here feel about the labor issues and whose side we’re on (it’s the players’ side). With that in mind, I have a question about the game that I’ve been asking myself for a while now, but wasn’t quite sure how to put my thoughts about it into words. It’s a rhetorical question, to be sure, as there isn’t quite a real answer out there.

How responsible is sabermetrics/analytics “stuff” responsible for the state of the game? There are two levels to my answer.

The first is the on-field level. Analytics have made the game much different than it was before. A prime example of this? The other day, I was watching a 1996 playoff game and Mariano Rivera was pitched. The announcers seemed awed that he was throwing around 93 at times. Nowadays, thanks to the emphasis on strikeouts, every team has multiple bullpen arms who can hit 95 with regularity.

That emphasis on strikeouts from the pitching side leads into the rest of the game’s aesthetic, which has been focused on power pitching, power hitting, and getting on base for quite a while now. In a way that’s distasteful to some (many?), this has made the game less active–fewer balls put into play–and made winning teams seem a little monolithic at times. On the whole, I’m fine with this, more or less. Striking batters out, socking dingers (and other XBH), and getting men on base is a winning formula. If you want it to change, build a better mousetrap.

But on the bigger level, the off-field stuff, I do wonder if the rise in analytics has led to more tension between players and owners. Doubtless, the owners have been trying to screw over the players since the start of the professional game. Luckily, people like Curt Flood and Marvin Miller started fighting back against those things and the players have gained much more power than their predecessors could’ve dreamed of. But the current way of thinking regarding analytics, the way it’s been for the past 20 years, really, has a laser focus on efficiency that certainly has a slightly dehumanizing effect. The teams and front offices are also farther ahead on this stuff than the players and they use that to their advantage. These consequences are unintended; the landscape of writers and thinkers who’ve moved analytics forward is chock full of almost universally pro-player, pro-labor sentiment. However, they’re consequences regardless of purpose.

Can this be undone? Probably not. But, as the players make their own personal gains in understanding and applying analytics, they can fight back with information at hand. Should this be undone? Not really. Analytics have helped us understand the game on a deeper level and that’s a good thing overall.

One last bit, again touching on the racial issues and baseball, as I’ve done a lot of recently. If you follow me on Twitter, I apologize for the repeat. If you don’t, here’s a thought I had this past week:

I’m not sure how it would look or how it would run, but at some point, there needs to be some public reckoning by white baseball players about race in baseball, beyond tweets and instagram posts.

And I don’t mean the Sean Doolittle, Lucas Giolito types who seem to have their heads on right. Maybe they run it or lead it, but there needs to be some public discussion with the “play the game the right way” crowd, which is likely overwhelmingly white and “conservative.”

We’ve heard a lot from Black players about the pain and hardship of being a Black major leaguer; now we need to hear from the white players, coaches, execs, etc. about what the hell they’re going to do to change it.

It must be a tremendous burden for Black players to constantly deal w/this stuff and the solutions, generally speaking, need to be from their ideas. But it shouldn’t also be their burden to constantly teach and lead on things. White players, coaches, execs have to take the baton at some point and make the change actually happen. It’s not just gonna happen by Good Tweets and Meaningful Statements or by Wanting It. They’ve gotta do things to change the culture of baseball in a real, tangible way. Top down, bottom up.

For myriad reasons, the state of the game is at the strangest its been in my lifetime. I have no idea what it will look like in a matter of days, let alone next season or beyond. Much like life might not look the same for a bit, I wonder if baseball with follow the same pattern.

Stay safe, folks.

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2 Comments

  1. Mungo

    The players have lost me now. The owners did before. It’s now the overall game that I’m disgusted with. In a year of anarchy, perhaps it’s time the tear the game down too. I lived through the 1994/95 strike. Many older fans stayed away for a while when the game returned, many never returned to this day. There were enough younger fans to keep it going. I was one of them. Twenty-five years on, I’m now one of the older fans. My loyalty is no longer guaranteed. I’ll be fine if both the owners and the players feel the pain on this one.

    • Mike Colombo

      What made you say the players lost you? Genuinely curious.

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