Pedro Baez threw Eric Hosmer a chest-high fastball that Hosmer chopped into the ground for what looked as if it might be that sort of annoying single that sneaks through the infield. However, charging from behind second base to field the ball was Justin Turner, the Dodgers' third baseman. What was a fairly routine play in Game 3 of the 2020 NLDS was a microcosm of the way the baseball has been played for the past 3 or so years. More often then not, with a left-handed hitter in the box, the 3rd baseman will look at his defensive alignment card and then jog over to the right side of the infield, sometimes even between pitches. This attention to detail that prompts the so-called defensive "shift" has, during the more recent years of the 21st century, broken into baseball, with many teams abandoning other traditional baseball strategies as well for methods of gameplay they believe can help them win more games. For example, teams are more careful with their starting pitchers, generally using them less to both prevent injury and collapses at the end of starts. Furthermore, the level of specialization in pitching and an increased level of scrutiny with regards to pitcher-batter match-ups (along with a probably juiced baseball) has led to an unprecedented level of walks and strikeouts in today's game. These changes in baseball are products of using more and more data in game planning. Many analysts, especially former players and older fans, hate this modern game, citing is boring and thus bad for baseball because fewer balls are in play, decreasing the importance of stealing bases and pitcher shutouts. However, whether they like it or not, this new game is the reality the league is facing because more and more teams are using advanced statistics and new strategies to try to win more games, which is exactly why this change in the game is good. Baseball is evolving whether you like it or not, so you might as well get on board, and, if you have a rooting interest in one of the 30 major league baseball teams, you'd better hope your team does too. If they don't, the game is going to leave them, and you, behind.
Before diving into some different aspects of what many unclearly categorize as simply "analytics," it's important to understand whether or not using data from previous games actually helps teams win. Otherwise, this conversation is pointless. We can all agree that winning is good, right? The more teams that win, the more exciting the regular season is because more teams are trying to make the playoffs, creating tension. That's good for our national pastime because it creates drama and narratives, drawing in more casual fans along with baseball diehards, thus introducing younger fans to the sport and drawing more interest from more fans of sports in general. Pretty simple stuff. So, if we look at the teams who've used the most data in the past 5 years, and look at the teams with the most success over the past 5 years, we can see if there's a correlation there. While there's no real way to quantify what teams used data the most over the pat 5 years, at least not a way that's simple and digestible enough for our purposes, we're going to operate under the assumption that the teams generally thought most to use analytics throughout the baseball community really are employing those techniques. Those teams include the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, Oakland A's, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Tampa Bay Rays. The teams with the greatest win probability added from 2015 to 2020:
As you can see from this fangraphs chart, those teams are the same ones are generally (with the exceptions of the Nationals, who drafted a very strong core for the 2010s, and the Cardinals, who somehow always have satanic magic up their figurative sleeve) the same ones who've dug the deepest into the data since 2015 are the teams who've been the most successful. The Rays are noticeably absent, but, considering both the way their organization was a pioneer of analytics in the late 2000s, leading to an American League pennant in 2008, the way their organization has been raided of its employees for that very reason, and their recent rise as an American League juggernaut and 2020 American League pennant, we'll cut them a little slack here because of their insanely low budget. Additionally, the Cubs, Red Sox, Astros (yes, they cheated but were still good), Nationals, and Dodgers all won a World Series since 2015, while the Athletics, Cardinals, and Yankees have all consistently been in the playoffs. Overall, as we can see from this chart, while we can't determine statistical correlation or causation without randomized experiments, there's a clear positive association between data use and winning. Thus, we can come to a reasonable conclusion that using advanced data clearly helps teams win. Moreover, the fact that teams with low payrolls, like the Athletics and Rays, are able to legitimately compete for a championship by employing data shows that data can equalize teams with disparate payrolls by giving insight into better drafting methods and player signing, thus shortening rebuilds and providing ways for small market teams to win. Not only will good teams win more games, mediocre and bad teams can become good quickly and with less expense than they might normally need to spare.The fact that teams will win more games by using data is beneficial for the sport because as more teams try to win, division races become tighter and more intense, drawing in more viewers as I already mentioned.
However, some argue that even if more teams are going to be able to try to win and make the playoffs each year, data makes the actual on-field product slower and boring, neutralizing the benefit of increased competition. The problem here, however, isn't with the game itself, but, as it so often is with baseball, with marketing and an unwillingness to accept change. Now that we've established that employing more data helps more teams win, we can more than assume that teams are going to use it because, well, they want to win. There's no going back here, but, as I just mentioned, that's ok. Instead of bemoaning things that are different about baseball, like the increase in pitching changers, home runs, strikeouts, and the advent of the shift, market what's cool about those things instead of trying to counteract them. It's akin to swimming desperately at the riptide. There's nothing you can do. Don't try to implement rules about pitching changes, like the new three batter minimum, which didn't even shorten playing time, another complaint of many critics of modern baseball, cut down on the commercials and have commentators explain the advantages of using certain pitchers to face certain batters and embrace optionality and matchups instead of pushing that narratives that pitchers need to go deep into game. Focus the emotional drive of the game on the team, similarly to how one perceives the offense, the lineup. Instead of building up the importance of a starter putting his team on his back, shift that narrative over to the pitching staff as a whole. It's not bad, just different. More characters are involved in the story, creating more emotional connection with the fans.
Similarly, instead of banning a defensive shift, MLB needs to promote it. Teams will be using it because it would be stupid not to position your fielders where they're most likely to, well, field. Explain to fans how the ball isn't actually hit to the bases that often, how using all sort of cool defensive alignments actually helps teams win instead of complaining that it reduces the action in the game. For now, that might be true, but hitters will adjust. Baseball is literally a game of adjustments. Hitters adjust to batter, batters adjust back, and so on. This endless cycle is the universal truth in baseball, the constant grind to find any advantage over the opponent over months and months of competition. It is imperative that baseball highlight the adjustments and unique relationship between hitters and batters to help fans understand the game instead of whining about teams getting smarter. Right now, teams' defenses have the upper hand, but batters will adjust. They're going to have to, because the shift isn't going anywhere and it shouldn't. Why would MLB try to stop teams from employing the best strategy to win? It makes no sense while educating the fans about the shift and changing what constitutes an entertaining game, a subject term.
Speaking of entertaining games, many fans and MLB personalities lament that the game has become to boom or bust, too homer or strikeout prone, and that it makes the games boring, limiting the tension. To an extent that point makes sense. Compared to games of even 5-10 years ago, today's games have less actual action, less running, less fielding, and maybe even less tension. Again, we need to redefine what's exciting and what's not, because all of that is subjective. Personally, I like big home runs and strikeouts, but obviously I'm in the minority or I wouldn't feel the need to write this, uh, whatever this is. To solve this problem of the games being "boring," MLB needs to make it easier for fans to understand what's happening and the intricacies during the game so they have stuff to think about during the natural lulls in the game. For example, national television broadcasts need to dump guys like John Smoltz and Alex Rodriguez who drool over sacrifice bunts and complete games and find more former player analysts like Orel Hershiser who have an unconditional love for the game of baseball and understand why data-driven teams do what they do. ESPN recently started a "Statcast Broadcast" for the smarter fans to listen to instead of their main one. It's awesome and has smart, enthusiastic former players paired with statisticians and play-by-play guys to explain something closer to what teams are actually thinking in 2020 as opposed to their other Sunday night broadcast criticizing data-driven moves. MLB and the networks need to do whatever they can to make all broadcasts like this: entertaining and informative, but most importantly, enthusiastic about baseball. Explaining why teams don't sacrifice bunt or intentionally walk batters often can help stubborn fans possibly shift their opinions on the matter and help new fans understand and appreciate this new baseball where power pitching and hitting are at a premium because they leave no room for bad luck or fielding errors. These strategies make perfect sense when explained properly and passionately. MLB needs to do everything in its power to make sure that happens.
Furthermore, baseball needs to draw in a new audience. While this might seems unrelated to our topic, many younger people don't like baseball because they think nothing happens and that it's boring, but if we get them watching the kinds of broadcast I suggested MLB implement, we can solve that problem as well. However, to get people to watch the games, MLB needs to market the stars. I'm not marketing expert, but I know that making individual players and teams look cool in either commercials or promos or anything makes people want to watch sports. Moreover, baseball should market the kind of players that represent the changes in baseball we've been talking about. Don't just market the hell out of the best players like Mike Trout and Mookie Betts and the 5-tool stars like Cody Bellinger and Fernando Tatis Jr., but also the power pitchers like Walker Buehler and Jacob deGrom, the power hitters like Nelson Cruz and Giancarlo Stanton, and even the swingmen and openers like Julio Urias and Dustin May. Doing so not only makes baseball look cool and like something a teenager would want to watch, it also introduces them to the skills pertinent to this new, emerging baseball before they've even watched a minute of it. To continue to bring in new fans to watch this new brand of baseball, MLB also needs to stop marketing statistics like batting average, errors, pitcher wins and embrace newer, more informative and representative statistics like OPS+ and ERA+, for instance, but there are a ton of interesting statistics if you're interested in actually learning about the game, which is going to imperative in the coming years. Embrace the change, because it will not only help integrate new fans to the sport but also convert old, stubborn ones.
So, admittedly, this is a lot. The central idea, though, is that baseball is changing because teams are getting better at winning, which has changed how the actual game on the field looks. Right now, sure, it looks boring, but that's because the sport is in a period of transition, of evolution. The caterpillar is in the cocoon but hasn't yet turned into the butterfly that will be baseball in a few years. However, to make sure people appreciate that butterfly, major league baseball, at all level and facets, needs to prepare fans for this change and present it in a digestible and entertaining way. It really isn't that complicated. Change is coming, in fact, it's already here. MLB and most of its fans need to stop trying to be the unstoppable object to hinder the immovable force. It's too late for that, as we can see by simply watching baseball games. The data is here and it's not leaving. Embrace the change or get left behind.