Originally published at the late lamented Weekly Standard, July 15, 2018
I think I’m just going to have to accept the fact that I am no longer a baseball fan. This is a difficult admission for me to make, because baseball was extremely important to me for many, many years. As a child I was an Atlanta Braves fan, because they were the team nearest my home in Alabama, and one of my most treasured rituals involved drifting off to sleep while listening to the Braves’ West Coast road trips. Milo Hamilton was the Braves’ lead announcer in those days, but the announcer I loved the most was Ernie Harwell for the Detroit Tigers, whom I was able to hear because WJR radio in Detroit had an incredibly powerful signal that I could pick up with perfect clarity at night. (Ernie remains for me the ideal baseball announcer; I have always felt that much of the adulation that Vin Scully receives would have been better directed at Ernie.)
As I became more knowledgeable about the game I became a Baltimore Orioles fan; I didn’t cease to cheer for the Braves, but at some point I decided I needed an American League team to follow and the Orioles fascinated me. (I think they first came to my attention in the 1970 World Series—the Brooks Robinson World Series, as I still think of it, thanks to the wizardly defensive plays the Orioles’ great third baseman made throughout that series.) Soon enough the Orioles displaced the Braves in my affections, and I became a fervent proponent of the strategy promoted by their pint-sized but volatile manager Earl Weaver: “Pitching, defense, and three-run homers.” Earl was also a great proponent of left-right platooning, and in the early 1980s when most people thought that Jim Rice of the Red Sox was the best left fielder in the American League, I knew that the best left fielder was in fact the combination of Gary Roenicke (who played against, and murdered, lefties) and John Lowenstein (who played against, and murdered, righties).
I think I was so taken by how the Orioles played because it was different—Earl’s philosophy was effectively countercultural at a time when many teams, especially in the National League, placed great emphasis on the running game, on bunting men over—on scratching a single run from an infield single, a stolen base, a bunt, and a sacrifice fly. Earl thought that required too many things to go right for a maximum reward of a single run. He preferred to encourage his hitters to work the count, to take walks, and then, with a man or two on base, swing for the fences. If you followed that strategy, he believed, you had a far better chance of putting three runs on the board than the run-scratchers had of putting up a singleton.
This attitude towards hitting had its mirror-image in Earl’s philosophy of pitching. He hated to see his pitchers walk anyone. Though he and his long-time ace Jim Palmer had a notoriously tempestuous relationship, and were baseball’s great Odd Couple—the short, fiery, chain-smoking Weaver could not possibly have been more visually different than the tall, elegant, famously handsome Palmer—they were in complete agreement on this essential point. Every year Palmer would give up more home runs than almost anyone in baseball, but they were usually solo homers; he never once in his major-league career served up a grand slam, nor did he ever allow back-to-back homers. Earl and Jim didn’t mind giving you one run as long as they got three in the next inning.
In my instinctive contrarianism I grew deeply attached to this way of playing baseball, so you can easily imagine how I felt when, in my twenties, I started reading (“devouring” might be a better word) Bill James’s Baseball Abstract. For James’s early and profoundly influential exercises in sabermetrics—advanced baseball statistics, named after SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research—proved pretty conclusively that Earl was right all along, and those guys scrabbling for one run at a time were just chasing a losing hand. I felt vindicated, and even more so as the years went by and sabermetrics grew more detailed and sophisticated. Earl Weaver was in a way the patron saint of sabermetrics, and I was happy to bask in the reflection of his glory.
But, strangely enough, here is where my troubles, as a baseball fan, began.
As the conclusions of serious sabermetric study became more assured, and began to work their way into the very fiber of organized baseball—a process most famously described in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball—Earl’s Way became the Only Way. Of course, there were still some straggling adherents of the old running game; and hardly any organization followed the sabermetric rule book with absolute faithfulness; and teams always have to adjust their strategies to the dimensions and character of their ballparks; but eventually almost every team in Major League Baseball came to play essentially the same style.
What makes this a problem is that, as boxing fans have always known, styles make fights. What made Earl’s Way so fascinating all those years ago was its distinctiveness; and that’s what made the arguments among fans fun too. As fascinating as the sabermetrics revolution in baseball has been—and I cheered it on for decades, following James and the other pioneers with passionate intensity—the comprehensiveness of its victory has simply made baseball less enjoyable to watch, for me anyway. Strangely enough, baseball was better when we knew less about the most effective way to play it.
Let me illustrate. Coaches used to place a lot of emphasis on teaching batters how to hit the ball to the opposite field, at least sometimes. But sabermetrics has shown that batters get more hits, and more extra-base hits, if they pull the ball. In turn, the increased dominance of pull-hitting has led defenses to employ shifts that place fielders in the most likely paths of balls hit by any given batter. And then batters have responded to these shifts by realizing that it doesn’t matter where the fielders are if you hit the ball out of the park. So: more and more batters swinging for the fences, hitting more home runs than ever, and accepting historically high levels of strikeouts as just the inevitable collateral damage. (Pitching, meanwhile, has taken note of those big swings and gone more and more to plus-95mph fastballs as the best defense against them.) So in situations in which we used to talk about hitting the other way and line-drive swings, we now talk about launch angles and exit velocities.
It’s important to be clear about this: Coaches and players understand the percentages better than they ever have in the history of the game, and are acting accordingly. All of these changes I have traced are eminently rational. Players are giving themselves the best possible chance of success, in hopes of more money for them and more wins for their team. Even when they don’t try to bunt or slap a single into the vast open space on one side of a shifted infield, they’re being rational, because, as noted earlier, Earl was right: those base-at-a-time one-run strategies are highly inefficient.
So you can’t blame anyone for the way the game has developed. It has become more rational, with a better command of the laws of probability, and stricter, more rigorous canons of efficiency. But for those very reasons it’s not as fun to watch. Every team plays more or less like every other team (though not equally well, of course); there is a great deal of standing around and very little movement, except for swinging-and-missing and swinging-and-homering; no longer do we have interest generated by wildly different approaches to the game. Individual players are as wonderful as they have ever been—it’s been a privilege to watch Mike Trout match the very highest standards of excellence, and I don’t remember more purely fun-to-watch players than Javy Baez and Jose Altuve. But they are working in an overall context that’s less and less appealing to me.
I still pony up each season for my MLB At Bat subscription, and keep the app on my iPad. When I open it I am reminded again that it’s a brilliantly designed app—but I don’t open it very often. I don’t suppose I have watched half a dozen games this season. A 50-year love affair seems to be coming to an end.
There’s a scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in which one character complains about the tediousness of balls—the dancing kind, not the sports kind. “It would surely be much more rational,” she says, “if conversation instead of dancing were made the order of the day.” To which her brother replies, “Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.” I feel like this about what used to be our national pastime: It is much more rational, but not near so much like a game.