Baseball Old School

baseball old schoolBaseball is here! It has been for weeks. Due to the blog bogs, it’s been a while since my last baseball post. It’s high time to rectify that!

One problem is that the Twins don’t give you a whole lot to talk about. They rarely earn many headlines on the hardball pages. (This is at least partially due to not earning many runs on the baseball fields.) We’re not dead last in any key stat, and we’re even doing pretty good in some areas. That’s relatively good news for Twins fans!

Today I want to talk about baseball, old school versus new school. It’s a choice you make—or one that’s thrust upon you—and which you adopt often informs many of your other views on the sport.

MLB NowAvid baseball fans may recognize the influence in this post of a new program on the MLB channel, MLB Now. The show features Harold Reynolds and Brian Kenny “debating” baseball topics through the lens of old school (Harold) versus new school (Brian).

The show is one thing; I may write about that some other time. What’s key today is the idea of old school versus new school. In some ways, it’s the difference between gut and brain. New school leans heavily on stats and economic factors; it treats baseball as something one can analyze and deconstruct. Old school takes a holistic approach that leans on experience; it treats baseball as complex, nuanced and difficult to analyze.

It depends a bit on whether you see baseball as, mathematically speaking, a highly chaotic system where tiny—essentially unmeasurable—effects result in significant outcomes. Given that so many things, nearly all the really interesting things, do operate in the realm of chaos, why shouldn’t baseball?

Brian Kenny

MLB’s Brian Kenny
(new school)

It has also been suggested that the division of old versus new isn’t as strong or clear as it once was. These days most folks who pay attention to baseball use both their gut and the numbers. The story of Moneyball is the story of new school analytical baseball fighting for recognition and success. These days just about everyone acknowledges the analytic advantages to some degree.

If it wasn’t clear by now, I do lean old school. You might think my love of science and math would align me with the new school, but in fact I’m old-fashioned in many regards.  And I do believe life is a complex, chaotic system that defies full analysis.

Harold Reynolds

MLB’s Harold Reynolds
(old school, former player)

This brings me to another aspect of old school versus new school. There is an element of, literally, old versus new. Or rather of “old-fashioned” views versus “newfangled” views. This division ends up muddying the water, since it’s not necessarily the same as your views on baseball analysis.

I have decidedly old-fashioned views about life and about baseball. But I do like the stats. But I don’t think they tell the whole story; I do believe baseball is complex beyond full analysis. But that doesn’t make the stats not a whole lot of fun!

For many issues, I’m on the fence (or downright conflicted in some cases). That MLB show has me pondering some of them, and today I thought it would be nice to record some of those thoughts.

So for the record…

Jim ThomeI once heard someone say that if you don’t have an opinion about the designated hitter rule, you’re not really a baseball fan.  (This reminds me a bit of the old school programmer’s view that, if you’ve never written a compiler, you’re not really a programmer. And—yes—I lean old school on that, too.)

When I heard that I was dismayed, because I’m pretty neutral when it comes to the DH rule. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say I didn’t know enough about the game to have a valid opinion.  I think now, perhaps, I do.

Paul Molitor[The designated hitter rule allows a team to have a separate player who bats for the pitcher but doesn’t play in the field. This frees pitchers from having to also be hitters. American League teams use the DH, but National League teams do not.]

Oddly, I lean new school on this one; I ultimately favor the designated hitter rule. This one isn’t clear-cut to me, though. My old-fashioned leanings see baseball as a game played by nine players. The DH rule conflicts with the “purity” of baseball and its origins.

What tips the balance for me is:

  1. Baseball does evolved and change; the rules do change over time. Baseball purity is important, but baseball does change.
  2. Pitchers are like Formula 1 race cars these days. They are high-performance and easily broken. The divide between pitchers and other players is much greater these days.
  3. Baseball is a billion dollar game now, so economics matter. Fans like hitting; fans hate broken pitchers. Millions are spent on pitchers now; they should be kept safe.
  4. It’s just plain fun seeing people like Jim Thome hit.  It just is.
  5. I like baseball strategy, and the extra element of strategy brought in when NL teams play AL teams is interesting to watch.

Pitcher Catcher BatterAnother topic hot from MLB Now was whether the Win-Loss stat for pitchers is meaningful. Those who follow baseball know that the stat often does not represent the pitcher’s actual performance. In some cases, the stat can almost seem unjust!  The counter-argument is that it reflects a pitcher’s determination, drive and longevity.

I’ll jump directly to my answer. I’ve always found it an interesting but not always a significant stat. It’s definitely not one I use to compare pitchers. I do think a pitcher with a high win ratio is probably a damned good pitcher.  I think the stat can maybe point out pitchers who excel (and perhaps those who totally suck).

When it comes to pitching stats, I start with ERA, but that’s just a start. I also like BB/9 and K/9.  (ERA could be called ER/9, so they’re all related.)  I’m not big on K/BB (or as you sometime see it, BB/K). For one thing, you do see it both ways, which is confusing. More importantly, you have to look at IP for K/BB be really meaningful. (And, of course, there’s WHIP, which confuses you slightly by being “per inning” rather than “per nine.”)

Justin Verlander[There is a stat for pitchers, “win-loss” or “W-L”, that tells you the state of the game when that pitcher finished pitching (which could be at any point in the game). Basically, if his team gets the lead—and keeps it until the end of the game—the pitcher gets a “W”.

If the pitcher gives up the lead—and the team never gets it back—the pitcher gets a “L”. If the game is tied (when the pitcher finishes), or if the lead changes later, the pitcher gets a “no decision.”

ERA, BB/9 and K/9 are a bit harder to explain. It takes several paragraphs to just explain what an “earned run” is. The simplest way to put it is that they represent the number of runs given up, walks and strike-outs for a pitcher in a nine-inning game.]

umpireA topic fans have debated a long time is whether umpires should avail themselves to video slow-motion replays to determine tough plays. Currently the umps are allowed to use video replay for only one thing: determining a tough-to-call home run.  In all other plays, it’s the ump’s call, and the ump’s call is always final.

A newer version of the debate argues over whether umps should use technology to more reliably call balls and strikes. Many of us see the game with the strike zone, and every pitch, clearly marked by video technology.

Here’s where my old school (in the old-fashioned sense) really kicks in.  As frustrating—as infuriating—as a bad call against you can be, these things level off over time. All teams suffer the occasional bad ump call, sometimes disastrously so. And bad calls are actually fairly rare; in general MLB umps do an amazing job.

strike zoneMy bottom line is that umps are a human element to the game, and I like that bit of humanity. Does it sometimes, very rarely, famously ruin something amazing? Yes. But that’s baseball, and I think it should always be a part of things, a reminder of human frailty and error.

After all, how many sports have a formal stat for player errors? To error is human, and baseball is the quintessential human sport. It is a sport that doesn’t require extreme tallness or a body like a refrigerator or speed like a gazelle. It is a sport that anyone with a ball and a stick can play. It is the sport that children can play.

It is what children should be playing. And what we should be watching. Not on our ePhones, but sitting in the bleachers on a summer day while eating popcorn.

Baseball is here! Batter Up!!

little baseball players

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “Baseball Old School

  • heysugarsugar

    I am reading out of loyalty but babeyyyyyyy I don’t understand baseball I’m a Welsh blonde 😉 well written though babe. How’s your honeypot? X

  • yourothermotherhere

    Stats are important, but they aren’t everything and in fact, can be deceptive as Mark Twain pointed out, “”There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” There are many factors that can affect statistics.

    I lean a little bit more towards the old school, holistic approach not only to baseball, but to football as well. In my opinion, before performance enhancing drugs and multimillion dollar contracts, the games were played more as a man-to-man competition, a gladiator sort of thing where the crowds waited for first blood.

    Now it’s more of a Las Vegas kind of thing, a Wall Street business, a cold calculation. I’m not naive enough to believe that either sport will go back to the “good old days”, but I’m kind of sad for today’s young fans who will never know them except on film.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Sounds like we’re much on the same page. That pitcher Wins stat is a good example of one that can be deceptive. A pitcher can have started many games, participated greatly in game wins, but still not have any W’s in their own win column. That could be due to their team’s offense being weak, or due to facing other teams with good pitchers and/or good hitters.

      Consider a pitcher who keeps the game scoreless for six or seven innings. If the pitcher’s team is also scoreless, that pitcher will leave these games, late in the game, with the score tied. If the team then goes on to win those games, the relief pitcher gets all those W’s.

      But the reality is that everything is changing and changing at a growing pace. I hope we manage to hang on to some of the idealism that grows from baseball, the pastoral sport from the 1800s. The movies and books help, and many fans do lean old school. It’s all about attitude!

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

  • Michelle at The Green Study

    Well-written post. I’m not a huge sports fan, but it is a significant part of our culture. I am always struck by the idea that the more we try to quantify humans, the less sense statistics make on the ground. It seems we try very hard to change human endeavors into video games. Sometimes knowing numbers can negatively impact what is essentially an enjoyable, intuitive experience.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thank you. I totally agree about how analysis can ruin certain experiences. Back when I had aspirations of being a musician, I discovered a love of jamming on existing and made-up tunes. But any really good jam I found, if I tried to get it on paper, it ruined it, killed the fun of it.

      Analysis can be a Good Thing, but there is a line when it comes to experience (in both senses of the word). I hear baseball managers say over and over that they love the stats, but don’t let it affect them too much. It’s a bit like the old joke about the centipede who starting actually thinking about walking with 100 legs. And then got so confused it couldn’t.

      The cautionary parable is there in our cultural understanding… It even shows up in several Star Trek episodes. Logic: great, wonderful, powerful tool. But Chaos theory (non-linear dynamics), Quantum theory (uncertainty), Mathematical theory (Godel, Turing, Canter) and experience all agree that it is not enough. Life transcends logic and math. It will always defy full analysis.

  • bronxboy55

    When you were discussing pitchers’ stats, Nolan Ryan jumped into my head. (Actually, it was just his name.) He played for twenty-seven years, pitched seven no-hitters, had a lifetime ERA around 3.2, but his win-loss record is barely above .500. Another interesting stat: Ryan was the 295th player picked in the ’65 draft.

    I’m mostly old-school, too, WS. I miss the days when there were ten teams in each league, and at the end of the season the two teams with the best records went to the World Series. I also miss watching guys like Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax pitch against the likes of Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron without hiding behind the intentional walk. I know the free pass is now an integral part of baseball strategy, but I hate it.

    Great post. Glad to see you posting again!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks! I’d bet some images jumped into your head, too. Heads are funny that way.

      They keep arguing the topic of pitcher’s win-loss record on that MLB Now show. I guess both guys feel pretty strongly about it. It’s a pity that Reynolds isn’t more articulate at presenting why old school is important, how real life’s complexity makes stats useful but not normative. And I wish they’d compromise more, recognize the value of both ways of looking at it.

      That said, I find myself agreeing more and more with Kenny. As you point out with Nolan—surely one of the great pitchers—the W-L doesn’t always reflect their performance. I still think a notable W-L says something. An 0-12 or a 12-0 record tells me the pitcher may be really struggling or really good. But 6-6 or 3-9 or 7-5…. [shrug] Doesn’t tell me much without knowing how many starts there were and what his average IP per game was.

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