On April 6, 1973, Ron Blomberg stepped to the plate at Fenway Park; just another opening day between Blomberg’s New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. But it was more. Blomberg became the first ever Designated Hitter and baseball’s soft core civil war grew a new branch.
On one side were the National League purists who argued that pitchers must bat. The American League only DH was a gross corruption of the game and some even questioned if the American League was a major league at all. The DH diminished strategical maneuvers; just kick back and wait for the three run homer.
Two distinct identities emerged. The clash came to a climax every October in the World Series. The debate raged on until the mid 1990’s when lion maybe didn’t lay down with lamb, but they shared a cup of coffee. Inter-league regular season play was launched and the tension dispersed.
But there is no baseball without controversy and debate. The us versus them hooray for our side changed venues. Number crunchers versus those who trust their own instincts and eyes surfaced again. The debate is as old as baseball itself.
Sabermetrics is often referred to as a revolution and that makes sense to me as I google the Latin origin of the word; revolvere “turn, roll back” as in nothing new, as in returning to the way baseball was once perceived by a controversial minority way back when Henry Chadwick walked the baseball earth, way back when baseball was in its formative days.
Chadwick championed the base on balls. He questioned why errors were considered negative. You reach more balls on defense, you logically make more errors. Chadwick was blown off and for what? To keep baseball simple? To not alienate the masses, To sell tickets? To make money?
It wouldn’t be the first time power trippers reduced complicated realities into simple black and white explanations, appealing to emotions through colorful imagery. Demagoguery.
The number crunchers didn’t disappear. They continued to toil away in makeshift labs; sharing information through snail mail and the backs of baseball digest. Data collected and analyzed. Formulas, calculations, player evaluations integrating dozens and dozens of variables so we could better understand what just happened and forecast what might happen, separate the “signal from the noise.”
Allan Roth attended Montreal Royals baseball games in the 1940’s. The Royals were the AAA affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Roth approached Dodgers GM Branch Rickey and offered him his statistical services. He was hired and OB% was soon integrated into the Dodger evaluation of players. Roth became baseball’s first full time statistician.
Bill James worked as a third shift janitor in Kansas during the 1970’s; a perfect job to crunch numbers and carry the torch onward. There were many others.
The internet brought their underground “subversive” findings to light and over the last 15 years or so, sabermetrics went mainstream with kids no longer just collecting baseball cards. They preached about WAR and BABIP and ISO. The best of both worlds, no? Numbers, formulas, and percentages sharing a place with our own eyes and instincts and yet, some continue to be angry and hate one side or the other.
In one corner is the revolution deepening every day with new formulas and evaluations. And in the other corner are those who question if these math whizzes even watch the game. It smells like a dissing. If something is too complicated, then call it stupid; dehumanize it and champion your own cause, desperation.
My math IQ is sub high school level and so I listen to these math whizzes. I’m in awe of them.The proliferation of sabermetric research feels like an apocalypse in the old Greek sense of the word, as in Apokalyptein, as in “uncover, disclose, reveal” bring us closer to the reality of a baseball game.
A revolution as we return to an ancient time when our ancestors could maybe see and perceive more than we can today; revealing what was always there. We just couldn’t see it. I find the attempt remarkable. Nowadays, all major league teams use some form of sabermetric research when drafting players, filling out a batting order, aligning a defense, and so on.
The number 105 flashes across the TV screen. It’s not a radar clocking the pitch of Aroldis Champam. It’s the speed of a ball hit by Carlos Gomez. I don’t know how long the data has been available but it must have added a new wrinkle to an already difficult value to determine; a player’s defensive range.
I want the Brewer’s manager to rely in part on his own instincts, but I also want him to rely on NASA engineers, chemistry professors, and anonymous math whizzes who happen to also be baseball fans.
The Brewers are west, in Arizona; first pitch was 9:40 EST. I fell asleep in the 1st inning, but according to mlb.com’s digital morning box score, the final score was Brewers 9, Arizona 3. There’s sabermetric inspired information listed. It raises more questions than answers.
The Brewers are 42-29.