Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The New Moneyball And The Corner Bakery

My first admission is that I am 62-years-old. As a fan of some 56 years of MLB, I have to fight my inner Murray Chass (or Tony La Russa apparently) and not be a curmudgeon about baseball analytics. I use them. I enjoy them as rating tools. But there is just something about the entire game being run by them that rubs me in all the wrong George Orwell places.

My curmudgeon side will complain that analytics is the cause of shifts in baseball and lower batting averages. They are the cause of being unhappy that Justin Verlander's career was petering until he went to Houston. Can't a guy I don't like die a graceless death already?

My inner Murray Chass will bemoan strikeouts that are just outs when I will never accept that or that they are worth it if launch angles create more homers along the way. I won't ever be able to figure out why Designated Hitters who never touch a glove all season get negative dWAR. I'll never understand how Didi Gregorius never rates higher defensively than he does or how the defense of a lousy hitter makes him a better player than a really good hitter.

My second admission is that I long ago accepted that is the game now as we know it. I get it. I am, after all, the kid who played multiple Strat-o-matic baseball game seasons each summer knowing they were an early form of statistical analysis. I will never be an Eno Sarris, but I've done my best to understand as much as I can about what the numbers mean. It's okay. I'll deal.

But then I saw this video on Twitter. And the ever smug, I-know-more-than-you, Brian Kenny introduces Mr. Sarris to talk about the new Moneyball and how analytics is taking over the game from every angle right through player development. I remember when the (very pleasant) Mr. Sarris was a hack blogger like the rest of us. Good on him for carving a career out of figuring this stuff all out. I root for people like him.

So anyway, I watch this video and instead of marveling at how far technology has come in baseball, I got this sinking feeling. There is a sort of innocence lost in being able to parse the game into its minutia.

For some reason, the thought process made me think of cookies. Yes, this is the time of year I think about cookies. I am really good at making cookies. My cookies taste better than ANY cookie I've ever bought at the grocery store. Why is that? Nothing you can buy in a package tastes as good as it did when we used to go down to the bakery and buy from a nice man and his wife. THOSE were cookies!

Is there a similarity here? I think there is. The act of making cookies in mass production came from information. The basic formula is how a company can mass produce cookies that consumers will buy despite not tasting as good as their bakery forebears. Use the cheapest materials, find artificial replacements for real ingredients and design machinery and packaging to produce a somewhat tasty, cheaply-made bulk product for the masses.

All those cookie decisions were made by analyzing data. And these companies, whether it be Nabisco or Keebler rely on tons of data to balance performance versus cost. It sounds similar does it not? The bottom line is maximizing the dollar.

But some of the magic was lost. Bakeries cannot compete with mass production. They make a better product but it costs more. I feel a loss not making a special trip to a bakery and smelling the delicious odors and trying to understand what the owners were saying.

Some of the magic of baseball is being lost for me. Does that make me Murray Chass? Gosh, I hope not. Players do not play their entire career with the same team. Next year's roster will look totally different than this year's. A hit up the middle is no longer a hit. Strikeouts with a man on third with one out are okay. No, it's not!

When a rookie came into a league, it was like trying a new cookie recipe. Would it be a winner or a disappointment? Now rookies are measured from molecular structure to entire psychological profiles. Sure, some still flop. But young players just seem to have it so much more together than they did even ten years ago.

I am having a problem describing what I am feeling here. The game just seemed more basic and rooted in my past. If my scorecard read, "5-3," it meant that the third baseman fielded the grounder over by third base, not between first and second (and no, I am not advocating doing away with shifts). There was more mystery to the game which made it unpredictable and accessible.

I wish I could express things better. Let's just say that the attached video that started this thought process made me feel like I had lost something. Cookies no longer melt in my mouth (unless I make them myself). And baseball feels more like a science project than a game.

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