Share this article

print logo


Can baseball survive tide of analytics?

Bucky Gleason

According to earlier this month, teams across Major League Baseball were on pace this season to nearly double the number of times from last they employed defensive shifts designed to take advantage of batters’ tendencies.

I’m not sure what’s more alarming, that teams more frequently are loading up one side of the field with players or that people are making big money showing them why they should. Professional teams are expanding analytics departments every year in sports, particularly in stats-driven games like baseball.

Actasports revealed a chart showing teams shifted their players out of their normal positions, and into more suitable fielding positions, 2,350 times in 2011. Annual increases revealed an obvious trend. In the last five years, it has become an obsession with more than 30,000 infield shifts expected this year.

How much is too much?

It depends on how people view baseball, how much they value history and how much tolerance they have for change. Once there was a time in which managers were shaped by their eyesight, memories and scouting reports. They made pitching changes and moved fielders around based on instinct. For generations, it worked.

Or maybe it didn’t work, which was why organizations starting examining every player in every situation across the league. Statistics served their purpose, but they became more effective when combined with probability. Baseball quickly transformed from a sport to a math and science project.

Since the turn of the century, since “Moneyball” became a box-office smash, our kids have been viewing the game differently and speaking a different baseball language than our fathers did. Previous generations saw pure speed in the outfield, for example, while today they’re evaluated using geometry.

Speed is great, but it’s not worth nearly as much if a certain outfielder takes the wrong angle toward the ball. In fact, that negates speed over someone who doesn’t run as fast but takes better angles. Every player at every position in every game is dissected until it becomes clear that some are more efficient than others.

Long gone are the days in which you could identify good players and assess value through batting average, home runs, runs batted in, earned-run average, walks and errors. BAs, HRs, RBIs, ERAs, BBs and Es have been pushed aside by the likes of BABIP (batting average for balls in play) and WRC+ (weighted runs created plus).

The alphabet soup that comes with sabermetrics requires a PhD from MIT, which is why many fans 40 and older ignore endless numbers attached to them. That’s also why many longtime baseball scouts who relied on the eye test for decades have been replaced by computer whizzes.

Baseball clubs are looking for every advantage they can find to increase their chances of winning. That is the goal, after all. But there also comes a limit in which sports need to be decided on the playing fields rather than a laptop.

More than any sport, baseball teams are relying on numbers.

Sorry, but some brainy 20-something from the Ivy League who is sitting in his office upstairs should not have a deeper impact on baseball than the manager. It doesn’t mean analytics should be outlawed. Analytics have their place in all sports so long as they’re not changing the essence of the game.

Kids for years have been begging their parents to get with the times, but newer isn’t always better. It’s just different. Purists are criticized for not evolving with the game and becoming stagnant. The reason many old-timers resist change is that some sports, including baseball, was better in its purest form.

My fear is that baseball is going to change so drastically in the coming years that it’s barely going to resemble the game that we knew, the game that was essentially the same for generations and the game as it was intended. My fear is that the people behind the game, rather players in the game, will someday ruin the game.

What’s the line? I’m not sure, exactly, but it’s near.

It could reach a point in which baseball will need to implement rules for positioning to keep the game intact. For years, basketball had illegal defense. In football, you must have at least seven men on the line of scrimmage. Nearly every sport has rules limiting where or how players are aligned on the field of play.

Baseball may need to keep the first and third basemen within 10 feet of their bags. Or perhaps middle infielders should not be allowed to play in opposite sides of second base. Or maybe there need to be zones drawn up with lines in the outfield that limit how far outfielders can shift before pitches are thrown. Or maybe three, and only three, men can be in the outfield at one time.

The opposite argument, and a valid one, is that batters could beat the shift if they learned to hit to the opposite field before they reach the big leagues. If left-handed pull hitters dropped more bunts down the third baseline, teams would be reluctant to put the third baseman and short and the shortstop in shallow right.

But does baseball really want Prince Fielder and David Ortiz bunting and rumbling down the first base line? You don’t need analytics to prove it’s difficult to hit a 95 mph fastball complemented by an 88 mph slider and an 84 mph changeup. It’s even tougher when thrown at their knuckles against the shift.

Last season marked the sixth straight in which the league-wide batting average was .257 or worse.

It’s the first time it happened since 1974. It shows me the game is behind the times, not ahead of them.