Once in a while something serendipitous happens. Wherever it finds you, I suggest you just take it and be happy. For instance, I got a message asking basically,
“Do you like baseball and can you write about it?”
It’s a lot like my only ever walk-off hit as a senior in high school. Bases loaded and I got hammered inside by a fastball and I somehow nudged it off the handle and over the pulled in 2nd baseman. I don’t think the ball even left the infield. But who cares?? We won!! I will take it and be happy. So here’s to my first cut at this baseball writing thing! Much of it will mention Frisco RoughRiders stuff because that’s where I am all summer. Salud!
I don’t plan to offer a lot of opinions about who should or should not move up or down, but I will talk about performances.
And I don’t plan to criticize any player or coach or executive about their slumps or bad decisions or mistakes. This is a great and complicated game in which players fail more often than succeed. It is competitive beyond what most of us can imagine, with such young men pressed into performing not only for their personal success, but for our amusement and enjoyment.
I try to greet each player as they take the field and wish them luck or share a laugh over their foul ball or home run I chased down the night before, or tell them I saw their performance on the road and they looked great.
This game presents the most amazing opportunities for us fans to engage players directly and through the ever-changing world of stats and memorabilia that NO other game can approach.
I hope to capture some of these feelings that I have been experiencing the past couple of years in a personal renaissance of my love of baseball.
Right now as I begin writing this I am watching Tyler Phillips AA debut with Frisco Roughriders on my iPad. It also is the night we all are hearing about Cole Ragans re-injury. And Chris Sale’s 17K performance coming on the heels of the Twitterverse extolling “What’s wrong??!!”.
It sets the scene a bit for what I hope to write about this season, and maybe offer something for consideration by the vast scope of all us “baseball fans.” Such a great night for Tyler Phillips, and Chris Sale to such a troublesome night for Cole Ragans. And if we rewound time to the sunrise today, we all would be riding the assessment of their seasons very differently than we are tonight.
If I recall, the ESPN Monday Night baseball broadcast from last night, Tim Kurkjian related the story of Dante Bichette who told him he walked onto the field every day terrified it could be his last time.
Any of us feel that way going to work every day?
To say baseball has changed in the last few years is an understatement. Tom Verducci summarizes much of this in a recent SI.com article. You can read it here Click for Article Here. There are clearly some amazing trends that are creating an uproar among baseball fans. I will use one easy number to illustrate the point. In April 2015, MLB hitters slugged a total of 592 HR. In 2019 that number was 1,144. Nearly DOUBLE the number of HRs. In a sport that so many of us argue presents the greatest challenge in sports, hitting a baseball from a pitcher, this is staggering. With any team’s ability to produce slugging like this, I would argue, why would they not approach the game with the 3-true outcome approach? Walk, strikeout, hit a HR.
Much criticism has been thrown at the baseball executives, coaches, and teams that use what seem to be arcane stats to destroy the sacred culture of baseball.
Hopefully anyone with enough time on their hands to read through this article is familiar enough with this current turmoil in baseball. If you want to want to understand this issue, I believe that one must work to understand the many factors that are impact the issue in order to reach some conclusion that we hope can improve the game and excite fans.
I believe there to be at least four major factors involved in the current issue.
First is the history of the game itself. Many of us carry a romanticized vision of the game that is crowned with the myth of Abner Doubleday and the Mills Commission that strikes of jingoism and must be understood in a context of American history. And this is just the beginning.
What about the advent of free agency, or the story of baseball’s integration, and the fact that even as early as the 1860’s fans were bemoaning the loss of the “grand game” of baseball? Sound familiar? And what about the baseball itself and the rest of the equipment used? It all has taken many forms. I will look at some of these points in history to provide some context to today’s game.
The advent of sabermetrics continues to evolve and invoke the ire of many baseball purists. However, I feel it important to begin to understand these stats. I grew up opening countless packs of baseball cards and reading the standard numbers on the back.
However, if we believe our own argument that great beauty of baseball is intricately tied to its complexity and intensity of each pitch, then we must confront the new stats. They are not familiar to us, and it’s much easier to calculate quickly in our brain how a 2-4 game will affect a player’s batting average.
Just getting OPS quickly calculated (On base percentage + Slugging) is a whole different ballgame so to speak. And this does not even begin to get to WAR (Wins above Replacement—what replacement even? Right?) or WPA (Win Probability Added) and many others. However, I feel that as a fan I am compelled to understand these stats. I don’t know anything about these things. I will be writing about them as I learn them. Just started reading Keith Law’s book Smart Baseball to get started.
There is little doubt that the training and maintenance of players’ health is better than it has ever been. Recently I arrived at Frisco early to watch batting practice. Before that even happened, Coach Hibbard had a table set up behind the mound with camera and laptop, and actual full-size batter cutouts at the plate with Joe Palumbo throwing. I asked Coach about it as we had a short weather delay, and he explained being able to catch arm angle and wrist position frame by frame at some crazy high speed I don’t even recall. And this all lead to talk of spin rates and breaking ball angles and gravity and wind resistance. Amazing tools to increase performance. However, I would like to see some sabermetrics on injury list designations, etc over the years. I am guessing to some extent, but I believe teams and players are less likely to risk any long-term health issues. But players are healthier and stronger than ever there is no doubt an here’s an amazing stat that illustrates this. In Nate Silver’s chapter of Baseball Prospectus Baseball Between the Numbers, to assess this proposal, he points out that today (pub. 2006) in any given girl’s high school regional swim meet, the winning time would have a produced a gold medal in the 1920 Olympics men’s 100m freestyle. What impact does all this have on the game? What about all the Tommy John surgeries and other injuries?
Lastly, though it is not the juggernaut of the NFL (about $15 billion in revenue in each year and growing v about $10 billion for MLB), baseball is clearly a business. And despite the purists cries to the contrary, it has been for a long time. Business may exist and operate differently in today’s world, but it’s still a business. I remember my first ever games as a kid were at Wrigley Field, and I had to pee into a trough, and bleacher seats were $5, and the first player names I came to know were Larry Biitner and Bill Buckner and Bruce Sutter. Now I am not sure I could afford a ticket to what might be called The Park at Wrigley, or perhaps Disney-North?
And what about recent Sinclair purchase of Fox Sports Network that may continue what seems to be a trend of limiting viewership with potential increased blackout areas, added to increasing ticket costs as clubs are apparently running with business plans that promote better profits for fewer fans in the seats but who spend more at the park? And then MiLB restriction of video highlights on social media? I really have no answers for all this seeming craziness right now.
All these things above are also factors in why I stopped watching baseball several years ago. Only in the last couple of years, through getting back into coaching, attending Frisco RoughRiders games, and playing on an 1860’s rules baseball team has that love of the game I knew when I was much younger started to come back. I am enjoying it for now. Talking to fans and players. Teaching kids the game. Being able to play it at my age while getting a history lesson at the same time.
The game is in a very different place today than when I was young.
However, there is still a lot in it that I still tell everyone-it’s the greatest game in the world. But instead of just accepting its seeming demise, I think we must engage the game and challenge ourselves about how we think about it.
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Andy Maher is a lifelong baseball fan. University of Iowa grad. Watcher of Frisco Rough Riders. Coacher of 16U players. Player of 1860’s rules baseball.