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Commentary: Good Or Bad? Baseball's Statistics-Driven Assessments


It's the off-season in baseball, which is normally the time when players are courted and told how much they're worth to teams. Those values are informed by analytics, which basically breaks down a player's performance into minute statistical categories. Analytics has made baseball a smarter enterprise, but it hasn't necessarily made it more interesting. And as commentator Mike Pesca notes, that's being acknowledged now by the guy famous for using analytics in the game.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Theo Epstein stepped away from his role as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs this off-season. That title did not accurately convey the role he played in Cubs history, but Baseball Jesus does not fit readily on a business card. He was the architect who assembled the Cubs roster that won their first World Series in 108 years, an unthinkable achievement, except he had done the same thing for his previous employer, though the Boston Red Sox drought was only 86 years.

And when the man who reversed more curses than Dumbledore stepped down, he gave the following assessment of baseball itself. Quote, "It is the greatest game in the world," Epstein said. "But there are some threats to it because of the way the game is evolving. And I take some responsibility for that because the executives like me, who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures, have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game." This was like Edison saying, you're welcome for the lights, but sorry to have ruined stargazing.

But Epstein was offering an honest accounting of the costs of his particular form of magic or necromancy in the case of the Cubs and Red Sox. The tactics that Epstein perfected, if not pioneered, emphasized theretofore ignored skills like drawing walks. Deemphasizing some flashy feats of feet, like speed on the base paths, does increase a team's chances of winning but also decreases the sport's chance of being interesting. Epstein's right. Everyone who watches the game knows it, and it's plausible that fewer are watching the game because of it.

The current trend - and it's statistically logical - is to so emphasize home runs even at the cost of strikeouts that games have become hours-long whiff fests punctuated by brief bursts of aeronautics. If we wanted that, the No. 1 sport would be parasailing. The statistical revolution in baseball was an unlucky consequence of the fact that what worked happened to be the enemy of excitement and often displeasing to the eye. Or maybe it wasn't unlucky because baseball had been overly beholden to aesthetics as a kind of instinct. I think of the scouts in the movie "Moneyball" talking about the handsomeness of a hitter, the good face as a means of valuing players.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Clean-cut, good face.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah, good jaw.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Five-tools guy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Good-looking ballplayer.

PESCA: Maybe there is a connection between the statistical revolution's embrace of what were seen as misfit toys and the situation now, where baseball as a piece of entertainment, to a large degree, just isn't. It's right of Epstein to acknowledge what happened to the game, how he and those of his ilk unwittingly - others may quibble with that word - made the sport uncompelling. Now the sport itself needs to analyze its way out of this problem. Baseball needs to cut down on its long, languorous at-bats, the interminable pauses in between pitches and batters and maybe even institute a few changes that no one's thought of yet. It doesn't necessarily take a genius to conceive of these fixes. Then again, if MLB needs such a sage, Theo Epstein is available.


MARTIN: Our sage commentator Mike Pesca. He's the host of Slate's daily podcast "The Gist." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.