Here’s a question about Wednesday’s exhilarating, stomach-churning, 10-inning seventh game of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians: Was it “true baseball”?
In 2015, Dave Stewart, the former major-league pitcher who had recently become the Arizona Diamondbacks’ general manager, made a crack about data-friendly teams (like the Cubs and Indians). He suggested free agents might prefer to sign with Arizona, because they would see it “as a true baseball team versus some of the other teams ... that are geared more toward analytics and those type of things.”
It was not an isolated remark. Many people around baseball have reacted to the “Moneyball” revolution, in which people analyze the game with data, by saying its version of baseball lacks soul.
The writer David Maraniss, of whom I’m otherwise a big fan, captured the data disdain in a 2011 article. “My problem with the philosophy is a question of art and beauty,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “The thrill of baseball has nothing to do with statistics, as much a part of the game as they are. It has to do with the athletic skill of the players: the rifle throw from right field to third base; the dazzling speed of a runner stealing a base; the grace of a second baseman making the turn on a double play.”
I’m one of the nerds whose joy of baseball feels inferior to Maraniss’, Stewart’s and others. And I don’t quite understand. I love watching a rifle throw from right field. I also enjoy knowing whether the right fielder who made the throw is a fielding star or just happened to make a great throw.
One of the most exciting parts of this World Series was watching two fact-hungry franchises look for every edge. They stationed fielders all over the diamond, now the norm, and turned hits into outs. They used their best relief pitchers early and often, rather than saving them for “save situations” that might never arrive. The moves frequently worked and sometimes – such as with the bullpens Wednesday – did not.
The imperfect search for new knowledge, even in a relatively unimportant endeavor like baseball, is one of life’s thrills.
Fans don’t have to choose. They can enjoy a game while simply listening to the crack of the bat and taking in the majesty of the ballpark. Fans who don’t want a lot of numbers getting in the way are no less (and no more) authentic than fans who enjoy poring over stat sheets.
Whichever path you choose, though, you should probably hope the people running your favorite team are at least willing to have some nerds work for them. The true-baseball Diamondbacks won 69 games and lost 93 this season, and neither Stewart nor the team’s manager will be returning next year.
The people who run the Cubs and Indians just gave us one of the most joyful World Series in a long time.