Don’t over-analyze baseball

The Angels’ Mike Trout has a career WAR of 28.2, but have you heard the crack of his bat?
The Angels’ Mike Trout has a career WAR of 28.2, but have you heard the crack of his bat? AP

One of the charms of baseball, which started up again this week, is the exhilarating departure it offers from the noisy bustle of daily life. Come early for batting practice, have a scoring book ready to capture the game in pencil and lean back to take in the crisp musicality of a ball hit on the screws or track the near-perfect route a fleet outfielder takes to run down a fly ball in the gap. Baseball is a language unto itself, a language to be enjoyed and understood by any fan – at least until the talk turns to BABIP, FIP and WAR.

Thanks to “Moneyball” and stats-driven fantasy leagues, advanced statistics have changed how fans think about the game. On the whole that’s a positive trend but not when the numbers begin to eclipse a more nuanced appreciation of baseball. When it comes to watching a matchup of, say, the Mets pitcher Matt Harvey and Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins, statistical analysis is about as helpful in deepening an appreciation of the human drama unfolding before us as it would be for a Pavarotti aria.

Being alert to the twists and turns of a game is vital, since it’s the glimpses of character that emerge during these unlikely sequences that give baseball its essential flavor. I was on hand in Oakland in October 2001 when the Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter won a game and, arguably, a playoff series against the A’s by having the foresight to anticipate an errant throw and make an improvised little flip to home plate to nail a lumbering Jeremy Giambi trying to score. Statistical analysis had absolutely zero to do with that play.

Managers agree.

“I watch the game,” said Bruce Bochy, the manager of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. “You don’t see me writing down a lot of things or having to look down at stats. They’re important, but there are some things that you can’t see on a spreadsheet.”

The real problem isn’t in the dugout, though. It’s with the way the game is discussed off the field. I grew up on vivid reporting that teased out details from the day’s action to give us a more flavorful and insightful narrative not just by accomplished magazine writers like Roger Angell, but by the scores of beat reporters covering the game nationwide. These days there are some great baseball beat writers, but too many, especially among the younger ones, are so awash in stats that they can’t seem to see the game beyond the numbers.

In any press box most reporters are texting, tweeting or Googling stats. This doesn’t work. You can go to the symphony and hear the music even as you’re texting with a client to close a deal. As your thumbs fly, you might note that the orchestra is playing Mahler’s Ninth. With your attention so cratered, though, are you really listening to the music? Are you enjoying it?

The importance of being fully present for a game, shorn of distractions, lies not in sentimentality about the nobility of baseball but in continuously deepening one’s understanding of the game.

The art of hitting a baseball starts with emptying the mind. As Jonathan Fader, a psychologist who works with Mets players, told me: “Essentially, what we’re trying to do in sports psychology is helping people to not think.”

Fans and writers need to adopt a similar attitude. An overly analytical approach, centered in the cerebral cortex, is a distancing mechanism that puts a fan at a remove from how the players, and most fans, are experiencing a game.

There’s no question that, as baseball general managers get younger and better educated, much of the fresh energy in baseball today comes from putting analytical tools to work in rethinking old assumptions. Often the greater rigor that results can be readily understood and applied, to exciting ends.

The trouble is not with the numbers. The imposing BABIP means simply “batting average on balls in play.” And FIP stands for “fielding-independent pitching,” an attempt to offer a broader measure of a pitcher’s performance than the traditional ERA, or earned-run average.

Like children, the numbers themselves are blameless. It’s how we use them, or misuse them. There is a risk that numbers become an end in themselves and arcane stats proliferate. A good rule of thumb is that the more a stat relies on abstraction, the less likely it’s going to be consistently useful to a wide audience. Even an old stat like WAR, or wins above replacement, continues to have both backers and detractors, since it relies on comparing a given player to the abstraction of some hypothetical median player, the “replacement.”

Baseball is slow, and in that slowness comes the opportunity to let the mind and the imagination wander and move along with the action.

If we can’t clear our attention span enough to focus on the action, if we don’t tune in to baseball the way we do music, we’re never going to hear the tune.

Steve Kettmann is the author of “Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets.”