Despite being the newest and trendiest “Big Thing” in sports, sabermetrics (more or less reducing the game of baseball to pure statistical analysis rather than relying on “gut feelings” and other intangibles) makes sense. Old-fashioned purists who stubbornly oppose sabermetrics simply don’t appreciate or understand its virtues.
To put it in the most elementary terms, teams win games by scoring more runs than their opponents. As simple as that. Accordingly, the greatest offensive player in history is going to be the player who scored the most runs. The player who “manufactured” the most runs. The player who contributed to “winning” the most games.
And the man who scored the most runs (a record formerly held by Babe Ruth), had the second-most career walks (also formerly held by Ruth), and the most stolen bases (where a “walk” was turned into a “double”) is Rickey Henderson. Footnote: If Rickey, an African-American, had come along prior to 1947, he wouldn’t have been allowed to play.
While sabermetrics may have dramatically changed the game of baseball—changed it, but not hurt it—here are 10 things that, arguably, have made it worse.
1. The Designated Hitter. In 1973 the American League decided that fans wanted to see more hitting, so they invented a rule that deprived pitchers of the right to hit. Most pitchers resented the rule. Even the bad hitters liked taking their cuts. To its credit, the National League saw the DH for the “gimmick” it was, and never adopted it.
2. Artificial turf. Baseball is supposed to be played on natural grass, not on a plastic rug. (On the other hand, I suppose we should count our blessings that the Major Leagues haven’t gone to aluminum bats. Yet.)
3. Jewelry. Today’s players think they need to wear gold chains around their necks while on the diamond. You even see rookie pitchers, young guys just brought up from the minors, standing on the mounding wearing a necklace. Try picturing Bob Gibson wearing a necklace. And then go vomit.
4. Double-knit uniforms. This is baseball, not a fashion show. If floppy flannel uniforms were good enough for Willie Mays and Ted Williams, then they’re certainly good enough for the likes of Craig Biggio and Aaron Judge. What’s next? Those sleek “cat suits” worn by track runners and bicyclists?
5. Players names on the backs of uniforms. This was done to attract the “non-fan” to the game—the fan who wants to watch a baseball game but insists on having all the players “labeled,” so he’ll know who to root for. “Hey, who’s that guy playing centerfield?” Fans knew that Mays was Number 24, Mantle was Number 7, Aaron was Number 44. They should keep it pure, keep it real, and not cater to the non-fan.
6. The Wild Card. When you finish playing a 162-game season, you always know who the best team is. It’s the team that finishes on top. Unlike the NFL’s 16-game season, a 162-game grind takes into account everything—winning streaks, losing streaks, injuries, trades, slumps, veterans, rookies, you name it. The Wild Card is just another marketing device.
7. Abandoning the “high strike.” Because today’s players seem to prefer low pitches—ones that they can “drive”—umpires are accommodating them by shifting the whole template downward. The old “letter-high fastball,” once a batter’s delight, is rarely even called a “strike.”
8. Flashy scoreboards. Unfortunately, the modern scoreboard, with all its cartoons, dancing animals, and mock explosions, resembles a video game more than a traditional scoreboard. Where are we exactly? At a baseball game or a theme park?
9. The “verbal” intentional walk. This is where, in order to speed up the game (in avoidance of the dreaded “Pedro Baez Syndrome”), they simply award a batter first base rather than throwing him four pitches. But lots can happen when you try to intentionally walk a batter. We’ve all seen it. And how many intentional walks are there in a typical game? Two or three at most? How much time does that really save?
10. Giving away balls to fans. When did that begin? When did they start thinking they had to make a gift of every foul ball to people sitting in the field level seats? These seem vaguely like some bizarre door prize. Where are we exactly? At a baseball stadium or a TV game show?
Author David Macaray’s latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows (everything you wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask)