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WAR, What Is It Good For? Has Sabermetrics Pushed Out Casual Fans?

WAR, What Is It Good For? Has Sabermetrics Pushed Out Casual Fans?: Photo by Lane Stewart/Sports Illustrated/Getty Image

Photo by Lane Stewart/Sports Illustrated/Getty Image

As the 2011 baseball season meandered through its first month, I wasn’t very engaged. Frankly, I’d been a shitty fan. Living 2,800 miles from my hometown team, the Seattle Mariners, bred complacency. So when I saw that Jonah Keri was planning to interview Dave Cameron (U.S.S. Mariner!) on his podcast, I thought, let’s give it a listen and jumpstart my interest in the nascent season.

It actually had the exact opposite effect.

Two of the great sabremetric evangelists made my eyes (ears?) glaze over. Now, this is no knock on Jonah or Dave. I love their enthusiasm for the game—you write an ode to the departed Montreal Expos and your passion is evident. But their talk made me realize their passion required a level of commitment I knew I could no longer muster. The sabermetric revolution made our understanding of baseball more expansive, while turning the conversation more wonky and niche. I aired that sentiment on Twitter, and it caught Jonah’s eye.

He messaged me in his polite, Canadian way that I didn’t have to concern myself with advanced stats to enjoy baseball. That I could like it any way I wanted. Perhaps, but the barrier to entry to be a knowledgeable baseball fan was becoming higher and higher. High enough that what was once a pastime had now become a chore. The conversations around the game were no longer fun. And I’ve let baseball slip away ever since, which, if you would have told me 10 years ago, I would have called you insane.

I grew up a massive baseball fan. When I was a kid, no other sport mattered. Of course, few other sports existed where a portly boy such as myself could excel. “Cecil Fielder and John Kruk could be pros? Oh, I can do that!” My father, brothers and I would regularly head to a vacant Kingdome to watch the Mariners in that Astroturfed crypt. In the meantime, all the father-son bullshit happened—learning fundamentals, keeping score, spitting sunflower seeds properly. My dad is a devotee of the game. He coached little league, managed our town’s high school team and served as the Mariner’s official scorekeeper for a few years. (His scorecard from the night when Ichiro broke George Sisler’s single-season hits record is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.)

I took to the game far more than my four brothers. My fandom was insatiable. I had an early bedtime when I was eight, but noticed one day that this fantastic new show Baseball Tonight would re-air at 3 a.m. So I set an alarm, woke up and snuck down to the TV to watch it in the middle of the night. My dad heard my lumbering, let me watch a few minutes then told me to get back to my room.

I played until I broke my foot on the field and my arm off the field two years later. The time I missed had turned a marginally good fat kid into a crappy player his dad likely would have to cut from the high school team. I saved him the trouble.

But my passion for baseball remained. I watched a ton of it, talked about it constantly and played fantasy. I loved the book Moneyball, purchased my own edition of Bill James Historical Baseball Statistical Abstract and even adopted the Padres as my team when I lived in San Diego after graduating from college.

Did I mention I loved Moneyball? Although I’d grown up a fan of baseball, I didn’t accept all the age-old truisms at face value. The idea that scrappy upstarts were tweaking the system and finding baseball truths that contradicted what had been assumed for years excited me. Fire Joe Morgan? Absolutely.

Admittedly, in the late 2000s, I drifted away from sports because grad school consumed my life. But after graduation, when sports reentered my daily diet, I couldn’t get back into baseball. I’d let my attention lapse at perhaps the worst possible time in the history of the game. The fringes of the statistical movement—the likes of Nate Silver with Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm), Baseball Reference and Fangraphs—developed stats further and pushed them to the mainstream. Baseball had gotten even smarter.

The statheads parsed the game with minute detail. And the difference in fan knowledge has never felt greater. In the past, if fandom were plotted on an X-Y axis with effort to attain knowledge on the X and knowledge attained on the Y, I’d imagine it would look like a linear graph. But today, with the shear breadth and depth of information available, the haves vastly outstrip the have-nots. The new fandom graph would resemble an exponential curve.

In this environment, the “middle-class fan” gets squeezed out. They’re self-aware enough to realize they don’t have the time/energy/commitment to be among the superfans who sucked up all this knowledge, and they’re sure as shit not going to bury their head in the sand with the Jason Whitlocks of the world.

Read on deadspin.​com On the other hand, the explosion of information has been a boon for the superfan. It’s one of the reasons I believe that despite national television rankings falling (2013 was the fourth-lowest-rated World Series even though the Red Sox were in it), attendance figures remain strong (2013 was the sixth-highest season in total paid attendance ever, though the teams fudge some numbers here). A smaller group of people is fostering a deeper connection to the game.

All of which added up to one tough realization: I wasn’t a superfan anymore, just someone looking into being a casual one. But I didn’t realize how left behind I was until I listened to Keri’s podcast. Shit, was I now becoming Joe Morgan? I had three choices: (1) Hit the books and join the revolution; (2) retrench in my old ways like a Mitch Albom caricature standing against progress; or (3) decide that following baseballisn’t worth the hassle and stop being a fan altogether.

I chose option number three.

Keri would probably advise me against my decision—fandom doesn’t require stats, he’d say. There’s a problem with that, as explained by Mike Pesca on Slate’s Hang Up and Listen, “Talking about baseball is much more fun than actually watching baseball.” It was one of the truest things I’d ever heard. A good baseball argument could be much more lively than game 87 of a 162-game season.

However, sabermetrics doesn’t exactly lend itself to compelling barstool chatter. UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating). BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play). WAR (Wins Above Replacement). xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching). And my absolute favorite: HOW DARE YOU CALL SOMEONE CLUTCH.

To be fair, that’s a bit of a strawman. More writers in the saber world, like Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus, strike a conversational tone. And Cameron made the point on the Keri show that he doesn’t expect people to recite these stats on command, fully acknowledging their conversation-killing nature. He’d just like you to know the principles, so you can talk about baseball with a modicum of intelligence. But in order to be conversant, you actually have to understand those analytics and do the work to keep up on innovations. As one friend told me, “I’m an avid follower of Keith Law and Cub’s Den, which analyzes all of the Cubs minor-league system through a sabermetric prism,” he said. “Both, however, do make me feel as though i’m on the outside looking in.”

The new knowledge means bullshit has no purchase. But even in smart conversations of the past, some mysticism and BS were allowed. Silver has no time for your magical thinking. He opined during the press rounds for the launch of Fivethirtyeight.com that, “Plenty of pundits have really high IQs, but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically.” That echoes something he told Bill Simmons when the Sports Guy asked him whether sabermetrics had pushed out casual fans, he responded, “People should be held accountable for their opinions.”

When it comes to presidential elections, policy decisions and economic planning, Silver is right, we can’t afford bullshit. But in a game as meaningless as baseball? And I know, it’s such a fraught task to be the guy arguing for the virtues of being a dumbass, so I won’t exactly do that. That said, bullshit and sports go hand-in-hand. Hell, Silver made his remark about baseball on a podcast called the B.S. Report.

I thought Pesca could be a fellow traveler on my baseball talk argument. He was not. “The traditional version of baseball conversation is much worse,” Pesca wrote to me. “All these clichés about scrappiness, grit and chemistry.” I guess that’s true. But here’s the thing: While the old conversation is obsolete, the new conversation is boring.

A lot of baseball fan’s reaction to this piece will be, “Go ahead and stop watching, who cares?” And I totally agree. I will fuck right off. But MLB, its teams and the cable companies paying for massive media rights deals might not like to see formerly devoted fans taking their money and walking away because they feel there’s no place for them in the game anymore.

Oh, and the other reason why baseball is less enjoyable? Because the Mariners fucking suck.


Jeremy Repanich is an Senior Editor at Playboy. Follow him on Twitter @racefortheprize

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