On Baseball

Posted by Jack on 2013-06-08 at 21:43
Tagged: baseball

Alternatively, this is why baseball is the greatest American sport.

1. It's a True Team Sport

Oddly enough, baseball is one of the few games where you have to assemble a team of good players instead of being carried by one or two star players. This is a direct result of the fact that baseball is a long term endurance sport. The current regular season in the MLB is 162 games long, which is very near to a game a day for the entire six month season. There's a rotation from game to game, and each lineup is different. An ace pitcher, for example - even one that could throw a perfect game every time - could only at best hold a .200 average (which is crap) by himself. Even a more realistic pitcher that occasionally allows runs can be betrayed by bad hitting or bad fielding. Routine plays turn into errors and wins turn into losses. The lineup is all important and it's tough to keep a consistent set of fresh players when you hardly ever have a day you don't play. There's a reason that a team's main roster has 25 men on it: you can't count on a player playing every game or even for full games.

The endurance aspect creeps up again with the disabled list. While there aren't a lot of collisions in baseball (though there are a few), there is a lot of repetitive damage. Imagine throwing a baseball at 90mph 100 times in a single game. Then do it every five days, thirty times over a regular season. Imagine being in an outfield making diving plays, or even just sprinting to make a catch. Then do it almost every day for three hours at a time. It's not that each game is that taxing (although I wouldn't want to make 100 pitches in a day) it's that the season all together just wears your body down. And that's not even counting the fact that each game has no clock! If a game has to go on for 33 innings it will!

The bottom line is that between exhaustion and just plain bodily wear and tear, a baseball team's talent pool has to be deep in order to keep a consistent record.

Compare this to football where you have a few really key players that carry the team to victory. The hits are harder, but the games are shorter and the regular season is 1/10th as long. Each player also has about a week to recover between games. There are a lot of offensive and defensive players that are completely unknown because in the end their job is to hold the line while these key figures (think Quarterback, Wide Receiver, Running Back) make the actual plays. Not that the rest of the line doesn't do their jobs, but their performance is aggregate. If the QB gets sacked often, it's the offense's fault, but not a single player. Likewise if the opponents score often, it's the defense's fault, but no one individual is at fault. There are no errors and no accountability except for that well known core of star players. Don't believe me? Ask any hardcore football fan to list their team's entire active roster - they can't. How do I know? Because a football team active roster has 80-90 players on it, most of which are basically interchangeable. I bet the average fan might not even be able to get past three or four of them. It's funny, football games (especially in the playoffs) are characterized as these great battles between titan quarterbacks and the two "titans" aren't even on the field at the same time.

Basketball should get an honorable mention here, however, as the NBA players play an impressive 80 games in the regular season and it's actually possible to distinguish each individual player's actions and errors. You still have powerful players that can carry teams, but at least the other members can't be ignored as integral parts of the whole.

2. Rivalry

Rivalry is part of all team sports, but none of them do it better than baseball. Partially this is just because baseball has the longest history to draw upon. Teams like my hometown Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs have been mortal enemies since the dawn of time (or so I heard growing up in St. Louis). But aside from just history, baseball offers quite a lot of opportunity to flesh out the rivalries. In the 162 game regular season, your team will face any one of its (likely multiple) division rivals in five or even six series of 2-4 games apiece. That's a lot of games and is especially important because each series in and of itself has its own quirks and flavor instead of being a one-off match.

To give an example. This week, facing the Diamondbacks, in a 14 inning drag out fight, the D-bagsbacks beaned one of our best hitters three times in one game. Now, it didn't seem to be intentional and fortunately our man shrugged it off and kept playing but the next game retaliation was called for. Or right before that, this weird rain shifted series against the Giants with an unexpected double header. Or this current series with the Reds where they boo our catcher, Yadier Molina (best in the game), for a "brawl" he started with their second base Brandon Phillips three years ago.

Really, there isn't an opposing team in the division, or even the league, that your team doesn't have some layered past with and it adds an interesting context to each match up.

Again, compare this to football. Your team will play every other team exactly once, except for one that you'll play twice in the entire regular season. Sure, there's bad blood between teams but there's hardly any new information in each season and these rivalries are generally spawned by playoff snubs or flukes rather than any real long running enmity.

Similarly, in basketball you'll face a division rival four times for single games across the entire season, in soccer (MLS) it's three single games in the 35 game season.

Quite simply, none of them can hold up a legitimate rivalry the same way baseball can - to the point where the context of the game is almost as important as the content.

3. Stats

A lot of folks complain that watching baseball is like getting stats thrown at you for a few hours. It's true, the commentators are constantly talking about it and displaying tables of stats. Truly absurd amounts of detail are recorded about each game and numbers like "Batting average on a day with less than an inch of rainfall, two outs, against a lefty" emerge. Okay, maybe it's not that bad, but stats exist in all games because they're the way you judge past, current, and predict future performance. The only difference is that baseball attempts to predict what a particular match up will yield instead of just using stats as a performance metric.

In football, you can judge your star players by things like touchdowns, interceptions, completions, and yards, but these only measure personal performance. These type of stats can tell if your team or player is improving, slipping or staying consistent but they can't predict performance versus another team or player. Knowing your player ran for 1000 yards and got 30 touchdowns last season only tells you that he's a strong player, it doesn't give you any hints about how he, or your team, will do against your opponent other than a vague sense that your players are doing better than their players. Admittedly, keeping detailed records to allow competitive stats doesn't make sense for a game where a lot of the grunt work is done by a wall of basically anonymous men rather than an individual with definable one on one match ups.

Basketball (points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks) falls similarly into the personal stats, and soccer barely tracks player stats at all (goals, appearances).

Baseball, on the other hand, attempts to go much farther than that and give stats to predict performance specifically rather than just tally each player's records. Because just two men, the pitcher and the batter, are the focus of every play you can collect and analyze a much more relevant data set in determining how one will perform against the other. In turn that means that your predictions can be more accurate and your expectations for each at bat are grounded in reality.

So? Who cares? Well having a realistic prediction for a player means that you know when they're having a great day or a bad night. It means that you can find hope in a tough situation or find amazement when a player pulls off an unlikely feat. Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown doesn't mean anything unless you realize how ridiculously unlikely it is. Seeing your players start a streak, or end a slump, or get a homer in a pitcher's park, or strike out the best hitter in the league all lose their luster when you don't acknowledge their probability.

Baseball, if you watch it mechanically, only occasionally replicates the visceral punch or athletic spectacle of the competing sports. But mere observation doesn't do the game of baseball justice. Baseball rewards understanding instead of observation. Context and probability is an integral part of enjoying the game. This is why baseball may not be the most accessible sport but also why once you wrap your head around the stats you start hanging on every at bat.

All in all, baseball is a sport with a subtle appeal spread over an epic scale. There is no game that offers more to those willing to appreciate its complexity. There is no game more steeped in history or the American experience. There is no game greater than baseball.