Advancement in sabermetrics, the application of statistical analysis to baseball records, has become more apparent than ever in the game of baseball today. Major league front offices have adopted a new mindset when it comes to baseball operations and player evaluation. New strategies are being implemented by teams all over the playing field - the most notable among them being the defensive shift. In addition, Major League Baseball itself has dove into sabermetrics by altering some rules and aspects of the game to engage and grow a younger fanbase. With these rapid changes to a traditionally “old-school” game, there has been much controversy as to whether sabermetrics is leading baseball away from its roots and into a money-making machine.
A baseball fan that turns on the T.V. today would see a shortstop playing behind the second base bag, an outfielder shaded a certain direction based off of a hitter’s tendencies, and pitchers hurrying to get set due to the new pitch clock. All of these small, yet noticeable changes in how the game is played have their root the influx of data-driven observations, suggestions and strategies.The game has never before seen this many changes at a single time. Are these rapid changes too much at once for our historic game? Are these changes coming at a time when baseball is turning into its most vulnerable state? Only time will tell how analytics will affect the state and integrity of our game.
In the meantime, we can only examine how analytics has affected our game in the short-term. Looking back on the 2018 baseball season, many of us were shocked by the success of the Milwaukee Brewers - they advanced to the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Much can be attributed to the 2018 NL MVP, Christian Yelich, as the X-Factor to this surprising success. Despite this, many have overlooked the Brewers’ underrated starting rotation, comprised of injury-plagued “no-names”. Yet, this scrappy rotation elevated the Brewers’ team ERA into the top third of the league last season. A rotation of Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Jhoulys Chacin, Brent Suter, and Jimmy Nelson combined for a 3.92 ERA. A rotation that made an annual combined salary of just over $17 million. To put this in perspective, Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Homer Bailey makes just over this mark. The small-market Milwaukee Brewers used data-driven analytics to allocate their money and invest it in underrated pitchers that, when used properly, found success as a collective unit. Many teams are following the model that the Brewers followed from the Moneyball Oakland Athletics. This new application of player evaluation has given small-market teams such as the Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, and Cleveland Indians, to name a few, a chance for success. Prepare yourselves: the age of sabermetrics is just getting underway.
On the flip side, sabermetrics has its cons. One smaller controversial topic that fits under this larger umbrella debate is the role of scouts due to the emergence of Big Data and baseball analysts. Aside from how sabermetrics is affecting the heart of the game, I was also very interested in how it would affect the role of the scout. The role of the scout in today’s game is to be the visual component, the “eyes” of the organization, and to take an initial glance, to decide whether the player is worth a more in-depth look from an analytical perspective. This results in friction between the two sides as scouts are fighting for more power and influence in organizational decisions. One American League West scout described the relationship between the two sides of player evaluation, analytics vs. traditional scouting, when asked if there is ever a “battle” between the two.
“’I wouldn’t call it a battle, but sometimes I think those two sides butt heads. They’re all on the same team but depending on the GM, one side is going to be heard more often than not. When it’s not your side, that’s not a lot of fun.’”
Moreover, many scouts are worried that their diminished role in player evaluation could eventually lead to an extinction of scouts in our game. 60 scouts have been released by Major League teams in the last year. The Houston Astros Organization released 34 scouts in the last year, double that of the next team behind them. If other teams follow the Houston Astros in their analytically-stricken mindset, baseball will turn into a purely number-based sport.
From a personal point of view, advancement in analytics has helped today’s game without stripping it of its heart and soul. Sabermetrics has not only provided front offices with more information than ever before about player attributes, but has also impacted baseball fan experience. Adding Statcast, an analytical tool that can measure play-by-play metrics live, to the fan perspective has added a new element of entertainment and interest to, as many would say, a dying sport.
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