A baseball post for the start of the World Series. Read more baseball posts here.
Fans talk about their teams’ winning and losing with moral language, especially their losing.
I am that fan. For 15 years, while sabermetric analysis was ascendant in baseball and my favorite team, the Kansas City Royals, refused to bow to On Base Percentage and Working The Count, I judged them as moral failures. My devotion to them was full of hope that they would one day experience a conversion to the Moneyball way, the truth of BABIP, and the Life of a winner, but with every draft pick spent on a power hitting high school player with a low OBP, every signing of a free agent with “character,” every hiring of a “players manager,” I grew more and more despondent.
The winners in that era–The A’s, the Red Sox, the Giants–I canonized as stoic saints of restraint and self-discipline. Theirs was not the youthful folly of chasing the 0-2 slider in the dirt. Theirs was the purity–the piety–to spit on that pitch, to work the count full, and then to hammer a fastball into the right center field gap.
But now look at this. The Royals are about to play in their second consecutive World Series, not because their General Manager was converted to a morality of analytics, but because he and the organization maintained a devotion to a virtue an earlier era forgot, namely making lots of contact, even with bad pitches–the first sin of sabermetrics. They see fewer pitches per plate appearance of any team in baseball. They also walk and they strike out less than any team in baseball.
When it comes to the morality of sabermetrics, the Royals sin boldly, and it works. Their lack of discipline now shows as assertiveness. Their leadoff hitter, to take but one example, almost always swings at the first pitch he sees, an offense for which Bill James would see a hitter tarred and feathered. Only it works. A lot.
I just wonder about all the ways in which en earlier era’s sins turn out to be the saving practices we need today.