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An open letter to Bob Nightengale, who thinks that baseball sucks

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If you don’t want to watch teams do the things that give them the best chance to win, then move on.

Kansas City Royals v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Hi Bob.

Who is your favorite baseball player of all-time? What do you want baseball to look like? I ask you this because in your recent piece for USA Today, it sounds like you want to make baseball great again.

It’s an interesting viewpoint, and many people would say that baseball is fine. A phenomenal group of young players inject excitement into the game every day. The league saw its first legitimate two-way player in nearly a century this season. Fans have more access to information about the game than ever and can watch from pretty much anywhere. So, to what, exactly, would you like to take the game back?

It seems to be a problem with the way that the game is played today. You state that “The Arizona Diamondbacks have the lowest batting average (.227) in all of baseball, with 135 more strikeouts than hits, and they’re in first place in the NL West.” I commend your ability to read a standings printout. If we want to go a step further, you might take a look at some of the other statistics for which the Diamondbacks are responsible.

So far in 2018 the Diamondbacks are struggling a little bit at the plate. Part of that is because AJ Pollock got hurt, but I’m sure you’re familiar with injuries and how they can impact a team. They have a decent lineup beyond that, with Paul Goldschmidt leading the way. But what puzzles me is that someone like you, who has covered baseball since 1986, completely missed the fact that the Diamondbacks have one of the best defenses in all of baseball. I believe that’s half of the game or so. They also enjoy starts from Zach Greinke and Patrick Corbin, either of whom would be an ace on most other teams in the league. In addition to that, they run the bases well. That combination seems to be working, as they’ve outscored their opponents by 47 runs this season. That sounds to me like a team that is doing all of the small things well and might need an extra bat to hold of the resurgent Dodger and contend in the postseason. It should be an interesting race in the NL West for the rest of the season. Ahh, but their batting average! I forgot. They are terrible.

You similarly complain about the Milwuakee Brewers, who lead the NL Central. Did you know that they have a reliever by the name of Josh Hader who is striking out players at a historic rate? He’s pitched 38.2 innings in 26 games and owns an ERA of 1.16. He spearheads a group that is probably the second or third best bullpen in all of baseball. It helps a team to win games if the relievers come in and shut down the other team. Your main gripe with them, though, is that they have a “paltry .316 on-base percentage, and have grounded into more double plays than any other team in the NL.” Like the Diamondbacks, they are also a great defensive team that adds value on the bases — they’ve stolen 55 this year, good for the third best number in the league. Again, it seems like offense is only part of the game, as they’ve outscored opponents by 49 runs this season.

You quote Mike Trout in the piece, who says, “That’s how you win games, right? By scoring the most runs?” It just strikes me as odd that you would attack teams that find ways to outscore opponents. Maybe it isn’t sexy. Maybe it isn’t flashy. But they’re doing that very thing.

You get to the crux of your argument a little bit later where you state that more than a third of all at-bats, the ball is not even put into play. You go on to say the following:

[W]hy ponder actual outcomes when you can obsess over expected ones?

We’re having our heads filled with so many exit velocities, spin rates, launch angles and catch probabilities, it’s as if scoring the most runs in a game is considered as antiquated as the eight-track.

First of all, nobody knows what an eight-track is anymore, and I’m not even sure that it should be hyphenated. Second, when you say that people focusing on advanced metrics is a detriment to the game, you’re undermining your own argument. Front offices focus on things like exit velocity, spin rate, launch angles, and catch probabilities because those things tell them which players are doing the most to generate or prevent runs. If a player consistently hits the ball hard at certain angles, you can expect him to drive in more runs than a player that does not. Kinematics says that, not me. If a fielder makes more catches than the average player in his position, then he is putting his team in a position to win. If a pitcher can generate more movement by spinning the ball harder, he is better equipped to dispatch with hitters. These things all help a team either score more runs or prevent the other team from doing so. Isn’t that exactly what you’ve asked them to do?

You really get into trouble when you say the following, though:

These days you’re a hero when you take that pitch that’s 1/8th of an inch off the plate and draw your walk, even though a mere ground ball to the right side of the infield would have driven in that runner from third base with less than two outs.

I’m not sure if you’re aware, Bob, but not making an out is the most important thing that you can do at the plate. If you don’t get out, and the guy behind you doesn’t get out, and things keep piling on from there, than you get to keep batting indefinitely. Furthermore, that ground ball isn’t going to score a run most of the time. Fielders at the major league level are adept at checking the runner at third before going to first, and a home run — which you appear to hate for not being playable — is an even better option.

We do find some common ground when you mention possible alterations to the game. I, too, would like more balls in play. I, too, want to see players beat the shift. I, too, miss the days when starters would routinely throw 200+ innings. It was fun. The problem is that all of these changes occurred because people smarter than you or I realized it gave them a better chance to win a baseball game. You complain that teams are treating every game like its game seven of the World Series, doing whatever it takes to win. Is trying to win every game a bad thing?

You advocate for new ideas about how to liven up the sport, but hate the idea of relievers starting the game as “openers”.

You bemoan the lack of hit-and-runs and complain about the shift while begging teams to do things that help them win games.

You point out that attendance at games is an issue without reviewing television ratings or pointing out that ticket prices have far outpaced the cost of inflation.

You have an alarming grasp of baseball statistics for someone who seems to hate them.

What if the league allowed players to show some emotion on the field instead of telling them to “not show anyone up” when they’ve just blasted a ball 450-feet?

What if the league allowed fans to share content of games with their friends and followers on social media instead of seeking temporary bans and preventing dialogue?

What if members of the national media focused on teams in more than four cities and tried to help grow the game instead of undercutting it?

Just admit it, Bob: You hate today’s baseball. If you don’t want to watch teams do the things that give them the best chance to win, then move on.

Ripping the game apart on a national platform because you don’t understand it anymore isn’t acceptable. Change is hard. You’ve seen a lot of it since 1986, but it’s still 90-feet to first base and neither of us can hit a curveball. The game is different, but that’s a direct result of teams understanding it better than we do. You can’t fault them for that. If you have constructive criticism as to how we might alter the game to make it more exciting, then we will listen. Publishing an article that compares hitters to beer-league softball players in a season when there are more home runs than ever just isn’t a compelling or entertaining argument.

Again: who is your favorite player of all-time? To what, exactly, would you like to take the game back? It’s hard to understand your dissatisfaction without understanding what you would prefer the game to be.