If you’ve read any of my writing on this website in the last few years, thank you. It’s been a fun outlet for me to explore the Weird Box; I don’t often get the opportunity to do so offline when talking about baseball.
With the sport is on hiatus I’ve been considering what to do with all of the downtime. I could spend it writing absurd OOTP articles in which all baseball teams are comprised entirely of switch-hitting elite knuckleballers and also Bryan Shaw. I will certainly spend some of this time working on that.
However, I found my mind drifting to other, quieter thoughts about baseball while pretending to work this afternoon. Maybe it’s because we wait all winter for games to resume, but this unexpected delay makes me want to slow down even more. What is the game to me? Does it really matter if I’m an Indians fan? Is winning baseball the most fun to watch? If not, can we even do anything about it? What if the Yankees just didn’t anymore?
I’m going to commit to writing at least five of this diversions. Today, I want to ruminate on the idea that maybe winning baseball isn’t really all that fun anymore.
Don’t get me wrong. Winning is fun. The phenomenal Indians runs in 2016 and 2017 already own a permanent place in my memory as the most entertaining baseball I’ve ever watched. Even if the outcomes weren’t ideal. It’s the moments when the team transcended what was happening on the field that I come back to most often. When the emotion and excitement created unforgettable vignettes.
Tyler Naquin’s inside-the-park walk-off home run.
Rajai Davis’s slug bunt.
The mini-Indians players made out of baseballs.
Sacrificing a chicken so that Jobu would spare Yan Gomes.
The never-ending game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Francisco Lindor going deep in Puerto Rico while his mom cheered.
The ludicrous Austin Jackson catch, the Zach McAllister hacky-catch, Ryan Merrit shutting down the Blue Jays in the playoffs, and so many more singular performances.
Jose Ramirez’s helmet flying off constantly.
Tito eating dozens of popsicles.
Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw all working outstanding innings of relief whenever called upon.
Partying at Napoli’s.
Even the awful moments took on a feel that grew distinct to those teams. Remember when Rajai Davis lost two balls in the sun during a Corey Kluber start? Or Trevor Bauer cutting his finger on a drone and then bleeding out on national television?
As I write all of this, I become aware that some of these events don’t happen without a fantastic team on the field. Teams often don’t gel in that way when they’re losing, too. But it’s not the pursuit of winning in particular that causes those memorable moments; they happen along the way. They’re part of the journey we take every year when we decide to tether a significant portion of our happiness to the morning box score 162 days out of the year (or fewer, it turns out).
Every team wants to win, and every organization tries to build a winner. Those teams created a kind of baseball that made me sure I would miss something special if I didn’t tune in. And as fate would have it, I missed Naquin’s walk-off inside-the-park home run because I was on a first date with a nice young lady who couldn’t go out on Saturday, instead.
It would have been the only date without the homer, but it didn’t help things.
When winning takes over
I think the Astros of the last few seasons are the best foil to those Indians teams. The Indians put together a group of talented players that played the games to win, but remembered that they were ultimately games. The Astros played the games to win at all costs, from the team on the field to the organization in the clubhouse.
It’s easy to pick on a bunch of cheaters when everyone hates them. Could you imagine if Jose Altuve came out and said, “Look, I know a lot of you are mad at me. I screwed up, I recognize that, and I own it. So what I want to do is sit in a dunk tank two Saturdays from now. Everyone gets three shots to drench me, and for every plunge I’ll donate to charity.”
No, you can’t, because it’s clear that whatever the essence of the game is — the resonance you feel when James Earl Jones says, “people will come, Ray”, the hum of the radio as you listen to Tom Hamilton with the sun in your eyes, the shiver down your spine when you hear what Buck O’Neil called “that sound” and know that the ball is gone without having to look — seems to be lost to him. Winning matters more to him, I think.
It’s not entirely fair to put words in his mouth like that, but neither is cheating. I’ll call it even.
Think of the organization as a whole, though. They’re lauded — and rightfully so — as a model organization for the rest of the league. Their analytics far outpace anyone else in sports, and the strategies they employ when finding and developing players are unparalleled. Many of these ideas are beginning to spread league-wide.
This extends to the full lifecycle of teams now. The Cubs were terrible when Theo Epstein took over. He used that to stockpile talent and build a World Series winner. The Astros did the same, and built up so much talent that whiffing on a first overall draft pick (Brady Aiken) and letting a future All-Star leave the organization for nothing (JD Martinez) still didn’t hinder their construction of a winner. Is it really healthy for the game if that’s the best way to build a contender?
While its true that this is essentially in the spirit of Moneyball — uncovering new ways to gain an advantage and capitalizing upon it — I wonder if we’ve considered the costs enough. Is it worth optimizing the game for winning every step of the way?
Think about the change in thinking regarding launch angle to increase home runs and the leaps and bounds pitchers have taken at boosting strikeouts. We know that both are more or less the best outcomes possible for teams in a given at-bat. But, at what point do we get tired of nothing but home runs and strikeouts?
To me, baseball players are some of the most incredible athletes on the planet. I’d like to see them showcase that athleticism more often as they leg out triples, dive for line drives, and chase balls down in the gap. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like home runs or strikeouts, but so many games last season felt interchangeable. 6-5 game, each time with 17 strikeouts and two home runs. There isn’t any tension in the inevitable.
I don’t say these things to discount the athletic feats of pitchers and players at the plate. They shouldn’t be punished for drastically improving and taking advantage of new ideas. Something just feels out of balance. Maybe we’re in a moment where the pendulum is paused at one end of its swing, ready to sweep back down in its perpetual self-correction. Players will arrive who can bunt against the shift with more success; contact hitters will become drastically undervalued and represent a competitive advantage for small market teams; a group of knuckleballing junk throwers could put up All-Star numbers striking out five per nine by keeping everything on the ground.
But I’m not sure. Some of these things feel like fundamental shifts within the foundation of the game, resulting changes to its structure aren’t easily altered once they’re finished.
But is it really bad? Isn’t baseball still fun?
Baseball is still fun. I wonder about the direction in which it is trending.
This a weird analogy, but think about shopping on Amazon. In most cases it represents the quickest way to get something that you need at the best price. Of course that’s what we want as consumers, right? But aren’t there things about hunting down a copy of that book or chatting with someone knowledgeable at the local store to narrow down your selection that we miss? There’s a trade-off there that never had a chance to be fully considered, and now there’s not really any going back.
I wonder if we’re seeing the same thing in baseball. What if all teams following the model that gives them the best chance to win creates a less interesting game? You can’t blame them for this; in fact, we demand it of them. Sure, a team could go off-META and try to build a championship contender by stealing bases, inducing weak contact, and prioritizing defense. Like a chess player going off-script during an opening, though, it takes immense talent and some luck for it to work.
And maybe my idea of what is “Fun Baseball” doesn’t align with what everyone else thinks. I’m open to that. I’ve heard rumblings from others, though, that a little more active action in the game might be nice. More dynamic moments instead of static outcomes. It feels unfair to call a home run or a strikeout “static”, but compared to a triple I think that they are.
It boils down to this. I want the Indians to win. I also want more exciting baseball. What I see as more exciting isn’t necessarily what would lead to winning.
I’ve noticed this cognitive dissonance happening for me. I don’t know if there is a solution or not. I do know that it won’t keep me from watching a lot of baseball once it returns this season. But five seasons from now? I’m not so sure, anymore.
So what could we do to help incentivize more interesting baseball? Are there small changes that we can make that might get us out of the boom-and-bust cycle that teams now follow in order to build teams and maximize their contention windows? Maybe. I’ll talk about some ideas that could help that happen on Wednesday.