Before screens, people needed something to look at while they ate breakfast cereal. I chose the baseball section of the Orlando Sentinel sports section for most of my childhood.
It featured a box score for every Major League game from the night before. During the week, the Sentinel crammed these into as little space as possible while maintaining strained legibility. The margins were tight and did not align from column to column. One needed to pay attention to the horizontal breaks on the page. You know, these guys:
These told you where one game’s box score ended and the next one’s began. Next, a table in the bottom corner of the page listed the leaders in each league for various statistical categories. The usual suspects — AVG, RBI, HR, SB; ERA, W, L, SO, SV.
And that was it. That’s how you kept up with baseball. If you wanted to know a player’s career statistics you needed to go track down his cards. If you wondered about pitch velocities you needed to go to the game. Exit velocities ranged from “woof” to “Sweet merciful lord” based on the crack of the bat.
Maybe you owned a baseball almanac or a yearly prospectus ordered from the local bookstore. It was not yet feasible to order books on the computer we used to email, play games like Escape Velocity, and use Encarta Encyclopedia CD-ROM for school reports.
On weekends I stuck around for a second bowl of cereal. I remember small recaps for each game after the box scores. More importantly, I got to review the expanded league leaders table. More statistics! More players in each category! A chance to compare to last week!
Just now, on a lark, I pulled up every third basemen since 1990 with at least 500 PAs and sorted them by BABIP. It took twenty seconds, and here it is:
Curious about Nolan Jones’s slashline from May 26th to June 23rd? .330/.408/.582.
Minor Leaguer Jhonkensy Noel notched an exit velocity of 119 MPH at age 20.
I like stark juxtapositions. I can’t help it because a little synthesis might lead to astonishing insights. I will take a swing at metaphor here to tie this together.
Suppose that there is a complicated simulation video game that you enjoy. Certain behaviors of the game never quite make sense to you, but on the whole you enjoy interacting with and playing the game.
Then, one day, an update drops. Now you can read all of the source code along with detailed annotations from developers and the community. You start feeling frisky and author your own mod to tweak some of the game’s wonkier behavior. Some things that you thought were bugs now make a lot more sense. Some strategies you still don’t want to try are seen in a new light.
No, it is not possible to mod Major League Baseball. However, the extent to which a fan can now understand and interact with the game is, frankly, bonkers. With resources like Statcast, Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and many more, a searchable leaderboard with filters from the entire history of baseball is just there now with expert annotations and underlying data that cries out for analysis.
I once wrote that the game of baseball is largely solved, and this is what I meant by that. We know what kind of production from a player is most valuable now. We can go look it up for free whenever we want, on a pitch-by-pitch basis, from anywhere in the world.
I am still not sure what to do with all of these numbers. Maybe the right answer is nothing.