October 28, 2019

Joe Buck Constructs - And Then Attacks - A Strawman; MLB Ignores A Perfect Opportunity (Naturally) To Showcase Baseball's Greatness

If you have listened to baseball announcers over the past couple of seasons, you have noticed that when discussing the recent trends in the game, either on the field or in the batting cages and bullpens or in the front offices, the word "analytics" will be mentioned.

This word is rarely presented as if the speaker is passing on some inside information that viewers should know about or how your favourite team is trying to build a contending club. No, the word usually sounds as if the announcer is holding a big turd in his mouth. The word "analytics" is spoken — by the people charged with keeping audiences interested in baseball — with hints of boredom, condescension, or outright ridicule. And then baseball can't figure out why its audience is shrinking.

Joe Buck (Fox Sports) is one of the announcers who makes up situations and then uses his fictional scenarios to criticize or find fault with "analytics". Buck doesn't imply advocates of progressive stats reside in their mother's basements, but you can draw a perfectly straight line from those childish insults of not-so-many-years-past and this season's World Series. How baffling is it that the top announcers in baseball think it's proper and even necessary to denigrate and ridicule how the best teams win the most games?

In Game 4 of the World Series, Yan Gomes of the Astros took a called strike in the bottom of the third inning.
Joe Buck, Fox Sports: A.J. Hinch is wearing a headset down in the dugout. You have to really like what you see from [Jose] Urquidy.

A.J. Hinch, Astros manager: No kidding. He's really gotten into the game pretty efficiently, he's calm – this is exactly how he looked in the summer when we first brought him up and certainly through September and I like what I see so far, for sure.

Buck: And it really – and I wasn't expecting to go here with this interview – but it really points out the difference between just "analytics" and numbers and spin rates and all that other stuff and then somebody gets on a stage like this and you see calm like you're seeing from Urquidy. That can go a long way.

Hinch: It can go a long way. And his stuff is really good across the board and I think he's matured and learned how to use it a little bit. I think I said before the game in my media session that he pitches up to the level — like I've watched him in the big leagues, pitch like a big leaguer, you know, he sets hitters up, he goes for some weakness areas, he rarely makes major mistakes outside of the area he wants to go to and, you know, he's a pitcher, but he's got plus-stuff and that's a good look for him.
Calm. Fifteen years after Tim McCarver gushed over the calm (and dreamy) eyes of Derek Jeter, "calm" has become a new baseball buzzword. I have not listened to the announcers of many games, but when I do, I hear talk of calm hands, calm upper torsos, etc.

Of course, plenty of bad pitchers can appear calm. (Or maybe Urquidy just has a calm facial expression.) As Hinch implies, a surplus of talent could produce calm and the stats (the record of what the player did on the field) would show that. Urquidy is calm because he has talent and if he's on "a stage like this", then he's calm on "a stage like this". Also, it was clear that Hinch politely noted what Buck said and then immediately moved away from it. Because the Astros use a shit-ton of "analytics" and Hinch is no moron.

Rob Neyer, in Powerball: Anatomy Of A Modern Baseball Game, cites a book he read a few years ago that, in its preface, stated (as fact) "sabermetrics compromises a real appreciation of baseball, but making matters worse, it fails on its own terms. It cannot succeed in doing what its more ambitious adherents openly espouse: reducing baseball to a social science understandable wholly in terms of data." (While Neyer names the book, I will not.)

Neyer then wrote:
I've met dozens of sabermetrics adherents. Hundreds, maybe. I have not met one who thinks the numbers might somehow explain everything. Even if they're around, they're not worth writing a book about: they're not actually working for baseball teams or even writing for one of the sabermetrically inclined websites. So just imagine: a whole book, lovingly written, edited, and designed, about straw men.
And then just imagine: Joe Buck, waiting all summer for the postseason, when he will have the attention of millions of viewers, and he can finally sprinkle his contrary opinions throughout the broadcasts, those opinions lovingly composed, about a movement that has never existed, a belief system in modern baseball that has been conjured out of thin air. Many millions of viewers will believe this dichotomy does exist because Buck spoke out against it.

Three innings later, in the bottom of the sixth, the Nationals trail 4-0. Urquidy is done after five innings. Astros reliever Josh James walks the leadoff man, Gerardo Parra (who, earlier this season, Buck notes, "changed his walk-up music and changed his luck" (ending slumps are easy!)), and strikes out Trea Turner.
Buck: And the batter will be Adam Eaton. As Brent Strom comes out to talk, we'll give you a quick word from Bounty ...

More like we'll force a full-screen, in-game, fucking paper towel commercial on you  – Fuck You, MLB & Fox! – before the game resumes and Eaton takes a ball outside and a called strike.

John Smoltz, Fox Sports: You know, pitching coaches have to be, today – they have to have unwritten degrees in psychology. I mean, you really have to figure out so much about your personnel that you have and look for cues and look for things that work, and make sure that you don't tell them as soon as you see something go awry.

Buck: And that's the part – and we talked about this with A.J. Hinch with regard to Urquidy – that's the part that you can't account for with analytics. You know, what's a guy's mindset that day? Does he like facing a certain hitter? Sometimes the numbers say, well, this guy dominates this guy and he may go to the manager and say, Man, when so-and-so steps in, I don't know, I don't have a good feeling, despite what the numbers may say.

Smoltz: Yeah, having that blend is great. And Houston seems to have a real good blend. As do a lot of teams, but they really do it well and match up strengths with the guys who are pretty good on the mound.
Does he like facing a certain hitter? ... How would Buck frame the discussion of a pitcher who expressed a hesitancy about facing a certain hitter? If the pitcher said, "I don't know, man, I don't have a good feeling"? I can guarantee Buck would not be praising him for taking a principled and much-needed stand against the onslaught of analytics.

Smoltz, who may be annoying as hell and often cannot shut up, and frequently gets hopelessly tangled in sentences that flow like bad free jazz but knows baseball, also seems to be dismissive of Buck's opinion by noting that good teams have a "blend" of analytics and scouting. (Which has always been the case, despite the sports media's insistence that it has to be one or the other. There was never a war between the two camps. Why would teams who are smart enough to take advantage of the latest technology and modes of thought purposefully cut themselves off from a significant source of information?)

Buck's false dichotomy is merely a new chapter in the long-standing "jocks vs. nerds" debate, the false argument that you cannot truly understand baseball unless you played it professionally. How can people still be having this argument, in 2019? It's also tied into the anti-intellectual strain that has coursed through American culture ever since there was an America. Richard Hofstader's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies ((2008, updated 2018) offer extensive proof that, in the United States, ignorance is praised as highly (if not higher) than knowledge and smart people are viewed with suspicion, if not outright derision. We are inundated by claims that an expert in any given field is an egghead elitist and who you'd most like to drink a beer with is a reasonable strategy for picking a candidate to vote for.

These people are ignorant and dismissive of science and put quotation marks around words such as "facts". They distrust experts and ridicule those people who have spent decades studying and researching in their fields. They value "gut" reactions and relying on instinct. They hold fast to opinions that have been discredited for years, sometimes for decades. ... Sound like Trump supporters? Sure, but I'm also describing baseball fans and media members who scoff at newer, more progressive statistics.
"I use many stats. Let me tell you, you have stats that are far worse than the ones that I use." — Donald Trump

"Given an option, all men prefer to reject information." — Bill James
Trump supporters have much in common with the managers and coaches and players and announcers and writers and fans who refuse to accept new information, who reject innovative ways to understand the game around which they have spent so much of their lives. They rely on what they learned years ago, when they first discovered baseball. Batting average, home runs, and RBI have been the big three statistics for hitters for many generations. They comprise what is known as the Triple Crown for hitters. (A lesser-known Triple Crown for pitchers consists of leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA.) They are still what is shown (and mentioned) on every television broadcast when a batter first comes to the plate.

For many people, the very fact of those statistics' longevity is proof of their validity. If those stats were no good, the argument goes, they would not have lasted so long. They would have been replaced. But when better statistics do come along and should replace the old misleading ones, those same people refuse to accept them. And they claim statistics are killing baseball before quoting batting average, ERA, and fielding percentage.

Jocks vs nerds? There has never existed a bigger nerd about hitting than Ted Williams.

Last May, I complained about MLBTV's between-innings "flashbacks" and how MLB had taken what could easily have been an amazing idea and made it annoying and pointless. Nothing has changed. During the World Series, MLB should be showing highlights and cool stuff from previous World Series and postseasons. Naturally, they are not. Doing so would mean MLB puts thought into these things and actually cares about increasing fans' enjoyment of baseball. (Although one clip states that Jonathan Villar hit 6,106 home runs this year, so that's pretty cool. What PED is he on? And you can't help but think his accomplishment would have received more attention if he played in New York.)

Starting in the middle of the third inning of Game 5, I tried to note every "flashback", a few of which occurred than two weeks ago. Here is the tally:
From the Stone Age to May 30, 2019:    0
From June 2019:                        6*
From July-August-September 2019:      84
From 2019 Postseason:                  6**
*: June Clips: Machado hits home run in return to Baltimore (2), Pujols hits home run in return to Anaheim (2), Goldschmidt hits home run in return to Arizona (2).
**: Postseason Clips: Nationals score 7 runs in 1st inning against Cardinals (2), Sanchez of Nationals throws 7.2 no-hit innings in NLCS Game 1 (2), Scherzer of Nationals strikes out 11 in NLCS Game 2 (2).

We saw Paul DeJong hit three home runs on July 24, but not Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in the deciding Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.

We saw Ben Gamel hit a walkoff double on July 13, but not Dave Roberts's steal of second base in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.

We saw Mike Yastrzemski hit a home run at Fenway Park on September 17, but not Joe Carter hit a World Series-winning homer in 1993.

We saw Ryan Braun hit a go-ahead grand slam on September 15, but not Alex Bregman's grand slam in Game 4 of the 2019 World Series (which would not have been much of a "flashback", but would have at least been relevant).

And did I really need to see Gary Sanchez's 100th career home run four fucking times? (Most of these clips were shown four or five times — over only six innings!) Or the Orioles break up a possible perfect game by the Rays? (Well, at least they stopped showing Bartolo Colon's behind-the-back throw to first.)

It takes real effort to completely fuck up something that would be so obviously awesome. Good work, MLB, as usual!


FenFan said...

The only reason Joe Buck has a broadcasting job is because he's the son of a famous broadcaster: end of story. Half the time, he mails in his efforts to call a game, believing that the only pleasure listeners seek are the sounds of his voice echoing in their ears. If I had to choose between Buck and nails across a chalkboard, it would be a very difficult decision since both cause me the same level of pain.

Kara said...

Joe Buck is terrible. I can't stand his voice or his calls.