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OC Register: In the war between science and aesthetics, trying to save baseball teams from themselves

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PHOENIX — For the last seven years every March, baseball people have gathered here at a downtown hotel to discuss baseball. The SABR Analytics conference attracts all sorts. College students presenting research papers, hoping to improve their job prospects. Bloggers. Research and development people, player development people, even the occasional big league general manager. The tie that binds them is a desire to know more about baseball. With 15 spring training camps in a 23-mile radius, it’s an ideal setting.

A team of coeds was giving a presentation about defensive shifts Sunday when I ducked into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. So did John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. We needed a breather.

I told Thorn that I scour the conference’s forest of trends for the coolest tree every year. This year, though, the forest seemed like the story. It’s getting huge – easy to get lost in and hard to find your way out. Consider that today’s college grads are among the first to enter a baseball workforce featuring an in-house research and development unit within all 30 organizations. Front offices that dwarf the size of active rosters are all they’ve ever known. The baseball landscape grows more ripe for analytic innovation every year.

The next generation of baseball executives will take for granted the ruthless pursuit of efficiency – extracting the most value out of a roster by whatever means available. This process has evolved into a science during their lifetimes.

That’s well and good, but what about the TV show? You remember television, right? The revenue-generating technology that broadened baseball’s visibility and allows teams to employ dozens of executives in the first place? That thing we call “entertainment”?

“The war in baseball is between science and aesthetics,” Thorn said, “and the people in there don’t give a (crap) about aesthetics.”

You won’t hear a more succinct summary of the state of analytics in 2019. Not only has it lost sight of the forest, it’s stumbled into a war.

The goals of quantitative analysts and the goals of marketers aren’t inherently in conflict. Sometimes they line up. Other times they don’t. The things that make baseball more or less marketable are largely a matter of opinion.

For example, say you love the drama of the pitcher-hitter matchup in a long at-bat. The 2018 season was a banner year. The average number of pitches per plate appearance increased to 3.89, the most since pitch data has been recorded. If the trend continues, at-bats will last even longer in 2019. Now take the extreme opposite: If the batter put the first pitch into play every time, your primary interest would vanish, yet the pace of each game would never be faster. Is there a happy medium to be found somewhere?

Questions like this motivated MLB to select the independent Atlantic League as a petri dish for experimental rules in 2019. Among them: a radar-tracking device to help home plate umpires call balls and strikes, wider bases, a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, a ban on certain infield shifts, and an extra two feet between the mound and home plate. In an interview with The Trentonian, the Atlantic League’s president explained the reason for the experiment.

“(MLB’s) contention is people who go to games – and they aren’t directing this at millennials, they’re directing this at fans – want to see baserunners, catching, throwing, hitting, all of that dynamic stuff that occurs in a game,” Rick White said. “They’re concerned that’s coming out of the game. If one looks at just about every one of these initiatives, and our league has looked at 30 potential initiatives that they have very carefully presented to us, just about all of them deal with the idea of increased action in a game.”

Here’s the thing: There are strategic reasons why action has decreased. Hitters are encouraged to draw walks and hit home runs, and pitchers chase strikeouts because it helps their teams win. All of these so-called “true outcomes” keep the ball from landing in the field of play. They reduce action. Defensive shifts and one-batter relievers also offer tactical advantages against certain hitters. These strategies aren’t new; they’re merely enjoying a wave of popularity among front office number-crunchers. But strategies wax and wane in every sport. When should a strategy elicit a change to the rules of the game?

This question guided the evolution of baseball in the 19th century, Thorn said. Intentionally throwing pitches out of the strike zone was integral to a pitcher’s game plan for years. When it became obvious that hitting a pitch a foot off the plate was impossible, the strike zone was born.

The past century has been marked by equilibrium. The last major rule change was in 1973, when the American League introduced designated hitters. The calendar suggests it’s time for another change. So does baseball’s analytically-driven style of play, at least in the eyes of MLB. In the war between science and aesthetics, the league is effectively trying to save teams from themselves.

I’m relatively agnostic when it comes to changing the rules or leaving them alone. My strongest feelings are reserved for matters of safety, or the rare instance when no strike zone exists where one should – a rule so obvious you wonder how you ever lived without it.

The phenomenon known as “service time manipulation” is one such flaw. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit .381 across four minor league levels last year as a 19-year-old. Healthy or not, he won’t begin the 2019 season on the Blue Jays’ roster because A), Toronto’s front office isn’t pretending the team will contend for a playoff spot and B), it can retain Guerrero’s exclusive negotiating rights for an extra year by promoting him to the majors at the end of April. This is owed to an arcane rule about how many days a player must spend on a team’s active roster to accrue a “year” of service time.

That rule, regardless of its intent, has the effect of keeping some of baseball’s best players in the minor leagues. Fixing the rule won’t affect gameplay. Still, Guerrero personifies a front office acting “smart” within the rules while simultaneously harming the aesthetics of baseball’s product. Commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t deny the problem when he addressed reporters last month in Phoenix.

“I think both bargaining parties, if you gave them truth serum, would tell you that we have struggled … with exactly what the mechanism is that solves this issue,” Manfred said. “I think the problem comes down to the fact that clubs have always – and it should be this way – have the right to decide who’s going to be on their roster at a particular point in time. It’s hard to figure out a mechanism that you can impose on top of that really fundamental right that gets you to the result that you may want to achieve.”

Think about that sentence. It captures everything at stake in the war between science and aesthetics. Choosing the right mechanisms to impose. Deciding the type of changes that are worth fighting for. Defining the fundamental rights of a player and of a team.

When I asked Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill about the changes coming to the Atlantic League, where he pitched in 2015, it evoked his concept of what’s fundamental about baseball.

“Leave it as it is,” Hill said. “The game’s perfectly designed the way it’s supposed to be designed. If you want to turn it into what the WWE is, that’s what we can do. Make it an entertainment business, which it is. It already is entertainment. You’re treated like entertainers, you’re paid like entertainers, you’re taxed like entertainers. Just turn it into the WWE. Go all the way. Start pitching from second base.”

Hill was kidding. (Maybe he’d just been watching too much wrestling.) Anyway, there’s no rule preventing analysts from convening to discuss baseball’s aesthetics. They could probably benefit from inviting more outside voices into their silo – players, historians, even Vince McMahon. Thorn suggested counting a two-strike foul ball as a strikeout. That would quicken games, encourage batters to hit more balls in play, and reduce the likelihood of fans getting injured (or killed) by foul balls. Those are noble goals which, in 2019, means the rule could be coming to an independent league near you.

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