Over the last decade, I’ve reveled in the explosion of analytics in the sporting world.
I’ve used FIP to help build my fantasy pitching staff, learned CORSI to dissect the game within the hockey game and devoured anything from Pro Football Focus that could help me better understand the football game I just spent three hours watching.
I’m a devoted reader of FanGraphs, an annual buyer of Baseball Prospectus and a paid subscriber to two fantasy-focused websites that help me win the waiver wire.
And yet I can’t shake the feeling that I could be better off as a sports fan — the kind who lives and dies with every touchdown, home run and goal — without numbers.
That maybe all these computers and advanced approaches to the game are becoming too good in their predictive analysis.
That maybe computers are strangling the truest allures of following sports.
Possibility and hope for the upcoming season.
The simple pleasures of watching a single victory.
Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t an anti-analytics screed where I lock arms with crustafarians like Joe Morgan and Don Cherry, singing “We Are Family” until we’re shamed by a calculator-wielding mob on Twitter just minutes later.
But it is an acknowledgement that maybe there’s a cost in the quest by front offices and fans to take as much guesswork out of the game as possible.
So my questions to you are these:
Are we erasing the joy from the ride as predictive analysis gets better and better at showing us our destination before the journey even begins?
And maybe ignorance really can be bliss?
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here
Let’s take my home market of Chicago for example.
At the start of the season, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projected the Cubs would win just 79 games, a marked fall from the 95 they won in 2018. Cubs fans moaned and groaned, but the numbers saw what Chicagoans didn’t want to admit out loud. Though the team would start 29-18 and stay near the top of the NL Central until late August, the team’s hurdles — an obvious lack of bullpen depth plus regression and injuries — finally caught them mid-leap. A prodigious September stumble left the Cubs with only 84 total wins.
(It should be noted that PECOTA didn’t nail them all in 2019. The A’s, Twins and Braves outperformed their projections this year by 12 or more victories.)
After a surprising 12-win campaign in 2018, Bears fans were lathered up about the possibilities of the 2019 season — Cody Parkey’s double-doink not withstanding. But every preview from a national outlet this summer served as the equivalent of a cold shower. Between Mitchell Trubisky’s arrested development and the likelihood the defense wouldn’t force 36 turnovers again, many shops had the Bears finishing with 8-10 victories. That doesn’t exactly scream Super Bowl-bound. While the Bears have started 3-1 behind a defense that looks like it hasn’t yielded any ground, Bears fans are going to be worried about that trap door all season.
Finally, there’s the Blackhawks. While the front part of this decade brought three Stanley Cups in six tries, they’re threatening to close it with three straight playoff-less seasons under an aging and slowing defense. The addition of two defensemen this offseason was supposed to get the Blackhawks back into the postseason, but most projections still have the Hawks at the playoff cut line, at best. Many fan-run blogs believe there’s little reason to get our hopes up.
To sum it up: The first road really did dead-end, the second might not get you to Miami and the third may not even exist at all.
Even if you’re not a fan of Chicago teams, you can probably identify with any of these situations. There’s probably been times in your past where you haven’t been able to fully enjoy your team’s hot streak because you were mindful of the inevitable regression to the mean.
Or, if you were, it was filled with reading articles full of warnings about unsustainability from others who follow the team. Analytics kills all the “well, maybes” and “if justs” that make it so enjoyable to be a sports fan.
Where does this all lead?
Again, this isn’t an anti-analytics rant. Numbers can only prove or disprove our notions as sports fans. The observant among us could pick out underlying deficiencies long before Moneyball started a revolution. Poor ownership and front office management could strangle hope for decades at a time on their own.
Also, there’s nothing we can do to stop progress. Nor should we want to try if we want our teams to win (that’s assuming our teams are among the smarter ones).
But where is this all leading? Off-the-field player analysis in MLB’s farm systems has gotten so good that FiveThirtyEight is questioning whether we even need the minor leagues.
And if you don’t even need to stage games to tell who’s a great player, well, at what point will we even need to stage seasons to find out which teams are good enough to make the playoffs?
If you look to sports as a vicarious outlet where you can shut out the rational and reason you bring to real life, then numbers get in the way of that purpose.
There have always been the exceptions to the rules, of course.
Coming back to Chicago, the 2015 Cubs were predicted to win 82 games; they instead caught fire in the second half and won 97, jump starting an era that the numbers thought was still a year or two away.
On the other side of town, the 2005 White Sox were predicted by PECOTA to go 80-82 after the team shed Carlos Lee and Magglio Ordonez in the offseason.
The White Sox instead won 99 games in the regular season and enjoyed a run of deep postseason pitching from its starters to win the city’s first World Series title in 88 years.
But here’s where the rise of analytics and prospect porn might have had a tangible impact on what was possible for that White Sox team.
While the party line of the ‘05 White Sox was that the team was turning more to Ozzie Guillen’s “small ball” by not bringing back Lee or Ordonez, the reality was that owner Jerry Reinsdorf likely didn’t want to pay either. Out of that desire came a team that got outstanding years from a group of veteran position players and a bullpen full of arms who posted career years.
If the same move were made 14 years later, what are the chances the White Sox ride with the veterans that made the run possible? Right or wrong, today’s analytical approach would have called for the entire team to be stripped down. Paul Konerko could have been flipped for a bevy of prospects; Jermaine Dye and AJ Pierzynski might have never been offered contracts.
Looking for a happy balance
The challenge for any sports fan going forward, then, is to learn how to reconcile both sides.
I think back to September 2011. The Red Sox entered the month with a nine-game lead in the wild card race and a postseason berth all but locked up.
But then the Tampa Bay Rays started winning a lot of games. The Red Sox started losing a lot. That nine-game lead started to melt.
With every game that melted away, readers would ask one of the web’s leading analytical minds about the chances of the Rays pulling off the impossible. Each time they got a condescending response and were pointed toward Coolstandings, where the Rays chances of making the playoffs had started at 0.5 percent.
But they didn’t read 0.0 and, even though I wasn’t a Rays fan, I made the choice to invest myself in hoping the fried chicken-and-beer Red Sox would get run down from behind. As their odds grew incrementally each day on Coolstandings, so did my hope.
The analytics dude, meanwhile, kept saying no-way, no-how and anyone who thought otherwise was a moron.
In the end, the Rays did catch the Red Sox, with Evan Longoria hitting his famous home run on the night of Game 162. I still assume those of us who had spent the month enjoying the Rays run likely enjoyed it more than those who let logic get in the way. I canceled my subscription to the writer’s newsletter because of that hostile stance and found other writers with a more balanced view of the sport.
It might not get any easier to lose yourself in the pure theater of sports any more, especially as analytics become a bigger part of sports coverage and tanking becomes more acceptable.
Yet it’ll still be worth the effort once the ball is tipped or the first pitch is thrown. There’s still a lot of fun in that old saying, “That’s why they play the games.”
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