NEW YORK – Within moments of Giancarlo Stanton launching a baseball deep into the Bronx night Wednesday, the world knew, down to the decimal, every important number that went into creating this majestic home run. The slider Blake Treinen hung was traveling 89.7 mph, and the speed it left Stanton’s bat was 117.4 mph, and the angle at which it took off was 33 degrees, and the distance it traveled before ceding to gravity was 443 feet.
Baseball in 2018 is a rigid set of facts delivered, interpreted, distilled, tweaked and applied in hopes that the next set will have produced an outcome likelier to succeed. It is a multivariable math problem masquerading as a game. It is, in other words, the homo sapien to baseball in 2004’s homo erectus.
The comparison of those two years is no accident. Those were the days of mystique and aura, the time when it was cool to be a bunch of idiots. A decade and a half in baseball might as well be an eternity. Because as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox prepare to butt heads in the American League playoffs after the Yankees’ 7-2 wild-card victory Wednesday against the Oakland A’s, the 2018 version of the game — of the world — is diametrically opposed to the series that produced the greatest comeback in sports history.
There’s a journalistic trope that when a story harkens back to a particular year, it name-checks all of the things that did not exist at the time. It’s a cute way of saying, hey, technology was super lame back in the day. To do this with baseball reminds of something different altogether: That when the Red Sox stormed back from a three-games-to-none deficit to steal the best-of-seven AL Championship Series, baseball was actually at a seminal moment, about to undergo arguably the most drastic organic change in the game’s lifetime.
To remember the 2004 ALCS is to remember a time when a hitter was judged by batting average and a pitcher by wins. It was before the Red Sox or the Chicago Cubs conquered their World Series droughts that had been branded, amusingly, curses, because variance and bad luck and the other real explanations were for nerds. It was almost innocent, the way conventional wisdom shaped strategy and unprovable narratives bent conversation.
Consider the Dave Roberts stolen base. You remember it because, as the story goes, even still to this day, it won the Red Sox the World Series. This, of course, is absurd. Roberts’ stolen base gave Boston an opportunity to beat Mariano Rivera, which allowed for a Game 5, which they won and forced a Game 6, which led to a Game 7 blowout, which gave them a shot at the World Series, where they would have to win four more games to make Roberts’ stolen base more than an afterthought.
They did. It was — and is — the furthest thing from some moment lost to history, even if all it did, mathematically speaking, was take the Red Sox’s chances of winning the series from 4.3 percent to 5.8 percent. The difficulty with modern baseball is often reconciling numbers and the facts that undergird them with lying eyes and built-in biases. We want every story to have a seminal moment, a beginning worthy of an end so spectacular.
And understand: The 2004 ALCS, from start to finish, was spectacular. It was the series every series now aspires to be. Two excellent teams punishing one another, first with the Yankees, the bullies, getting in their shots, and then the Red Sox, perpetual loser, fighting back. There were good players and good fan bases and good history — the textbook foundation upon which it’s easiest to build classic series.
What it didn’t have were the gizmos that today make baseball viewing such an immersive experience. The closest thing to social media — whose ubiquity may be most apparent during sporting events, when anyone can talk with anyone about anything related, even tangentially, to the game going on — was message boards. The numbers on Stanton’s home run — the exit velocity and launch angle taken from the camera-and-radar-based Statcast system — were the domain of physicists, not casual baseball fans. The sport was still trying, hilariously in hindsight, to smear a book that had come out 16 months earlier.
It was called “Moneyball,” and it featured the Oakland A’s using data-driven processes to gain a marginal advantage their payrolls simply never provided. That 14 years later the A’s were the ones trying to spoil a rematch of the Yankees and Red Sox really was perfect — a continuation of principles they’ve long espoused, no matter the second-guessing they invite.
Look at what they did Wednesday. The A’s somehow had won 97 games with a pitching staff held together by Scotch tape, and without a starter in whom they had confidence, they decided a parade of relief pitchers would be their best opportunity to snap a streak of seven consecutive losses in win-or-go-home playoff games. When Aaron Judge hit the ninth pitch of the night into Yankee Stadium’s left-field bleachers, it wasn’t proof that bullpenning a game was some failed concept. It was one time, one event, too small a sample to conclude anything.
Using the bullpen as a binky is now just part of the game’s strategy, like hit-and-runs or taking shots of alcohol before World Series games. So is trying to pile up strikeouts. In 271 at-bats during the 2004 ALCS, the Red Sox punched out 53 times. The Yankees? Just 51 in 277 at-bats. If this series goes five games — and perhaps even if it doesn’t — those 2004 strikeout numbers will be exceeded with a fair margin to spare, even if the current Red Sox team has among the game’s lowest strikeout rates.
Now it’s those strikeouts and shifts and home runs — the 2018 Yankees hit more than any team in history — and fastball velocity that averaged 90.1 mph in 2004 and 92.8 mph today.
These Red Sox won 108 games. These Yankees won 100. Perhaps there will be less discussion of the supernatural elements of the series and more of what we know, what we’ve learned, what these 14 years have taught. At the same time, when Yankees reliever Dellin Betances says, “I think everybody in baseball wants this,” he’s right, even if those who hate the Yankees and Red Sox might protest otherwise.
Because truth is, with so much of the narrative element beaten out of sporting fandom, a Yankees-Red Sox game still can roil. New York beat Boston in the 1999 ALCS en route to a championship, and four years later Aaron Boone hit a legendary home run, and one season after that was the Red Sox’s turn. Now it’s back, and Boone, currently the Yankees’ manager, said his team “can’t wait. I think they’re ready and relish the opportunity to go up against the game’s best this year. And obviously we’re very familiar with them. We know how good they are. I mean, we know we have to play our best if we’re going to have a chance to beat them.”
So they’ll stroll into Fenway Park on Friday, ready to face Chris Sale, to face this game they’ve spent countless hours studying. The 2004 ALCS will be mentioned approximately eleventy billion times, and that’s great, but it’s not any reflection of today. Baseball, for all of its elements that never will go away, is a brand-new game. Here’s to the Yankees and Red Sox christening it like only they know how.
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