Here’s a question about the exhilarating, stomach-churning, 10-inning seventh game of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians: Was it “true baseball”?
Early in 2015, Dave Stewart, the former major-league pitcher who had recently become the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, made a crack about data-friendly teams (like the Cubs and Indians). Stewart suggested that free agents might prefer to sign with Arizona, because they would see it “as a true baseball team versus some of the other teams out here that are geared more toward analytics and those type of things.”
It was not an isolated remark. Many people around baseball have reacted to the so-called “Moneyball” revolution, in which people use data to analyze the game, by saying its version of baseball lacks soul. It’s nerds crunching numbers, rather than loving the game.
The writer David Maraniss, of whom I’m otherwise a big fan, captured the disdain for data in a 2011 article. “My problem with the philosophy is a question of art and beauty,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “The thrill of baseball has nothing to do with statistics, as much a part of the game as they are. It has to do with the athletic skill of the players: the rifle throw from right field to third base; the dazzling speed of a runner stealing a base; the grace of a second baseman making the turn on a double play.”
I’m one of the nerds whose joy of baseball — and it was a bleary-eyed joy on Thursday morning — feels inferior to Maraniss’, Stewart’s and many others. And I don’t quite understand. I love watching a rifle throw from right field. I also enjoy knowing whether the right fielder who made the throw is a fielding star or just happened to make a great throw.
One of the most exciting parts of this World Series was watching two fact-hungry franchises look for every possible edge. They stationed fielders all over the diamond, as is now the norm, and turned hits into outs. They used their best relief pitchers early and often, rather than saving them for “save situations” that might never arrive. The moves frequently worked and sometimes — such as with the bullpens in Game 7 — did not.
The imperfect search for new knowledge, even in a relatively unimportant endeavor like baseball, is one of life’s thrills.
Fans don’t have to choose. They can enjoy a ballgame while simply listening to the crack of the bat and taking in the majesty of the ballpark. Fans who don’t want a lot of numbers getting in the way are no less (and no more) authentic than fans who enjoy poring over stat sheets while they take in the ballpark.
Whichever path you choose, though, you should probably hope that the people running your favorite team are at least willing to have some nerds work for them. The true-baseball Diamondbacks won 69 games and lost 93 this season, and neither Stewart nor the team’s manager will be returning next year.
The people who run the Cubs and Indians just gave us one of the most joyful World Series in a long time.
David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for The New York Times. He runs a new journalism venture at The Times that uses data and graphics to focus on politics, policy, and economics.
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