Today is Mother’s Day, and in this internet baseball guy’s opinion, mothers don’t get enough attention in baseball. For every discussion of the role mothers have in passing the love of the sport on to their children, there are a dozen anecdotes of fathers and sons or fathers and daughters.

I’ve probably watched more total innings of St. Louis Cardinals baseball in my life with my mom than with my dad (the latter is very much an early-to-bed sort, and fell asleep during both Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series, among hundreds of started but not completed regular season games). And unlike my dad, who was undoubtedly more passionate about the St. Louis Rams during their time in existence, and who maintains some attentiveness towards other sports, my mom is strictly into baseball.

My dad has fond memories of the 1960s and 1970s Cardinals, but my mom has never been shy about the point in time when she became a Cardinals fan. She had been nominally a Cardinals fan for her entire life, but it was with Whiteyball that she gained a fervency for the sport.

There was an electricity to the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1980s that not only does not exist today, but which arguably has not existed in the modern era of baseball with any team. They were a throwback to a bygone era of the sport, but they were so good that nobody would ever dare confuse them for antiquated. The 1985 Cardinals, the peak of the era, stole 314 bases (copying the team’s area code, as if the “the defining St. Louis baseball season” crown just had to be earned that year), a mark which is easily the most of any team since. The next highest mark since from a team that wasn’t a Cardinals squad of the same era was 256, from the 1992 Milwaukee Brewers. In 2017, only four teams eclipsed the stolen base mark set by Vince Coleman (110) in 1985. Five different 1985 Cardinals would have finished in the top seven in Major League Baseball in stolen bases in 2017.

Last Tuesday, my former Viva El Birdos colleague Tyler Kinzy compared to the run of the “Whiteyball”-era Cardinals to other dynasties and pseudo-dynasties in franchise history. Tyler’s conclusion, to paraphrase, was that the speedy teams were, well, a bit overrated.

Like me, Tyler is too young to remember Whiteyball. While I was born in 1989 and thus Whitey Herzog was manager in my lifetime, I do not remember him (although it appears that, in the photo for this article, a very young version of me was wearing the jersey of Vince Coleman, the most Whiteyball player of them all and recent Cardinals Hall of Fame inductee). The temptation among a certain generation of Cardinals is to dismiss those who criticize that era because we didn’t see those teams play first-hand. The bigger problem, however, is that there are two often conflicting values at play here–efficiency and excitement.

Tyler, as baseball bloggers (myself included) often do, is looking at the 1980s Cardinals through the lens of efficiency. The key is results, not how they come about. The value of a stolen base is the ways in which it increases his team’s Win Probability. This may sound cynical, but let me be very clear about something–I completely agree that building a team on speed rather than power and patience is not the ideal way to maximize your win total (building on defense, however, which often though not always correlates with base running acumen, is still fashionable).

The problem with sabermetrics, most often exemplified by the 2002 Oakland Athletics of Moneyball fame (saying the 2002 Athletics invented sabermetrics is like saying Elvis Presley invented rock and roll–they were merely the example of a trend becoming mainstream), isn’t that it is a bunch of nonsense concocted by A Bunch Of Nerds In Their Moms’ Basement (TM), but rather that it worked extremely well and other teams started to copy it. And it’s, well, kind of boring.

Okay, boring is subjective, and maybe you enjoy watching guys not swing at pitches because walks are properly recognized as extremely valuable for batters, and maybe you enjoy base runners being extremely selective on steal attempts. But I don’t. But, again, I get why teams did it. It worked.

“Numbers guys” are hated by a certain segment of fans in every sport, though baseball is arguably the sport which suffers the most aesthetically from its statistical revolution. In football, numbers say that punting is generally bad and should be done only under extreme circumstances unless it is near the end of the half, that throwing the ball deep is more efficient on a yards-per-play basis, and that Jeff Fisher must be arrested and tried for his crimes against football. These things all make the sport more fun (and by extension, help reduce brain trauma). In hockey, teams focus on shooting at high volumes and deemphasize enforcers (even fans who enjoy fighting can agree that watching the league’s enforcers do non-fighting hockey actions can be a painful experience). But in baseball, it means we lose stolen bases, which are delightful.

In game theory (yes, folks, it’s literally time for some game theory), the prisoner’s dilemma demonstrates why two rational parties can act in their own best interest and, in the end, reach a conclusion which hurts both of them. Here is an explanation, as detailed by Albert W. Tucker, a Canadian mathemetician best known to many for having this quote on the Wikipedia page for “Prisoner’s dilemma”:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)

In the case of baseball teams, it made complete sense for the first team to abandon speed in favor of the boring efficiency of Matt Carpenter, a player I love because he plays for the team I like and whom I would find utterly tedious, if impressive, on another team. Because you know what’s more fun than stealing bases? Winning games. But teams that are now lagging behind are incentivized to try to catch up–they may not be able to win as many games as the early adopters, but they can at least avoid being completely left in the dust.

But in keeping with the prisoner’s dilemma, both parties are worse now than they were before the sabermetric revolution. Baseball games are growing longer, and while baseball has always been a sport that marketed itself more on its meditative aspects than on its thrills (that the anticipation is the important part, to quote a Tom Petty sequel song I just imagined), some basic level of whimsy helps. No, baseball isn’t dying, and in many ways, baseball is in a better position that it was thirty years ago, but it is not as though baseball deserves credit for the advent of the internet, nor for the increasing importance of live sports programming for cable television, nor for the fact that every major sports league is printing money relative to three decades ago.

Many baseball fans tend to take a smug, off-putting approach to the idea that baseball could be improved, and that any argument that baseball is imperfect in some way is an indictment of those who love it (worse, those who try to claim intellectual high ground and scoff at the lowly peasants who would dare follow another sport more closely). But the sport can improve its standing and a more exciting brand of baseball would help.

Now, I know this isn’t going to happen. A team could decide they’re going to just run wild and stop trying to get home run hitters and they could do it–they just wouldn’t win many games, and that would be boring to watch as a fan of that team. Teams are always looking for ways to maximize efficiency (as a mostly unnecessary aside, here’s some reading for those who subscribe to the galaxy-brained “sabermetrics is anti-labor” trope about how, at the peak of the new Golden Age of the Stolen Base, MLB owners literally conspired to avoid paying players–turns out MLB owners have always been evil!).

In the meantime, rather than clamor for the return of a style of play I know is not going to return, I will appreciate those who appreciate Whiteyball and know that, like vintage triple-option college football offenses (this happened like two years before I started following college football and it is sooooooo unfair I missed out on this), a knowledge of the sport’s history will allow me some level of enjoyment, to know that something as crazy to modern sensibilities as Whiteyball could possibly happen.

One thought on “The case for inefficiency

  1. It’s interesting you mention following baseball because of your mom. My maternal grandmother initially started following baseball because of her kids. My maternal grandfather hated sports, so he had zero influence on this. She initially followed the Red Sox, when the family lived in Massachusetts, but when they moved to Alton, IL, the fandom moved on to the Cardinals, where it stayed for the rest of her life, even when she moved to Jacksonville, FL, where she could pick up games on KMOX late at night.

    Like

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