Thursday, December 31, 2009

Obligatory End of the Decade Reflective Piece

Like many, I quit following baseball in the mid-90s. A combination of the canceled World Series, the hopeless mismanagement of the team of my youth, the Chicago Cubs, and the discovery of women who would have sex with me led to a general loss of interest in baseball.

Wait, that sounds like a set up for a bad joke at my expense! Yes, I still have sex, but a lot of other things had to change to get me back into the fold. Really, in my mind, the last ten years were an incredible time for baseball fans. The game became infinitely more accessible and interesting.

Here's my list of the best things that happened in baseball in the last ten years:

Baseball America: The first Baseball America Prospect Handbook came out in February 2001. Since then, an entire world of young baseball talent has opened up to fans. Back in the day, newspapers would report stories like "The Red Sox acquired Larry Andersen for a minor-leaguer." Only years later would fans realize that they'd traded away Jeff Bagwell, one of the best hitters of a generation. Today, many fans know those top prospects as well as they know the major league rosters, and primary credit for that change goes to the excellent writers and reporters at BA.

Labor peace: Nothing tears the heart out of fans like a work stoppage. Baseball is still America's most wholesome shared pastime, if not the most popular, and watching these millionaires duke it out with their multi-billionaire bosses sours the experience, to say the least. Fans don't even want to hear about it. In the 00's, we mostly didn't.

Increased competitiveness: In the last ten years, every team but Washington/Montreal, Cincinnati, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Baltimore made the playoffs at least once, and eight different teams won the World Series. I would have bet heavily against that. Credit the current collective bargaining agreement, which includes essentially a modified reserve clause for young players in their first six seasons. This allows every team to keep their best players through their prime years and severely caps the salaries of young superstars. With those "cost control" mechanism and revenue sharing, the league has achieved a degree of competitiveness that I would have thought impossible at the start of the decade. Of course, all that fun for us comes directly at the expense of good young players, but for fans, it's great.

The Stats revolution: Stats have always been a big part of the appeal of the game, and the modern era of sabermetrics has been off and running for more than 20 years, but the explosion of data and analysis available to casual fans now has opened up the game and made it infinitely more understandable and enjoyable. It's also clear that the league itself has gotten smarter about how they use data, as teams more accurately value fielding, on-base percentage, strikeouts, etc.

Pitch FX: If fielding independent ERA took pitching analysis from the stone age to the iron age, Pitch FX is like the invention of the printing press. Being able to slow down and view precise data on the velocity and break of every pitch thrown in MLB, fans can finally begin to see the "game within the game" the way the pros do. Speaking only for myself, for years I would watch baseball and basically zone out during at bats waiting for the ball to be put in play. Now, I react to and enjoy every pitch of every at bat and can see that the greatest combat happening on the field is the inch-by-inch, pitch-by-pitch dual between pitcher and hitter. I learned about pitching from a lot of places, but none more important than Pitch FX.

Blogs: I'm not thinking of any specific blog and certainly not my own, but the grassroots explosion of smart, analytical, and occasionally no-holds barred amateur baseball blogs has clearly changed the landscape of baseball coverage and the fan experience, and for me there's no question it's changed for the better. Whether you're partial to U.S.S. Mariner-syle stat geekery, the prospect-watching of Nationals Farm Authority, the unfiltered passionate fan-dom of The Fightins, or all of the above and more, there's something for everyone and more than anyone could ever completely consume. In a rare example of forward-thinking fan-friendliness, Major League Advanced Media has set the standard for pro sports websites. From the archived, searchable highlights to the wealth of stats available to Gameday and and the sometimes useful coverage of their beat reporters, has given fans an incredible resource. MLB is still running circles around the NFL, NBA, and NHL in their on-line presence.

Jim Bowden out of baseball, this time for good: I couldn't resist.

1 comment:

James Bjork said...

I would concur with your list, with the addition of the generally exploding revenue of MLB (aside from the recent recession-based decline), but maybe that's just a continuous trend from the 90s.

I will say that while I can appreciate the new metrics, and how much better they can be, there is really something soul-draining about them. It's as though they transform real flesh-and-blood players (think baseball flicks) into a bunch of numbers. Now, I can't really enjoy Adam Dunn and his majestic hacks again anymore without thinking of his UZR.

It's like how I can't watch OJ in the Naked Gun movies now without thinking about Ron and Nicole, only not as bad.

Happy new year!