It was a little over a year ago that I posted on the extent to which the many postseason near-misses suffered by Philadelphia’s pro sports teams during my youth turned me into a pessimist. They always seemed to be taking us – their loyal fans – to the brink of a title, only to fall just short of ultimate success.
It happened again last week, when the Phillies had a two games to one lead in the World Series, then lost three straight to the Astros. In fairness to the team, this time was different than most of those earlier close calls. The Phillies were underdogs in all four of the postseason series in which they played. It was a minor miracle that they got as far as they did. In fact, one could argue that this was the most pleasantly surprising postseason run ever by a Philadelphia professional team.
The Astros were clearly the better team. It wasn’t surprising that they won. So I wasn’t upset with the Phils for losing. They gave me and the rest of their fans more than we could have asked for.
Yet in sticking to type, I found something negative to take away from how the series ended. I was really irked after watching the Phillies go down in the ninth inning of the final game Saturday. The way they did so pounded home for me why I have watched so little baseball the past few years. The way managers and coaches use analytics undoubtedly contributes to winning in at least some circumstances, but it has also made the game almost unwatchable for many fans, myself included.
In another old post, this one from January, I wrote about the damage the over-use of analytics has done to baseball and that one of the ways this was happening is that too many batters swing for the fences on every cut, even though more pitchers are throwing at insanely high velocities. The result is a new league-wide strikeout record almost every year while team and individual batting averages continue to plummet.
Getting back to Saturday’s ninth inning, the Phillies trailed the Astros by three runs, so it was imperative that they get at least two men on base in order to bring the tying run to the plate.
I remember when it was almost automatic that a batter would take the first pitch and continue taking pitches until a strike was called in such situations – when a walk is as good as a home run. But that didn’t happen Saturday in the ninth inning. The Phillies’ batters were hacking away right from the first pitch they saw.
In fact, the inning’s first batter, Rhys Hoskins, seemed to have only one thing on his mind – hitting another home run. He had hit six of them already during the postseason. That’s a great total. But again, they were down three runs and Hoskins could only produce one with a homer. One would think in that situation he might cut down on his swing to improve his odds of making solid contact; perhaps even try to direct the ball to the massive hole he always has open between first and second base thanks to the way defenses shift against him.
But that’s not how hitters think in the analytics era. They’re trained to approach at-bats a certain way and they don’t veer from it regardless of the situation.
After Hoskins went down, catcher J.T. Realmuto singled up the middle. That brought Bryce Harper to the plate. While he was on fire for the first three rounds of the playoffs, Harper had been showing signs of cooling off. He’s also shown the ability and willingness to lay a bunt down the third-base line when the third-baseman is playing back and the situation is ripe. I thought he might give that a shot this time, as even another Harper homer wouldn’t have been enough to tie the game. They still needed another base-runner.
But he wasn’t thinking along those lines and popped out to shallow left field with a big cut on the first pitch of the at-bat.
The end was a foregone conclusion when Nick Castellanos, who was unbearable to watch at bat through most of the postseason, stepped up to the plate next. Naturally, he lunged after an outside pitch early in the count and popped out. He is another one who has much of the infield open because of how defenses shift against him. Yet it doesn’t seem to occur to him to take advantage of that, even when the team is absolutely desperate for a baserunner.
A look at the Phillies postseason stats shows that they had only two players with a postseason OPS above .700 – Harper and Schwarber, both of whom were comfortably above it. After Harper’s .349, the Phils’ second highest postseason batter average among starters was Alec Bohm’s .224. The team had a combined nine hits in the final three games of the World Series.
I’m aware that hitting a lot of home runs played a big role in the Phillies getting as far as they did. But there are situations when a walk or a single is as good as a home run, and if players can’t recognize that and change their approach at the plate to improve their odds of getting on base, we’re just going to continue down the path of more and more strikeouts with lower and lower batting averages – and also progressively lower TV ratings for the sport.
If Major League Baseball ever wants to regain an important place in the national consciousness, it’s going to have to figure out a way to counteract the impact of analytics and bring back the aspects of the game that made it so enjoyable in the first place. Until it can do that, I’ll continue to find other things to do with the time I used to spend watching the game and only tune in when the Phils get back to the postseason.
Have I mentioned the Eagles are undefeated?
The longer than usual gap between posts was due to the fact that my wife and I were on the road for a long weekend in Virginia. I’ll be back in a day or two with the first post of a multi-part report on what we ate and did there.
One thought on “Baseball, Analytics, and When Not to Swing for the Fences”
I know exactly how you feel, as I’ve seen this with the Brewers the past few years. As someone who watched the likes of Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn etc. over the years it’s disheartening to see how the idea of good contact has fallen out of favor.
Too bad Ted Williams isn’t still around. I’m sure he’d have some pretty salty comments about the current state of MLB hitting!
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