How the wonks won baseball coverage
"I've got to look at the analytics," David Kaplan, a Chicago sports radio talk host, said on a recent morning as he speculated on whether the Chicago Cubs should trade with the rival White Sox for a particular pitcher.
Yes, analytics. They can drive sports radio, cable TV discussions, Little League dugout chatter, idle subway conversations and, most of all, the decision-making of Major League Baseball teams since all 30 clubs now have analytics departments.
Back in a bygone world of train travel, no teams west of the Mississippi and hours to finely hone a game story, a few pieces of data melded with impressionistic prose to constitute the essence of baseball writing.
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As data-crunching known as sabermetrics was remaking baseball, a parallel revolution in data-focused coverage of the sport took hold. That's now long over, with metrics such as "weighted on-base average" now important data that make the yesteryear focus on batting average, home runs and earned run average look quaint, even simplistic.
Anybody who pretends to know their stuff can recite, for example, a player's WAR (wins above replacement), a number "that accounts for how many runs above average a player provides with offense, defense and baserunning, and how those runs scored/prevented calculate into wins," as explained by another Chicago sports radio host, Dan Bernstein.
How fast was that fastball when it crossed the plate? Well, be informed that the velocity of a ball when it leaves a pitcher's hand is now an "in" data point. Just like "launch angle" of a baseball when it's hit.
Before this wonkishness wormed its way into baseball, the beat had already become very different, with the expansion of teams out West, the predominance of night games and constant air travel for those media that can afford to staff teams. It turned into a grind that didn't make for tranquil family lives. By the late 1980s, major papers, such as the Chicago Tribune (where I was), actually had trouble filling the beat.
The coming of the internet and social media added significant alterations of its own in the speed with which one had to produce content. Throw in the new metrics practitioners, profit-making firms like STATS of Northbrook, Illinois (which bought Bloomberg's sports analytics operation in 2014 for as much as $20 million), MLB's own cable network, the televising of most games, and it’s a baseball junkie's paradise.
"It’s a ball now. It’s my favorite period in the business — by far," says Tom Boswell of The Washington Post, a great baseball writer who straddles sharply different eras.
"I wish it had always been like this. You have all the old approaches to coverage still available — profiles, human interest, humor, etc. But so much more, too. For people who love to analyze (me), there’s nothing as good as real data, plus tons of unmined data where you can discover patterns that others haven’t spotted. FanGraphs, MLB.com/Statcast and baseball-reference are just an addictive gold mine. You have to restrain yourself."
The beat was always grueling, he concedes. Indeed, the trouble with convincing a younger generation of sportswriters to take a beat job was largely a function of a travel schedule that played havoc with a personal life. It was a far cry from languorous train ride, leisurely evenings in great cities after day games and far from punishing deadlines.
Now that's accelerated, since every minute brings a potential news deadline, with the production of more creative longform pieces challenged by the need to do a lot of small things quickly. But Boswell believes that the best writers find ways to do their best work, even if they succumb to in-game tweeting ("that does connect to the audience" and gives the writer perhaps a great sense of accountability to readers).
It wasn't long ago that baseball statisticians like Bill James were a curiosity, with the rise of the species even spotlighted in a Hollywood movie, "Moneyball," about the Oakland A's and based on the Michael Lewis book that chronicled Billy Beane, its idiosyncratic general manager.
Now, metrics rule baseball. As put by Keith Law, a baseball expert at ESPN who once worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, the revolution is over. People aren't slaves to data but it plays a central role, with many basic assumptions of the past undermined. Thus, even the casual fan may view a player's on-base percentage as more important than his batting average.
It's amazing to recall, if you're an amateur baseball semi-historian, that the legendary Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman caused a ruckus when he proved a new statistic, the save, for relief pitchers.
"There was push back against Jerome's save stat into the early and mid-70s," said Malcolm Moran, a former New York Times reporter who runs the Sports Capital Journalism Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
"There were managers who would not put closers on all-star teams since they didn't find them deserving," he recalled, citing the great Yankees closer Sparky Lyle as once a victim of such bias. "Now the save stat is one of the oldest of old school stats."
Then, as more stats became available on a daily basis, reporters saw value and incorporated them, notes Moran. Now, daily stories might note a player's on-base percentage, or a batting average in certain situations, such as runners in scoring position.
One challenge is to sift among the mountain of data for relevance. Some of it, notes Moran, can be a journalistic version of a shiny new toy. Does one really need the "launch angle" of a 430-foot home run? It was, after all, a home run. Isn't that enough?
John Jackson, a former Chicago Sun-Times writer, does mostly freelance these days, including cover Chicago baseball games for The Associated Press. He finds the primary challenge the same as it's always been: a deadline search for relevance.
Yes, for sure, there's a certain pressure to generate "clicks." But he finds his challenge remains telling stories, about players, that can engage, statistics or no statistics.
Dan Bernstein, a co-host on all-sports WSCR-AM in Chicago, does find a real cultural change that's a function of several components. The proximity to players that the long-ago writers had on trains is largely gone, with the reporting becoming somewhat less personal, more technical.
As much as any sport, he said, baseball is a mind game. "Baseball is unique in how much of the game is played inside players' heads." With access often limited, it might be natural that some reporters turn to numbers.
And some of the impact of television, or online video, may be unavoidable: The need for the writer to paint a picture is not the same. The viewer can see every pitch, perhaps as many times as he desires, and also find, yes, "the measured spin rate of every curve ball," as Bernstein notes.
But, says Moran, there can be a creeping dehumanization, precisely as a result of not getting into players heads and relying on metrics. The finest hitters miss seven out of 10 times. It's a game of failure, and metrics don't really give insight into the very human ways we all have of dealing with failure, especially young prospects.
Paul Sullivan, baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, is conscious of multiple audiences. Older readers don't want to get bogged down in data, while younger ones are more interested.
Yet, it all strikes him as a golden era for reporting on baseball, with a universe of specialized bloggers, tons of video, Major League Baseball's own cable channel, old reliable ESPN and MLB's engaging online Statcast, which cranks out video and data, such as a home run with both is launch angle and "exit velocity."
But what about his late colleague Holtzman, who ambled about ball fields smoking 80-cent Honduran cigars, became a bit of a cable cult hero via "The Sportswriters on TV" (where both Holtzman and the late AP sportswriter Joe Mooshil smoked on air) and died in 2008 at age 82 after serving as official historian for MLB?
"I think Jerry, who invented the 'save' stat, would have enjoyed this period," says The Post's Boswell. "He loved to do TV roundtable debates, lived the 24/7 baseball lifestyle and, as always, would have killed ‘em on news because he cultivated so many great sources."
"There are more roadblocks thrown up now to connecting with players/etc, but that’s good, too," he said. "It thins out the field of competitors. As (Jack) Nicklaus often said before the last round of majors, 'I hope the wind blows.' The harder the conditions, the better chance that the best player will win."