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Op-Ed: If baseball is dying, why are we blaming statistics?

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Baseball attendance is down. Does that mean baseball is dying?

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Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

You may have heard that baseball attendance is down this year. By a not-small amount. This has led to a cottage industry of takes.

A couple days ago, Joel Sherman wrote a pretty smart piece about how the “statistical revolution” is killing baseball. That is, the advanced stats that we all love so much here at DRB, though they are good for teams, are driving away fans. And I say this is was a smart piece because he got a lot of things right. Advanced stats are a turn off for some people of a certain age and/or mindset.

Now, I tend to think that the turn off has a lot more to do with the fact that the average person can figure out batting average or ERA, and he knows when a pitcher is in line to grab another win. When the save rule was revised and suddenly became relevant in the 1970s/80s and onward, old school guys didn’t have a problem picking up on that. When WHIP started getting play thanks to Rotisserie baseball, that was also no big deal. Why? Because the formula / concept was pretty simple.

But wRC+? WAR? The average fan (or even lot of smart fans for that matter) are not up to crunching these numbers on the regular. Heck, most of them are probably not even aware of what all the weighted components are for each stat. Josephine Fan might not have even know how the individual effort playing out before her will affect these advanced stats.

So yeah, I can admit that these aren’t your daddy’s baseball stats, and I actually like advanced stats. He’s right that they have made the game a different game to follow. He’s very wrong about it killing the game however.

Oakland Athletics v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty Images

Bill Baer has an excellent breakdown of the holes in Sherman’s (and also his coworker Craig Calcaterra’s lack of love for bullpenning) arguments. It basically comes down to this: you can’t alienate people who were never part of the old school stats culture to being with.

Where Baer goes off track is, in his conclusion, he suggests that “tanking” is what is killing baseball. Because yes, while there are some epic-ly bad teams this year, and sure, as Baer notes, these teams have seen some of the steepest declines in attendance. But we are talking about a one year sample. It’s tough to draw conclusions from one year.

Especially when you then do what Baer does, and you list the teams that have “brazenly tanked, eliminating any hope for their fans before the season even began: the Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Marlins, and Blue Jays.”

And missing from that list, of course, are the “tanking” A’s (90-60), Rays (83-66), and Pirates (75-74). You know, the teams back in March that were “brazenly tank[ing], eliminating any hope for their fans before the season even began,” and in fact had a grievance filed against them by the MLBPA. Well, along with the Marlins, so one out of four ain’t bad!

Also missing is an abysmal Padres team (60-91) that while putrid is definitely not tanking, and the fact that some of the “brazen” tankers (Orioles) actually went out and got guys that just didn’t work out (Alex Cobb sad face). Sometimes bad teams are just bad and there is no ulterior motive. Playing baseball is hard, and building a baseball team is hard.

Plus, even if some team are tanking, it is not certain that losing baseball would “kill” attendance in those cities long term, let alone be a detriment to the sport.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees
Former New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte (l) and general manager and senior vice president Brian Cashman (r) at Yankee Stadium
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Keep in mind as well that the “golden era” many look back upon with such fondness saw the New York Yankees go to the World Series in 15 of 18 seasons, winning ten of them (1947-1964), while teams from major markets in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia went through historically long droughts without even a playoff appearance.

Baseball survived then when there was literally no payoff for being bad.

Now, with the modern draft system in place to works against such dynasties, we’ve seen evidence with the Cubs and the Astros that losing is not always the worst thing that can happen to a franchise, with little to no voices chastising their methods of tanking to get where they are today.

We’ve even seen in other sports (looking at you, Sixers) that, marketed correctly, “tanking” can be a winning strategy for a fanbase. (Personal note: I’m glad MY RAYS didn’t go that route, because losing sucks. But ask me this when I’m 85 and the Columbia Blues haven’t sniffed a title in thirty years because a cownose ray cursed the team during the move to the Ybor ballpark and I might feel differently.)


So what is killing baseball? Well, I mean, besides Millennials, who are killing everything. (I kid! I kid!)

Hey, here’s a thought: What if nothing is killing baseball? No, seriously. What if baseball isn’t dying?

What if the ebbs and flows of yearly attendance is just part of an increasingly competitive entertainment landscape, like movie ticket sales and music sales and NFL TV ratings?

What if the fluctuating importance of baseball in the national consciousness is just another part of the fragmenting of American culture?

What if seeing a baseball game in person is just a (73 million person) niche audience?

Perhaps this requires a Part 2... For now, though, I’ll say America is a fractured country, and Baseball must learn to compete in a fractured country.

We can do this in two ways: by further isolating ourselves, the baseball community, from the rest of society, or by reaching out an integrating America into America’s pastime even more. Statistics are not driving anyone away from the game. Putting the best product on and around the field are all that should matter.