There are a lot of reasons not to like statheads. We’re not an attractive bunch, for one thing. We often are loud know-it-alls who prefer to buck whatever the party line is. We’re often prescriptive, arguing that there is, actually, only one way to skin a cat, and that everyone who’s trying another way is an idiot.
I think a lot of that has been toned down in the last couple years, especially as more progressive voices have taken hold of more and more front offices. When there are fewer moves to stridently criticize, it turns out, you have fewer chances to be a jerk online. But there’s another complaint about statheads that hasn’t gone away, and that was illustrated yesterday by the father of baseball on the Internet, Rob Neyer, and Hardball Talk’s Bill Baer in a discussion about the players’ resistance to possible rule changes:
I know they don't all feel this way, but I sometimes wish more players would realize that their millions come from owners, fans... https://t.co/kdjho8NQnQ— robneyer (@robneyer) February 23, 2017
the worst thing about analytics types -- and I was guilty of this -- is how nakedly pro-ownership they are— Bill Baer (@Baer_Bill) February 23, 2017
Before we go any further, I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing either of these two guys. In my opinion, they’re both fantastic. This isn’t about pitting one side against another. It’s about trying to understand how we talk about what’s happening in baseball, and whether we should change it.
Rob is correct that, too often, people who run the game don’t give enough weight to the fan experience. Commissioner Rob Manfred talks about wanting to speed up the game, but he just wants to do that at the expense of the players, refusing to budge on the length of breaks between innings. Players want to stay in the routines that have allowed them to be successful, limiting the in-game changes that might increase the pace.
Bill is right too, but he’s oversimplifying the typical stathead position (probably because Twitter is such a limiting medium).
First, I want to be clear that neither Bill nor I would argue that writers and statheads are anti-player. We like players. We root for players. We revel in their accomplishments. Players are, quite literally, the most essential part of the game we all love. If we’re asked about it, I think most of us would say that players deserve to be paid a fair wage and be able to choose where they’re going to play.
Second, I want to be clear that some “analytics types” are definitely pro-ownership. Since the very beginning, most statheads have fantasized about running teams. Of being in the position to make decisions. That’s fairly well baked into the DNA of some folks, and many of them have gone on to join front offices. That’s not everyone, but it’s a sizeable portion of the analytic community.
But, beyond that, something happens when statheads talk about transactions or rule changes in particular. Unwittingly, I think, we ally with ownership. When a player signs a free agent deal, and we talk about whether it’s a “good” or a “bad” deal, we’re framing that in terms of whether it helps the team that the player signs with.
For instance, look at how I wrote about the Edwin Encarnacion signing earlier this offseason, when I called Cleveland winners for landing him:
“The AL Champs have landed Edwin Encarnacion for a very reasonable three year, $65 million deal. He was the second best free agent hitter on the market this winter and is a perfect upgrade for them at first base.”
Later, from the same article, I criticized the Rockies, saying:
“Signing Ian Desmond to play first base was weird enough. But then giving a three-year, $18 million deal to an ok lefty reliever like Mike Dunn? It has to be frustrating to follow a team with this much talent, and no idea how to spend their resources.”
I’m referring to these moves purely from an ownership perspective. Moreover, I was calling teams “winners” and “losers,” completely ignoring how great it is for Mike Dunn that he got $18 million.
But I don’t think that’s out of some sympathy with owners. Rather, I think that most analysts, whether they’re into analytics or not, are fans first and foremost. Or at least have trouble taking off their fan caps entirely when they do analysis. As fans of teams (or laundry, as Seinfeld once said), we want what’s best for the team or teams we support. We understand each club has a budget, and we want the clubs we root for to not be unduly hamstrung within that restriction by “bad” deals that limit their freedom and flexibility to make other moves. And we know that our readers do too. You are fans of the Cubs, the Giants, the Yankees, and the Rangers far more than you’re fans of Mike Dunn or Edwin Encarnacion. In this, the interests of the owners and the analysts selfishly align, at the expense of the players.
Similarly, when there are rule changes be proposed, we naturally think about how those changes will affect us and our experience. Most statheads, I think, would prefer if baseball moved faster and had more action. We watch a lot of games, after all. And I think our preferences are echoed by regular fans as well. It would improve the game aesthetically, especially in the postseason, if it moved more quickly. And, we suspect, it would attract new fans who are frustrated by baseball’s pace of play without fundamentally altering the game itself. Again, here our interests as fans align with the owners rather than the players.
So it’s not a pro-ownership position as much as it is a selfish one. That doesn’t make it wrong. Our interests are as legitimate as ownership’s or the players’. It’s our game too, even if we don’t put on a uniform or sign a paycheck. And we should be free to advocate for what makes the game better for us and for other fans, because that will likely improve the outlook of the game in the long term.
That doesn’t absolve us, however. Statheads should strive to do better to present a more balanced perspective. We should absolutely try to look beyond whether deals are “good” or “bad.” We should try to understand why a player might not want a pitch clock or to limit trips to the mound. Empathy will allow us to look beyond our own perspective, because only in doing that can we understand more about the game and rise above just being an “analytics-type.” It will make us, and our work, better.