Opinion, Sports

Let the mystery be

I don’t want to launch into another “get off my lawn”-type old fogey complaint about baseball stats here, but I feel like my hand is being forced. Now, I’ve made my peace with a lot of the new-fangled metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating and Win-Shares. Those stats, while not necessarily my cup of tea, at least serve a purpose in the game; they help front-office types evaluate players using advanced metrics to measure performance.

So while I might not be running to my Baseball Encyclopedia to measure Rod Carew’s all-time Batting Average on Balls in Play numbers against Tony Gwynn’s, I’ll allow that it has a place in today’s game.

But sometimes, I think numbers take away from the reasons we love the game.

For me, baseball has always been as much about the numbers (755 home runs, 2,632 consecutive games played or 5,714 strikeouts) as it has been about the mythology surrounding those marks.

Sports Editor Mike Smith was certainly wowed by Yankee slugger Aaron Judge’s 496-foot home run on Sunday. But sometimes, he’d like to watch a game without being bombarded by numbers. Photo/Mike Smith

On Sunday afternoon, Yankee rookie Aaron Judge—a colossal human being even compared to most NFL stars—hit an absolute bomb at Yankee Stadium. I know it was a bomb because I saw it come off his bat, clear the left-centerfield wall, and hit a fan in the walkway beyond the outfield bleachers.

Right away, watching that game on TV, I was convinced it was the hardest hit ball I had ever seen. I didn’t need numbers to tell me what my eyes had already seen.

But of course, the numbers were coming.

Judge’s ball traveled 496-feet—the furthest homer, the MLB claimed, since they starting tracking those stats in 2009. Further, the ball left the bat at a 28-degree launch angle with an exit speed of 119 miles per hour and reached an apex of 125 feet above the field’s surface.

And I was told there would be no math on this exam.

These numbers aren’t even all that illuminating in the first place. Stats like these are so new, there’s no real historical context in which to talk about them. But my biggest problem with the whole numbers game is that it’s going to change the way we talk about baseball.

Just look at the way that people talked about ballplayers in the old days.

Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he could “turn off the lights and hop into bed before the room got dark.” Walter Johnson threw the ball so hard that Ty Cobb once said it “looked about the size of a watermelon seed and it hissed at you as it passed.”

Mickey Mantle, who once reportedly hit a ball 563 feet at Tiger Stadium—obviously before the Statcast era—once inspired a sportswriter to say, “There is no sound in baseball akin to the sound of Mantle hitting a home run, the crunchy sound of an axe biting into a tree, yet magnified a hundred times in the vast, cavernous echo-making hollows of a ball field.”

As purple as the prose may have been, the poeticism that players from an older generation elicited from fans is one of the main reasons that baseball held such an important place in our nation’s dialogue for so long.

Obviously, that was always going to change. We no longer get our information about the game’s top players from newspaper stories—we get to watch them every night if we so choose. But even if we don’t regard their feats with the same mythical reverence that was a part of sports fandom, I still don’t understand the rush to quantify everything we see on a ball field today.

Sometimes, a little bit of mystery is a good thing.

 

Follow Mike Smith on Twitter @LiveMike_Sports

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