Why I Do This

Two days ago, I read a Baseball Prospectus interview with Fox Sports’ Pete Macheska. Macheska, who is the Emmy-winning lead producer for the network’s Major League Baseball coverage, oversees what I have long-considered to be the least progressive baseball broadcast on television. Before reading the interview, I consciously hoped to myself that the interviewer would focus on the network’s continual resistance to embracing even the most basic of the “new age” baseball statistics. Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened, even if Macheska’s response truly and viscerally bummed me out for about an hour. Here are the most important – and most disconcerting – quotes:

“My feeling nowadays is there’s so many stats, and the people that are most important—the announcers and the producer and the director—are not in control of those stats.”

So I asked Macheska about OBP, a fairly straightforward stat that’s starting to show up on the broadcast templates of other networks, but not on Fox. His response points to another factor that has an impact on the stats viewers get to see.

“Yeah, we’ve talked about stuff like that. But I think if you listen to Tim McCarver’s philosophy, on-base percentage is different for Albert Pujols compared to a guy who can run. I think what’s pertinent is that a .429 on-base percentage for Albert Pujols, someone who’s not as speedy as, say, Jose Reyes – it matters differently. That’s Tim’s philosophy, and we just sort of follow that.”

Things we have learned so far:

  1. Key members of a baseball broadcast aren’t familiar with many of today’s statistics.
  2. Pete Macheska listens to Tim McCarver. Peruse this, and you’ll know why that’s bad.
  3. Tim McCarver thinks that Albert Pujols making an out hurts the team less than a fast guy making an out.

It continues:

Eric Karros may have a different opinion than Tim McCarver or Mark Grace, so you may see [differences]. But basically we go by Tim more or less when we set the template, and on something like on-base percentage we just decided not to. I’m not saying we shouldn’t revisit that, but I think Tim is the one that’s not… he wouldn’t be against it, but I don’t think he’s as thrilled with that as others are. If you put on-base percentage on there, you’re making the graphic longer, and sometimes less is more. Each spring you go through these types of decisions and you ask, what’s the risk/reward? If you feel it’s not adding a lot, then you leave it off. And the other thing is, sometimes you can put up a statistic and the announcer doesn’t believe in it, or if it needs explaining they don’t explain it properly. Then what have we really accomplished except confusing people?”

Tim McCarver doesn’t believe in on-base percentage or, if he does, he doesn’t know how to explain it properly. I would just like to take this moment to point out that on-base percentage is defined as how often a player gets on base. It’s likely to confuse people, I know.

Even with my intense displeasure with what I was reading, I decided not to blog about it because there’s not much to talk about. It’s just another example of a prominent media member not putting in the time and effort to understand the changing landscape of baseball coverage. It was disheartening, but not worthy of a post.

Then, I stumbled upon Dave Cameron’s piece at FanGraphs. He simply asks why mainstream media folk and sabermetricians spend so much time trying to convince one another that their opinion is unquestionably right. He argues that we don’t need to all be of the same mind – particularly with respect to award winners – because the easy access to baseball statistics allows for objective retrospection, no matter what you believe. He says that regardless of who wins what awards, we can look back on this season, remember who was good, and pass on that personal truth to whomever we see fit. The money quotes:

With the invention of the internet (thanks Al!), we don’t need to look back through a list of MVP awards to remember who was good way back when. We have baseball-reference for that. History isn’t recorded in trophies, but in data and stories, and we now have the capability to store a massive amount of both. No matter who wins the AL MVP award this season, we’re going to have a ridiculous amount of information about what happened on the field in 2009, and we’ll be able to show our kids and their kids just how much fun it was to watch Joe Mauer play baseball. The history of the game, as told by us, won’t be changed one iota by how the BBWAA votes in six weeks.

If they want to think that Teixeira was the most important player to his team in the league this year, that’s fine. Most of us probably disagree, and we’re under no obligation to report that as any kind of factual statement. I’ll be telling people that Mauer was the most valuable player in the American League for 2009, and I’ve got a mountain of information to back it up. How other people view the definition of the word value has no real world impact on me.

. . .

Let them vote for whoever they want. I don’t care.

I do care, and the Baseball Prospectus interview with Pete Macheska shows exactly why. I want people to understand how baseball works because the qualities necessary to do so – objectivity, creativity, flexibility, and plain old persistence – are some of the most admirable characteristics around. I care that the right person wins each award because, like many people, I want the world around me to make sense. I care because I want people to make smart and reasoned choices. I care because I believe in open-mindedness and a receptiveness to new ideas. I care because the failure to even to attempt to understand something – total, out-of-hand rejection – falls somewhere in between crippling and repulsive. I care because the moment you’ve simply decided to stop listening, learning, and entertaining new ideas, you’ve pretty much packed it in as a person. I care because my greatest fear is that I’ll one day end up like the very people I’ve criticized in this space – obstinate, defensive, lazy, and resistant to change.

Call me melodramatic, but that’s why I do this. It’s not to make people feel dumb or make me feel smart. It’s to reveal the sheer intractability of much of the sports media with the simple hope that one person will read this, say “hey, that makes sense,” and start looking at things a little bit differently.

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One Response to Why I Do This

  1. Francoeur Frank says:

    So forward; so opinionated; and you make fun of me for SEC football. But seriously though, good piece. There is no reason to disregard fact, and subsequently change someone’s career, just because you don’t want to catch up with the times. MVP voting affects player contracts and potential Hall of Fame voting. I know I didn’t need to tell you, but you know. Even I know the importance of stats in baseball. What is wrong with those same stats being presented in a more enlightening manner.

    Side note: I was thinking of writing a story about all of the QB’s that are coming back this year in the NFL (Brady, Palmer, Vick, and your favorite Favre). Let me know if you want to read it.

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