I reacted to Eduardo Perez’s column exactly as you’d expect me to: with fury. In the column, Perez offers three simplistic and misguided explanations for the National League’s superiority:
- The American League has a particularly weak crop of designated hitters this year, making the league’s advantage less pronounced. This ignores the fact that even a weak DH is almost always a better hitter than a pitcher.
- The NL has many young and talented pitchers. This ignores the fact that the AL also has many young and talented pitchers who are pitching against lineups that don’t include fellow pitchers.
- The NL’s closers are having better years than their AL counterparts (of course, his argument is based almost entirely on saves). This ignores the fact that the save is a meaningless statistic that should never be used to evaluate reliever performance.
The gross oversimplification and frequent inconsistencies in logic made it extremely tempting to write a mean and scathing critique. But then, in an effort to not become entirely predictable at the tender age of 23, I channeled my inner Joe Posnanski and tried to find a more understanding, nuanced, and sympathetic take on Perez’s work. Shockingly, I think I actually managed to do that.
I understand where Perez is coming from because of something I will loosely and perhaps insultingly call “Shiny Object Syndrome.” Whether he realizes it or not, I think Perez is basing much of his opinion on the fact that the NL does indeed boast sexier names (“shiny objects”) than the AL. And whether it’s true or not that these players are actually better than their AL brethren, there is significant allure and star power associated with these names: Jason Heyward, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier, Troy Tulowitzki, Justin Upton, Roy Halladay, Ubaldo Jimenez, Adam Wainwright, and Tim Lincecum. I suppose it’s a little bit arbitrary to say that, but even to me – an avowed NL-basher – that’s an impressive and exciting list of players. It’s almost uniformly young, occasionally charismatic, and preposterously talented. It’s a list of players you want to believe is the best in the game. And it’s a list that’s very easy to fall in love with.
What makes me genuinely sympathize with Perez’s argument, however, is the fact that he’s being asked to do a job for which he is ill-suited. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, this might sound familiar to you (remember that part about me being predictable?) Far too often, sports networks assign former athletes the task of analyzing non-mechanical performance and decision making. At this point, the trend is ubiquitous and a little silly. If a recognizable and affable player has recently retired and isn’t quite sure what to do with himself, there’s an excellent chance that a local or national sports network will hire him as an analyst. And while former players have every right to pursue whatever endeavors they choose, they almost always fail to deliver a quality product to the audience. It isn’t entirely their fault, either.
Imagine you are a New York City cab driver, and after retiring, a car company asks you to help design and build its new line of vehicles in a part-time role. Assuming you don’t have big plans, you’d be crazy not to accept. You’ve retired, so theoretically you’re set for money, and the worst thing your new employer can do is relieve you of your duties. So you start working for the company, except they start asking you about specific car parts and designs and inner-workings that you’ve never even heard of. Sure, you know a few of the basics that were essential to your career as a cab driver, but intimate knowledge of the particulars is simply something you don’t have and were never asked to have. You were asked to drive the cab, know which streets to avoid during what times, and know how to spot potential passengers that have had a little too much to drink. Useful and marketable skills, to be sure, but that’s it.
The same thing is true of former players who were hired as analysts. They have very little idea how to properly and insightfully discuss a player, a team, or an organization. Of course, like the cab driver who knows how to fix a flat tire or how to jump start his car, former players know have the basic knowledge necessary to get by. They know that home runs are good for hitters, strikeout and walk rates are important for pitchers, rushing prospects is generally bad for organizations, and so on. Armed with this knowledge, they can do just enough to get by. But also like the cab driver, they do possess useful information about the practical aspects of the job. Just as the driver knows the ins and outs of the city, the former players know the specifics of how to lay down a bunt, how to hold runners on, how to detect mechanical flaws in a pitcher’s delivery, and various other practices that you or I or anyone who hasn’t played baseball would have no idea how to discuss. Simply put, there’s a huge difference between the knowledge that former players possess versus that which they’re being asked to provide. They are being asked to build a car when their expertise lies in how to drive it.
Because of this, I do have some sympathy for Perez and other former players who are asked to analyze all aspects of baseball for a network. I sympathize because, in most cases, they simply aren’t equipped for the job. That’s not to say that they have free reign to offer idiotic analysis, but some blame does lie with those who hire these former players. I’m pretty sure that hiring Joe Sheehan or Rob Neyer or me to demonstrate how to hit a breaking ball would strike network executives as a bad idea. I don’t see how hiring Eduardo Perez or Barry Larkin or Dan Plesac to analyze league-wide trends is any different.