clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hawk Harrelson vs. Brian Kenny and the Ongoing Baseball Debate

Recently Hawk Harrelson of the White Sox made some inflammatory comments concerning analytics in baseball. MLB Network studio host Brian Kenny responded in kind. Are these just two petchulant talking heads, or is there something deeper?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.


Recently MLB Network launched a new show, titled "MLB Now." The show pits Brian Kenny, MLB Network's resident analytically inclined moderator, against former MLB 2nd baseman Harold Reynolds and the so called "old school" point of view. If you'd like to read more about the show, check out Matt Hunter's review on Beyond the Box Score. I have no personal opinion towards the show since I have yet to sit down for a viewing. I am all for more television minutes being devoted to baseball and sports analytics, but I'm also somewhat against spreading the idea that Sabermetrics and "old school" are at war.

The introduction of greater use of statistics and analytical thought has brought baseball along in an ever-changing world. The acceptance or denouncement of such information and the use of the analytical process in studying the game of baseball isn't a line of demarcation separating the in crowd from the losers or the jocks from the nerds. Instead it is merely the evolution of a game that has been evolving since its inception in the 19th century. Babe Ruth was an amazing player, one of the best ever, but he never played against the greatest black players of his generation. Similarly, as most General Managers now claim, if a team's front office doesn't at least consider Sabermetrics when making decisions, they find themselves at an immediate disadvantage.

So, that brings me to Hawk Harrelson. Hawk is the play-by-play announcer for the Chicago White Sox. He's fairly well known in the baseball community for being the most homer-friendly announcers on TV, a man who spouts phrases like "us and them" when referring to the White Sox and that day's opponent. He's an acquired taste; some fans enjoy his style while others find him irritating beyond belief. Still, he's an influential voice, and what he says matters because his thousands of viewers are at least somewhat influenced by his commentary.

Harrelson, in referring to a USA TODAY article about MLB team chemistry, took a minute to criticize Sabermetrics. No, he wasn't referring to specific people, teams, statistics, or even theories, but the entire idea of advancement through analytics. In a piece for SB Nation Steve Lepore commented on Harrelson's rebuke as well as Brian Kenny's rebuttal on MLB Now. In his editorial, Lepore quickly recognizes that he is in no way a master of advanced metrics or analytics:

"...I don't know enough about advanced stats to say whether or not they're over- or underrated in baseball or any other sport..."

Still, Lepore goes on to say,

"...but I'm almost always going to put my faith on the side of knowledge, and in the side of progression."

Spending lots of time perusing baseball websites, the analytically based and the non-analytically based, as well as Twitter, Facebook, or any other medium in which baseball is discussed, I find myself hating the idea of Statistics vs. old school. It reminds me too much of The Enlightenment and Romanticism. The Enlightenment, commonly referred to as the "Age of Reason" was a period of time in the 17th and 18th century when logic, reason, and scientific thought were at the forefront of the advancement and study of knowledge. This time period included thinkers like John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson. It also led to such events as the American Revolution, the construction of the U.S. Constitution, and the idea of capitalism as an economic system.

Following this "Age of Reason" came the age of Romanticism. This essentially contradicted much of The Enlightenment. Some thinkers of the Age of Reason were hyper-analytical and failed to allow emotion to invade any of their thought. The age of Romance led to incredible artistic, literary, and theatrical works, but when emotion is touted so highly over rational thought, it often leads to conflict, and in this case it did.

So, back to my original point, I'm very against the idea of pitting "old school" baseball thought vs. "new school" analytics. Baseball is such a dynamic game, it's one that can so easily be analyzed using numbers, statistics, biometrics, physics and logic, but we must always remember it is a game played by men, who are innately flawed, emotional, human beings who constantly remind us how irrational they can be.

Still, the most important aspect of this to remember is that analytic models are not pitted against non-data based decisions; instead we must combine the two to generate the best and most efficient decision possible. I think modern MLB front offices understand this dynamic and apply it daily. Sometimes it means trading Justin Upton in order to change the clubhouse chemistry, while creating a fuss amongst Sabermetricians, and other times it means not signing Kyle Lohse.

Hawk Harrelson's deathly allergy to Sabermetrics doesn't anger me; it mostly makes me roll my eyes at his, for lack of a better term, "old fogyness." Hawk specifically said that Sabermetrics have gotten a lot of people fired, and that it hasn't worked. Such ignorance is almost laughable because any bright twenty or thirty-something currently looking for a job will tell you that no company that has the right foot forward operates without a steady diet of analytics, statistics, and logical thought. Harrelson is a remnant of the past, a man meant for a museum not a broadcasting booth, and that's how I see him.

Most importantly, I think Lepore's simply put point rings so unbelievably true. When coming to a fork in the road, he won't consider "taking it" as the great Yogi Berra once said, but instead choosing the side of progress. He looks forward instead of behind him. As a student of History I understand and utilize the importance of understanding our past, but I do so not just to simply comprehend it, but to improve upon the impending future. Sabermatrics has changed baseball, and whether it's for better or worse, it can only be referred to as progress.

Food for Thought:

1) What are your thoughts on Hawk Harrelson's comments? How about Brian Kenny's repudiation?

2) Do you think there is currently a battle between an "old school" and "new school" approach to baseball, and if so, is it positive or negative for the game moving forward?

3) When confronted with a situation full of aspects you do not understand, what is your first inclination, to blindly trust the voice of experience, to combine experience with analytical reasoning, or by putting all your trust in the numbers?