There’s a prevalent thought among many baseball fans - the type of fan who is most likely to be reading a website like Beyond the Box Score, in particular - that, to turn a phrase: the war on WAR is over. And the good guys won.
First, the Cubs won and Theo Epstein, with his analytical-loving mind, broke his second historic curse of his young career thanks to the Cubs title in 2016. Then the Astros, derided by all just a few years back - and the team that took baseball’s newest ideals to their furthest extremes - broke a lengthy title drought of their own by winning their franchise’s first World Series the very next season. Heck, even the Phillies - the most infamous dinosaurs from the era in which the war on WAR was waged - hired a whole analytical department, and they now have a new manager who is more new-school than Joe Maddon.
Just look at some of the headlines that have popped up over the past few years. The Wall Street Journal had a piece entitled: “The War on Bunting Is Over: The Nerds Are Victorious.” Grantland had a post-Cubs piece penned by Rany Jazayerli called: “The Curios Have Won,” which started with the sentence: “The Great Analytics War ended at 48 minutes after midnight on November 3, 2016. The terms were unconditional surrender.”
I think we may have jumped the gun.
Just take a look at the glee with which that certain sect of fan, the fan who supposedly unconditionally surrendered 18 months ago, reacted to the early-season failures of the Phillies and the Rays.
When Gabe Kapler pulled Aaron Nola on Opening Day, despite Nola only having thrown 68 pitches, he did so with good reason. Nola had one of the biggest third time through the order penalties in all of baseball last season. That didn’t prevent the story from blowing up to the extent that I didn’t even have to look up the aforementioned pitch count, I had it drilled into my head already. It also didn’t prevent the hometown Philadelphia fans from booing Kapler less than a week later. (Some Philly fans will cite the call to the pen incident as the reason for the booing, but the Opening Day decision is what put the spotlight on the bullpen call in the first place.)
When the Tampa Bay Rays started the season 1-8, it led to a holier-than-thou chorus of “That’s what you get for thinking you’re smarter than the rest of baseball with your four-man rotation and bullpen days.”
In both cases, the narrative was clearly far removed from reality. The Phillies rattled off victories 14 victories in 18 games, and while the Rays still sit well below .500, they’ve been better than a .500 team since that slow start. Plus, it was never the bullpen day that was the reason for their slow start anyway.
But that’s just the point. The disconnect is still there. And as soon as a team wins a title using “old school” ideas, like the 2015 Royals did just 30 months ago, those fans who “unconditionally surrendered” are going to be back in full force.
There’s a reason that after Clinton came Bush. And after Bush came Obama. And after Obama came Trump. There’s a natural pendulum to these things.
There’s always bound to be a bit of a push-back once an idea is supposedly cemented in our heads. The next test for baseball’s analytical movement is how it handles the second reverb.
Baseball is weird. There will almost certainly be a team in the same vein as the 2015 Royals who win a title in the not-too-distant future. When that team succeeds, how baseball reacts will be interesting to watch. The analytics departments of each and every organization are suddenly going to be under more scrutiny; Moneyball may go back to being a misunderstood insult. If this team rattle off a few titles in a row, we could see another sea change in front offices.
I’m not here to take a side, or to stir up controversy about making it a two-sided battle in the first place. I’m a big believer in the Dayn Perry, “Both, you fool” school of thought, but that is increasing not how things are done in modern society.
With that in mind, next time you overhear that guy at the end of the bar ranting about Gabe Kapler or a failed four-man rotations, let’s reach across the aisle. Give a few ideas, and try to take away a few as well. Because one thing is sure, just when you think you’ve won and the war is over, that’s when you’re at your most vulnerable.
Jim Turvey is the author of Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players, a baseball history-stats fusion that is available now on Amazon. He is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and DRays Bay.