Wednesday, 30 March 2016

A Fond Farewell

As we prepare for the 2016 baseball season, I have some good and bad news to share with loyal readers of this humble little blog.

The good news? Well, I'm moving to a brand new site that will showcase all of my very best baseball writing in a far more professional manner. It's called The Pastime, and it already features most of my work from down the years on this blog. There, I'll be able to format and promote my work in a far more satisfying fashion, while reaching a larger audience. So, exciting times lie ahead.

The bad news? Suicide Squeezin' will no longer be an active blog. At least not at this address. The essence of this blog will thrive as I'll still be covering baseball in the same fashion, and with even greater regularity, but the name isn't making the move, and we'll no longer be updating this page. 

I started this blog as a simple hobby in the summer of 2013, when I had some spare time and plenty to say about baseball. Since then, it has attracted a dedicated following, and has been the platform for my opinions and memories. However, as I've started to pursue a professional career writing about baseball, the limitations of this platform have become apparent. At this point, I need a stronger provider with better options for maintaining a large readership and creating a better appearance. I managed to achieve that with the new site. Please take a look

So fear not, dear readers. All of your favourite articles from this blog have been transported across and enriched with fancy formatting and a more amenable reader experience. I'll also keep Suicide Squeezin' alive as a stand alone web page, as a tribute to what it once meant to us all.

Now, though, I would be honoured if you would make the journey across to the new site with me. I really value your continued interest and support, and The Pastime is built to reward you, too. I believe my writing is of a tremendous quality, but formatting here at Suicide Squeezin' has often been poor. Moving forward, I hope to rectify that, while rewarding your faith with easier ways to follow, interact with and share my content.

So, in closing, I would like to thank you for all the memories we made here, and welcome you to the new site.

Please subscribe to The Pastime for free so you never miss an article, and let's build something even greater. Something fit for the future.

Farewell to the past, and hello to the future.
Kind regards,

Monday, 22 February 2016

There's More to Baseball than WAR

I love baseball statistics. The way we harbour records for every conceivable event is admirable and imaginative. However, the recent trend towards boiling a player's value down to one solitary number, like some kind of grocery store bar code, is having deleterious consequences for how we interpret the game.

As one tool in a wider evaluation arsenal, Wins Above Replacement is very effective. In a practical sense, it allows for a concise overview of production, while also representing true advancement in the field of baseball analysis. Yet, despite being a progressive statistic, WAR can also lead to a somewhat parochial view of the game from fans. Nowadays, our natural opinions are too frequently modified by this one number, which stifles the romance of baseball with an arrogant absolutism. We now seek permission from charts and graphs before experiencing the game's natural emotion, as baseball is reduced to a distorted idealism.

Of course, Sabermetricians will disagree with my view, and that is understandable. Their quest is to develop new ways of attaining total objectivity when analysing baseball. I have no issue with that. In fact, I encourage them wholeheartedly and often use the fruits of their work to substantiate my opinionated writing. However, I don't agree with WAR totally monopolizing our interpretation of players, teams and history, as has noticeably been the case in recent years. That goes against everything baseball is supposed to represent, and even threatens to undermine the progress being made elsewhere in Sabermetrics.

Naturally, some will say that the onus falls on individual people to exercise their own judgement with regard to baseball statistics. Nevertheless, that's difficult when every television show or podcast refers to WAR almost as a proxy for genuine analysis. Again, this could be viewed as innovative and forward-thinking, but also lazy and damaging to the idea of baseball as a broad, multi-faceted and idiosyncratic pursuit.

You see, for many of us, baseball is the highest form of escapism. It's a game. We fall in love first with its nuance and atmosphere, then graduate to its tactics and technicalities. There's a cultural mystique to baseball, an implacable magic that exists regardless of what mathematicians believe. It spawns folk heroes, like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, who were beloved not for data on a page but for big swings and bigger personalities. Sure, that data can validate their work and place it in historical context, but it shouldn't necessarily override the essence of their being, nor the spirit of their play. First and foremost, they were icons who captured the public's imagination. Their assault on baseball history contributed to the legend, but that was an ancillary concept. People loved them for who they were and what they represented, not solely for what they achieved on the isolated diamonds of Major League Baseball.

Even when playing devil's advocate, there are unavoidable problems with using WAR as the ultimate indicator of player worth. For instance, the Baseball-Reference model places a value of 71.8 wins on the career of Derek Jeter. That ranks just 88th all-time. How on earth are we supposed to take that seriously? How can we trust a system that says Larry Walker, Mike Mussina and Chipper Jones were more valuable than Derek Jeter? Perhaps that's the case after hours spent cooking up a statistical potion in the lab, but instinctively, there's no way any of those players outranks the Yankee captain. We're talking about a true legend of this game; a guy who grabbed the baton passed down from Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, then led the New York Yankees to five World Series championships with amazing contributions on the biggest stage. Only five guys ever to lace a pair of cleats amassed more hits than Jeter, but you're telling me Chipper Jones was more valuable? That's incomprehensible.

Ultimately, we all like different aspects of the game in unique ways. Some people love the smells and sounds of a ballpark, while others are fascinated by the numbers. Of course, these two concepts aren't mutually exclusive. A statistician can love beer and crackerjack in the bleachers, just as a baseball purist can enjoy mining troves of data on his favourite players. However, when our thoughts and feelings are predetermined by WAR, part of baseball's mystique is lost, and part of the game day experience is diluted. Moreover, I feel that people who don't worship at the altar of Wins Above Replacement are being marginalized and viewed as somehow less intelligent or passionate about baseball than those who do.

In this regard, the cult of advanced analytics is becoming dictatorial. It's their way of the highway. Increasingly, we're told which players to idolize, which trades to like, simply because of one number, one WAR rating. Admittedly, that number represents the finest work ever done to codify baseball performance, but I believe it should still be secondary to our own feelings conceived naturally while watching a game, not implanted while scrolling through the Twitter feed of a data analyst. Many will argue that listening to the statistical chorus is optional, but that's my point: baseball analysis has been almost totally consumed by analytics, to the point where WAR is held aloft as an omniscient force, and there's little time for breakdowns of the physical game at hand.

In the modern age, any player with a negative WAR is shunned, discarded, written off as irrelevant. We only have time for dynamic players who excel in a multitude of areas. That is arguably a positive thing, because it concentrates our attention on what truly matters, but again, what if the casual fan just loves the excitement of home runs and doesn't care that Chris Davis is less than adequate in the field? There has to be a place for that. We must be allowed to like certain players and certain teams on a personal, spiritual level, without earning the scorn of number-crunchers, who are keen to steer us down a path of righteousness.

Now please don't misinterpret my stance. I'm not some crusty scout bearing a grudge. But if fans don't trust their own eyes and instead rely on recycled, metric-ordained opinion, we're going to lose sight of baseball's soul, which assuredly was never about digits on a website. By all means, use analytics to support your views and enrich the debate, but please don't regard WAR as the one and only starting point for opinion. It is a starting point, and people are entitled to use it freely as such, but its recent transformation into the definitive conscience of baseball is selfish and dangerous.

Baseball can't be reduced to one number. This is a wonderful game that has beguiled millions of people for hundreds of years with the breadth of its variety and the depth of its unpredictability. There has to be room for the art, as well as the science; for the human, as well as the computer. By no means should we disregard WAR or admonish those who work so hard to defend its sanctity. But we also shouldn't lose grasp of our instincts, or tease those who view baseball through a more traditional prism.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Registering Concern About Exploding Player Salaries

There's something mildly egregious about the $30 million plateau in relation to annual player salaries. It's a big, bad number that makes you gulp, like Barry Bonds' 73 or Alex Rodriguez' 687. Yet $30 million is the new norm for elite ballplayers, which is very disconcerting even for the most liberal of fans.

This winter, we've already seen Zack Greinke given the highest yearly wage in baseball history at $34.4 million. Meanwhile, David Price comes in third at $31 million, joining Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer in smashing through what was once an unthinkable barrier. When the typical household income throughout America is a shade over $50,000, that's a lot of money. Greinke will earn over $1 million per start in 2016, shedding fresh light on the fantasy economics at play across Major League Baseball.

Now don't misinterpret my approach. I'm not some crusty idealist who begrudges people their opportunity to create a better life. On the contrary, I've an undying love for baseball and regularly highlight the phenomenal grind these guys endure each year for our entertainment. However, if salaries are spiralling to a level with which even I'm uncomfortable, the damage to casual fans may be irreparable.

We're now discussing truly stratospheric numbers, which makes it difficult to relate to these players. I've always been comfortable with guys earning in the $15-$20 million range, because that appears to be fair and manageable, a legitimate reward for their talent but not so excessive as to inspire greed. Yet now, decidedly average players are commanding those figures and superstars are contemplating double that. With all bias and politics removed, in what objective world is that justifiable?

I would never seek to impede a players' right to earn as much as possible. They deserve that opportunity, just like everybody in the world, regardless of the industry in which they work. If the money is there, very few people would decline it. However, my problem is with the thorough insouciance of team owners and league executives who are reckless at best when trying to divide a revenue pool of $9 billion. Their outlook is incredibly myopic, and has led baseball to an unpalatable fiscal environment distinctly removed from reality.

Some experts argue that baseball players are actually underpaid, in relation to the percentage of revenue the game generates. Salaries have exploded in the past twenty-five years, but team income has outperformed even that exponential growth. Nevertheless, it's difficult to argue that men who earn millions for playing a game should be granted an even larger slice of the pie. That's just pedantic and unconscious. In real terms, baseball players earn more than the average person could ever dream of. Therefore, what we should focus on is how that can be regulated without strangling their rights, and what can be done to bring baseball back into the realm of financial believability.

Obviously, our passion and interest fuels the economy, with television money and merchandise sales flooding the market. And, of course, it's better for that income to trickle down to players rather than line the pockets of faceless businessman. But I feel there has to be a way to distribute this money more fairly and responsibly, to close the vast dichotomy between haves and have nots that presently persists.

Players could surely be paid handsomely, but not ludicrously, and more of the income could be used to address chronic imbalances in the landscape. For instance, can we do more for the minor leaguer who earns less than the national poverty level and who struggles to put food on the table every night? Can we do more for the rookie who receives the Major League minimum and who shares a clubhouse with guys earning sixty times his salary?

Can we do more for little league kids and youth ball coaches, smoothing the path to big league glory? What about international play, new stadiums and television blackouts? Can we use these resources more intelligently to create a game of greater equality, enjoyment and opportunity?

Of course, the revenue cycle of elite sports is a self-perpetuating monster. Once salaries have gone so far, it's extremely difficult to reverse the trend without labour squabbles and work stoppages. Some people argue for an NFL-style salary cap in baseball, but that method often stifles the quality of play by flattening the field entirely. Alternatively, the other end of the spectrum is also pretty murky, with baseball suffering a dark history of owner collusion. We never want to revisit those times.

Ultimately, then, I'm not entirely sure what the solution is. Amid an offseason that has sounded many alarm bells, I just needed to register my concern, to highlight the problem. We should never victimise individual players for maximising their earnings, but we should lament a deeply unimaginative system that has inspired salaries to shoot beyond a fair threshold.

If left unchecked, this dilemma will see ballplayers earning $40-50 million per year before long. And regardless of your outlook, that would be difficult to rationalise and almost impossible to comprehend in a world where poverty is still a legitimate concern.