Baseball

Before we get to 2019, did Joe Buck ruin the World Series? Or was it analytics?

Fox Sports broadcaster Joe Buck.
Fox Sports broadcaster Joe Buck. The Associated Press

After the 2018 World Series, Fox broadcaster Joe Buck gave a radio interview in which he said TV ratings were down because the games weren’t that compelling. Buck also said he wasn’t sure that “analytics, launch angle and all of that is producing better baseball.”

After Buck’s interview, in a column posted on the NBC Sports website, baseball writer and analytics fan Bill Baer took exception. He said that if the games weren’t that compelling, it was Buck’s job to make things more interesting.

Baer compared Buck unfavorably to Vin Scully, because Scully would have had a bunch of anecdotes ready to tell if the games were boring. In Baer’s opinion, saying the games weren’t compelling seemed “like a “cop-out.”

Whether or not you like Buck and his co-broadcaster John Smoltz is a matter of opinion, but here are a few things about the 2018 World Series that we know for sure.

Games were longer

The Series went five games, including an 18-inning game that lasted seven hours and 20 minutes. The four nine-innings games averaged a little over three hours and 30 minutes.

During the 2018 regular season, nine-inning games lasted an average of three hours flat, so where did the extra 30 minutes come from?

The World Series commercial breaks were almost a minute longer than the commercial breaks in the regular season. You can’t blame Buck and Smoltz because the people in charge wanted to make as much money as possible by selling as many commercials as possible.

But greed is not the only reason the games were longer.

Sabermetricians have decided that most starting pitchers should not face a batting order three times, which means fewer innings by starters and more innings by relievers. And to get desired matchups, managers might use three relievers in a single inning.

During the 2000 regular season, teams used an average 3.54 pitchers per game. During the 2018 regular season, that number was 4.36 ... and in the World Series it was 4.87. And that doesn’t include the 18-inning game that required 18 pitchers.

Repeatedly watching a manager go to the mound, a reliever jog in from the pen and then throw eight warm-up pitches is not compelling baseball.

Less action at the plate

According to the sabermetric community, the two most important stats for a hitter are on-base and slugging percentage (OPS), so hitters are taking more pitches; they’re looking to walk or find a pitch they can hit out of the park.

But if hitters take more pitches, pitchers will throw more strikes to get ahead in the count. In the 2018 regular season, for the first time in baseball history, there were more strikeouts than hits.

That pattern continued in the World Series: In the five Series games, there were 76 hits and 109 strikeouts. Combine those strikeouts with the 38 walks issued and there were 147 plate appearances where a ball was not put in play.

Watching a hitter walk back to the dugout or jog down to first base is not compelling baseball.

Less action on the base paths

Analytics advocates do not like the stolen base or sacrifice bunt as tactics, so even though there were times one run would have mattered, both the Dodgers and Red Sox were reluctant to steal bases (two stolen bases in five attempts) or bunt (one sacrifice bunt in the Series).

Relying on walks and home runs to score runs means a lot of time spent standing around waiting for someone to hit one out of the park. And once again, that is not compelling baseball.

Few attempts to beat the shifts

Baseball players know they have to pay lip service to winning and putting the team first, but they also know teams don’t pay big money for sacrifice bunts or moving runners over with grounders to the right side.

So despite what they say publicly, during the regular season many players do what they can to protect the numbers that get them paid.

If their team has a chance to do something special, players are expected to put their individual goals aside and play team baseball. Winning a ring should be more important than hitting a home run for a losing team.

Smoltz — who was criticized for being negative — alluded to this when he said he could understand not bunting or hitting the ball the other way against the shifts during the regular season, but couldn’t understand why more players weren’t trying to beat the shifts in the World Series.

A lot of players, coaches and managers are critical of the direction the game is going but don’t want to speak out and jeopardize their careers. Smoltz just happened to say publicly what a lot of people are saying off the record.

But isn’t it smart baseball?

According to Baer’s column on Buck, the games might have seemed less than compelling because baseball has been “hyper-optimized thanks to increasingly intelligent front-office personnel and the power of computing.”

That’s a questionable assumption.

Despite supposedly finding the Holy Grail of run-scoring — on-base plus slugging percentage — more runs are not being scored.

During the 2000 regular season, all big-league teams combined scored 24,971 runs. They have yet to score that many runs in any season since, and in 2018 — when the influence of analytics was at its greatest — big-league teams scored 3,341 fewer runs than they did at the turn of the century.

Analytics have made baseball games longer, slower and more boring: more pitches thrown, more pitching changes, less strategy, less action on the base paths, fewer balls in play and fewer runs scored.

And now some of the same people who advocate the tactics that are responsible for games being less compelling are blaming announcers for not spicing things up with anecdotes.

Now there’s a cop-out.

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