Watching baseball — I mean really watching baseball — is difficult. Score, inning, number of outs, count, what pitch was just thrown, what pitch might be thrown next, incremental adjustments by the defenders, whether the pitcher is throwing from the slide step, where the catcher sets up; all of this stuff matters. And you have to pay attention if you really want to understand.
The catcher calls for an off-speed pitch, the shortstop picks up the sign, passes it to the third baseman and the third baseman shuffles two steps to his right as the pitcher delivers the ball. Pay attention to that kind of detail and a routine grounder to third base becomes a marvel of teamwork, strategy and execution.
But paying attention to that kind of detail is difficult.
I was reminded of that recently when two of my sons — huge NBA fans — decided to watch a Houston Rockets game and focus on James Harden. They’re appalled that Harden (a guy who neglects to play defense much of the time) is being talked up as an MVP candidate. If you score 30, but let the other guy score 31, you’re not really helping your team.
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You don’t need metrics; just watch a Rockets game, focus exclusively on Harden and you’ll see what they mean. And that’s what they decided to do: lock in on Harden and try to figure out how many points he scored vs. how many he gave up — but it wasn’t easy.
Say Harden loses the guy he’s defending — which he does on a regular basis — and someone on the other team passes the ball to the open guy. Then one of Harden’s teammates has to leave his guy to cover the guy Harden left open. Now Harden’s guy passes to the new guy that’s open and if that guy scores, it will look like Harden’s teammate gave up the points.
Now take a play where three or four passes and defensive rotations happen quickly and you might see a guy on the other side of the court score — a guy Harden never got near. You might have to rewind the play to realize a guy in the far corner scored after a series of passes because Harden lost his guy in the near corner.
After watching the Rockets game, my sons said you would need 10 guys watching one game (so each player would have eyes on him) or one guy watching a game 10 times. That’s the only way to understand what everyone was doing and who was responsible for what.
And that’s why we love numbers; reading a box score is much easier than really paying attention. But once you’re taught what to look for you see a hundred things that don’t show up in the numbers:
▪ A guy doesn’t want to look bad so he loafs on an infield pop fly that’s in his area of responsibility. A teammate tries to make the play and gets an error on a ball he shouldn’t have been forced to field.
▪ A smart center fielder is playing next to a blockhead in right. The smart guy makes the dumb guy better by making sure he’s in the right position.
▪ A pitcher has a long inning, but finally gets that third out. One of his teammates leads off the next inning and takes pitches until he has two strikes. He eventually strikes out, but did so in an effort to let his pitcher rest.
If you’re not locked in you won’t notice stuff like this. It’s why those of us in the media ask so many bad questions: we haven’t paid attention to detail so we can’t ask anything more meaningful than “what does it mean that you’re team came back in the bottom of the ninth” or “talk about that home run you hit in the sixth.” And as media members are asked to do more and more — take notes, score the game, tweet — it gets harder and harder to focus on the game, even if you want to.
But if you don’t watch, if you don’t pay attention, if all you do is look at box scores you may know the numbers, but you’re missing the game. It may not be as easy as looking as the numbers, but paying attention is what makes the game worthwhile.