Computers, sabermetrics, analytics won’t find all the needed ball players
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Launch angle. Exit speed from the bat. Base hits with a 1-2 count. Wins above replacement. Walks with two men on base in scoring position and two outs.
And still Baltimore, Miami, Detroit, Toronto, Colorado, Kansas City and Pittsburgh can’t win nearly enough games to join the major league baseball pennant races or the jockeying for the two wild card places in each league.
Baseball’s front offices have gone whole hog into figuring out more games can be won by relying heavily on computers, sabermetrics and analytics for their information.
All that leaning on mathematics and numbers-oriented information is likely to be of some value.
But to fire all your scouts and depend almost entirely on your mathematicians, computer experts and probables like the Houston Astros have done won’t work forever.
Houston has done very well, but the roster’s current players were scouted and then signed by human beings.
Any player’s running speed, fielding acumen and the speed with which his batted balls come off his bat can be accurately told by film and computers.
However, baseball is a sport where much more than pure numbers and the immediate past can make infallible predictions about the future.
Let’s take a hypothetical 21-year-old amateur just signed to his first professional contract by a major league team.
He runs like a whippet. He fields like a graceful Joe DiMaggio. He doesn’t swing at bad pitches and gathers walks like they were golden eggs.
On a computer printout he looks to be a bona fide major league starter after rising through the minor leagues for five years.
At age 26, he projects as a contributing everyday starter for the major league club.
But all that computer language and film of his minor league games can’t see inside the player’s psyche or his value as a competitor.
Major leaguers can be called upon to play eight straight days. Does this prospect recover well from nagging tiredness or sore muscles and joints? In other words, can he be effective day-after-day, or will he need rest every three or four days?
How about the travel factor — always a concern in a 162 game season — that calls for constant movement from city to city and hotel to hotel?
What about the player’s courage factor? Just how brave is he in situations where he isn’t at his physical best or mental best? Is he gritty enough to see his first discouraging days and get through them without doubt taking hold of his performances?
If the prospect is married, how will his partner help him get the proper rest, diet and peaceful home life to be at his physical best to compete?
How determined is he to achieve his team’s goals and his own long-term goals?
Is he only an individualist and cares little about his teammates or the team’s desires?
Playing well while doctoring a slightly sprained ankle or bruised rib cage has nothing to do with launch angles or exit speeds from the bat.
Being able to compete when nagged by the physical trials of playing major league baseball for six straight days hasn’t been judged by any of the youthful front office types of the 2019 season.
The players aren’t robots, and they don’t live in an easily programmed, sterilized atmosphere of computer-based baseball.
The player’s temperament and strength of mind to block out his physical aches can be just as important as what the sabermetrics predict he will do, when facing Justin Verlander with the bases loaded and two men out in the top of the ninth inning of a one-run game.