Over the weekend, Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote a column opining that the relatively recent “statistical revolution” is alienating fans from the sport. While on a technical level, he’s almost certainly correct — not everyone is going to like every new direction in which their hobby goes — it isn’t isn’t the case overall.
Sherman takes care to acknowledge the importance of the newer stats in baseball, but writes, “[W]e have lost a thread that connected eras. What are fans living and dying with individually these days?” He reminisces fondly of poring over the box scores in newspapers and of his father getting excited about Bernie Williams reaching 100 RBI at the end of a season.
Sherman is guilty of what basically everyone is guilty of doing most of the time everywhere: romanticizing his youth. Looking up stats in box scores and caring a lot about RBI are snapshots of an era of baseball fandom. I don’t know Sherman’s exact age, but according to his MLB Network bio, he started writing professionally in 1984 and graduated college in 1985, so we can make some assumptions about the baseball he watched growing up.
The sport of baseball that I watched growing up, having been born in 1988, was a lot different than Sherman’s. And the sport of baseball that kids are watching today is a lot different than what I watched. When I was a kid, only a handful of pitchers threw fastballs in the high-90’s. 50-homer seasons were commonplace. Starters weren’t completing their starts nearly as often as they did a decade prior. The save stat gained a lot of importance with the rise of the lights-out closer such as Dennis Eckersley and Mariano Rivera.
That snapshot of the era of baseball I watched has, both consciously and subconsciously, informed what I value about the sport now as an adult. Craig, who is a little bit older than I am, has recently written about how he can’t aesthetically get behind the idea of “bullpenning.” The aesthetics of “bullpenning” don’t affect me as much as it does Craig because he grew up watching baseball in an era where starters were more heavily relied upon. I don’t dislike “bullpenning” based on aesthetics at all, but I do dislike it based on its labor implications. I would wager that if one were to poll equal samples of baseball fans across various generations, one would find the oldest generation polled placing the highest importance on a starter finishing a game, or going at least seven innings, however you want to frame it. The generation placing the least importance would be the youngest generation because that’s not how they’ve ever known the game. This generation grew up with Moneyball as ancient history and with many teams, in many cases including their favorites, having successfully implemented Moneyball-inspired tactics.
So, no, newer stats aren’t killing baseball or the next generation of fans. Most of the people who feel put off by the “statistical revolution” are older fans, who are currently the backbone of MLB’s fan base. As I’ve mentioned here before, baseball’s average viewer is the oldest and whitest of the four major sports and it’s still among the highest in both categories when including other sports like golf and NASCAR. Eventually, though, these old, white fans will die and MLB will need to replace those consumers. Will it do so by continuing to cater to old, white fans’ whims? Of course not. MLB needs to appeal to younger people, which means speaking their language; not the language with which I spoke and still speak, and not the language with which Sherman spoke and still speaks. Baseball now is WAR and wOBA and exit velocity and social media and .gifs and bat flips and emotion. Speak the language or get left behind, for better or for worse.
By the end of the regular season, MLB will have seen more than three million fewer fans go through the turnstiles than they did last year. The reason for that has little to do with advanced stats and has almost everything to do with teams tanking. 12 teams have seen attendance increases this year and they’re all teams that are contending or around .500. Most of the teams that saw the biggest attendance declines are teams that brazenly tanked, eliminating any hope for their fans before the season even began: the Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Marlins, and Blue Jays have had the five largest declines in attendance between last year and this year. Want to bring fans back to the sport? Take away some of the incentives teams have to lose as many games as possible. And make it more affordable to attend a game. And get rid of blackout restrictions.