Science and Baseball: Welcoming MLB to the 21st Century

mlb instant replay
mlb instant replay
Tempe AZ USA Umpires use instant replay to review a call during the game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Texas Rangers at Tempe Diablo Stadium Joe Camporeale USA TODAY Sports

The punk rock band Bad Religion recorded a song for their 1990 album Against the Grain called “21st Century (Digital Boy).” Though I enjoy a great deal of this band’s music (according to my music library, I possess 220 of the band’s songs off of 14 albums), admittedly I’m not too enamored with this particular track. Still a staple of their live shows, I roll my eyes every time they play it on stage and tolerate it whenever it plays at random on my music player. But as evident by its popularity among fans, the song has endured the test of time not just because it’s probably one of their more catchier songs, but also because the foreshadowing lyrics have proven to remain relevant:

Cause I’m a 21st century digital boy
I don’t know how to live but I’ve got a lot of toys
My daddy’s a lazy middle class intellectual
My mommy’s on valium, so ineffectual
Ain’t life a mystery?

The song questions the idea of convenience in technology and how they affect individual interactions with loved ones (Quick! Put your phone away before your wife comes back from the restroom and scolds you about reading sports articles in public places when you’re supposed to be focusing your attention solely on her).

But since 1990, one social construct has distanced itself from all of this technology. They had done so because to them, the purity of the institution, based on 100 years of glorious tradition, was more important than implementing technology that would only assist immensely in the day-to-day operations of said institution. I’m not talking about the sport of soccer. I’m “Talkin’ Baseball“.

Though baseball has seen it’s own unique, scientific evolution in other aspects of the game–most notably the use of performance-enhancing drugs, from widespread use of amphetamines in the 1960s and ’70s, to cocaine use in the 1980s, and of course the most recent “steroid era” which also included the illegal use of growth hormones–when it comes to implementing academics, science, and technology into the game, baseball purists are quick to object, stating that the “human element” would be tarnished from the game and other catastrophic predictions are mentioned as well. While other professional sports have embraced an idea like “instant replay” for the use in determining the outcome of their games, baseball has found excuses to not implement it in their game.

However, 2014 will see Major League Baseball begin showing off more of their “toys” to a wider audience. This upcoming season, baseball will finally implement an “instant replay” system that is influenced by the NFL’s “challenge system,” while keeping the purists content as managers are still able to lobby for replay reviews even if they run out of challenges or force umpires to confer over a play by turning their hats backwards, kick dirt, and rant and rave until their faces turn red. Good to know that compromise is still a possible achievement in this ever-changing world.

It gets even better. Crack open your high school physics textbooks because you’re going to need to freshen up on certain theories and calculations when Major League Baseball implements a tracking system to compute all the small nuances and details you have ever wondered about the game. Fans, players, and front office executives will be able to get tangible answers to abstract questions:

  • Who has the best range at third base?
  • How many RPM was on that last pitch?
  • How fast was the centerfielder’s first step on that flyout?

The list of possibilities are endless and will be brought to you in real time. Of course, we will be given a small taste in 2014, but by 2015, all MLB parks should be fully equipped with the technology to give you, the fan, a deeper understanding and knowledge of the game. The best part is no more depending on ex-jocks that rely too heavily on old baseball adages and cliches to get by on the broadcast booth. Real analysis and breakdowns of plays throughout the games will be expected. What was once considered an intangible will soon be a measurable.

Finally, the biggest bomb was dropped back in February when a “surprise guest” appeared on the Boers and Bernstein Show. Last year, I wrote a piece on how I became a Chicago Cubs’ fan and how former Cubs’ color analyst Steve Stone was a big part of me becoming a fan of the game. The amount of reverence I show for this man knows no limits or boundaries. He simply is the best baseball analyst in any broadcast booth in baseball.

Unfortunately, being teamed up with a guy like “The Hawk” Ken Harrelson, who seemingly goes through more broadcast partners than Newt Gingrich goes through wives, has really muted Stone’s voice. Harrelson’s ego just envelops the Chicago White Sox broadcast booth and prefers to have conversations with himself rather than engage in conversation with the very dry, but witty Steve Stone.

While Harrelson sticks to his old ways and habits when calling a game, Stone is a true student of the game. While Harrelson simply brags about the amount of years he’s worked in the game, Stone uses his experience in baseball as a foundation to explain to a TV audience what has unfolded and what will unfold during a game in a very detailed, but simple manner to keep the audience engaged. While Harrelson rests on his laurels, Stone, as explained by local Chicago broadcast reporter Laurence Holmes, can be seen hours before the game breaking down box scores and studying statistics. While Hawk works on his golf game, Stone is hustling everyday; everyday he hustles.

It is with this backdrop that we take it back to last month where Steve Stone made a “surprise” appearance on the Boers and Bernstein Show to announce that this upcoming season, the booth will bring up Sabermetrics during broadcasts. For the record, the White Sox are not a SABR-friendly team, with Harrelson being the loudest critic and Steve Stone having also voiced his disapproval on the subject matter. However, because of his thirst for knowledge, Stone will bring the White Sox to baseball modernity and will most likely take the lead when the opportunity presents itself to discuss certain concepts such as Batting Average on Balls in Play, WAR, etc. And hopefully, someone will explain to Hawk that TWTW is not an advanced baseball metric, but hogwash.

As mentioned, this is a monumental change for the franchise who infamously have turned their back on Sabermetrics. But this is also a response to their counterparts on the North Side. With Theo Epstein and Co. on board, it’s easy to see that the Chicago Cubs are on the opposite side of the advanced statistics’ movement. Additionally, their TV broadcast booth has found a way to discuss Sabermetrics during games without turning off their audience. Cubs’ play-by-play man Len Kasper is not ashamed to talk about the subject during Cubs’ games as he is a big proponent of SABR.

This is what baseball in the 21st century looks like. Sure it took MLB a while to catch up to the rest of the other sports (even soccer has beaten baseball in the technological category), but they are definitely making up for lost time now. Science, technology, innovation, and intellectualism will continue to progress in baseball, no matter how many traditionalists and purists protest.

author avatar
Felipe Melecio
Felipe Melecio was the managing editor for the blog Pathological Hate. He believes that math is your friend and numbers can be fun, especially when it comes to baseball. Keep tabs on all his knee-jerk reactions on Twitter: !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+'://';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');