Hey all, Ernie here with a Tedium piece from Andrew Egan, who last hit your inbox with a ponderous piece on Erector Sets and other educational toys. This time, he dips into the all-too-rare Tedium sports pool.
Today in Tedium: Why do our tastes change? Is it something different about us or something about the thing we didn’t like that we now do? Do the reasons for the change matter? And why do Americans and a seemingly random assortment of other countries love baseball? Today’s Tedium is looking at one of America’s oldest sports and the new technology that is revolutionizing the game. — Andrew @ Tedium
Today’s GIF comes to us via a Foolish Baseball clip on YouTube. By the way, keep reading to get a heads-up on a special offer for $10 and up Tedium patrons!
The number of terabytes produced by Major League Baseball’s Statcast system during every single game. As a comparison, if you were to put this amount of data in books and laid them end to end, it would be roughly the equivalent of four miles. In any given year, the Hubble Space Telescope only collects 10 terabytes. Considering that each team plays a 162 game season, excluding the playoffs, and you can see that baseball is generating a staggering amout of data.
Leaving the field for the diamond
I’m going to ask you to give me a moment. And that request is implied throughout the rest of this article.
A couple of months ago, a friend and I decided to wrap up a vigorous night of drinking with a few slices of much needed, life-saving pizza. (Ben’s on MacDougal St. in the Village if you’re interested in that level of detail.) While I went with my usual pepperoni, my friend went supreme. Suddenly, my slice seemed bland by comparison. Even stranger, almost none of the toppings on a supreme slice typically appeal to me, especially olives. But in the moment, it looked and smelled delicious. The thought of it made my mouth fill with saliva. It was a great decision and while I haven’t officially added olives to my list of favorite foods, I don’t mind them. When used well, they’re quite delicious. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that tastes change and we should embrace the changes. Even when it means letting the passions of childhood fade to appreciate something you never noticed before.
Why I suddenly developed a taste (at least tolerance) for olives is anyone’s guess but my new interest in baseball is more readily explained. Growing up in Texas, I worship in the house that tax dollars built: football.
I was never very good but the talent pool around me was so deep that even a lowly schlub like me shared the field with future Division I and NFL players. When I got to college and my beloved Longhorns won a national championship, my love of the college game was cemented. But the NFL has done pretty much everything possible to alienate thoughtful fans. From the Colin Kaepernick controversy to concussions, supporting the NFL at this point feels like defending a douchebag friend with less than progressive ideas on gender.
This is not to say that MLB is perfect or without its issues. (The many, many issues modern fans have with the league are too varied to be meaningfully discussed here.) Those issues seem quaint compared to the head trauma and domestic abuse so common in today’s football. I also feel it necessary to mention that I’m not trading football for baseball to protest the NFL, which seems like an exercise in futility.
No, this newfound appreciation came organically, nurtured by a change in scenery and the wonderful weirdos on YouTube that obsess over everything baseball.
Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners. (David Schott/Flickr)
List of teams under consideration for my fandom
Since I’m new to baseball, I had a really golden opportunity to annoy family, friends, and drink-proximity associates to make an argument why I should support their favorite team. Here are the five finalists, with a bit of reasoning for their inclusion. By the end of this article, I will have, for better or worse, picked a team and I’m sticking with them. In no particular order:
The Seattle Mariners. Seattle has the remarkable ability to draft some of the most likable baseball players in history, among them Ken Griffey, Jr. (and his DAD!) and Ichiro Suzuki. It also helps that the team is regularly competitive, but historically, they have a hard time closing in on championships.
The New York Yankees. It’s the Yankees and I live in New York City. Of course they’re being considered.
The New York Mets. Ditto for the Mets but with the added benefit of my best friend having been a lifelong fan.
The Houston Astros. I hate Houston sports teams. Like, almost all of them. The Astros are the only one that gets a bit of a pass as they have made efforts to win in the past rather than just bilk Houstonians for whatever money they’re willing to part with. The World Series win actually hurts them here as I really don’t want to be seen as a bandwagon fan.
The Oakland A’s (Athletics). If you’ve read Moneyball, you understand. An underdog that’s not an underdog only because they refuse to be one.
Henry Chadwick, the inventor of the box score. (National Baseball Hall of Fame)
Counting counts even when the count is full
Baseball fans are a different breed. For them, much of the sport’s appeal can be found in the endless series of numbers that accompany every at bat. Many believe the secret that unlocks championships can be found in those numbers if you can just read them right. Almost no other sport catalogs players actions so thoroughly. A final score in football or soccer hardly indicates how a team performed.
Baseball is unique because you could track teams and players without watching a single game. (In fact, one general manager notoriously didn’t watch his own team play.)
Statistics came to baseball pretty early in the game’s history. The first box score was actually invented by a Brit named Henry Chadwick. As a writer for the Long Island Star and New York Clipper in 1859, Chadwick found himself covering the still burgeoning sport of baseball. Box scores weren’t just a novel method for analyzing player performance. In the time before pictures and video, box scores were how fans were able to follow their teams without being able to attend the actual games. The result was an explosion of interest in baseball that became so intense that the sport has long been considered “America’s national pastime” even though football has long become the most popular.
For his contributions to the sport, Chadwick was posthumously inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame as the inventor of the box score. His idea was so simple, so pure that for well over a century, no one really questioned it. But over time, the baseball-obsessed were becoming number obsessed and it was only a matter of time before the mathematicians were banging at the game’s hallowed gates.
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The spin rate, in revolutions per minute (RPM), that Justin Verlander achieved in a 2012 game with the Detroit Tigers. The spin rate of pitches is a fairly new metric for baseball. Before new technology entered the game in the 2006 season, spin rate could only be guessed at rather than accurately estimated. Then accurately gauged. That changed with the advent of Pitch F/x and Statcast.
Verlander, shown in 2012 as a Detroit Tiger. (Keith Allison/Flickr)
Putting a new spin on America’s oldest sport
The 2002 Oakland A’s helped change baseball in a way that was inevitable. (The team and its historical season in 2002 were depicted in the book and film Moneyball.) Hamstrung with one of the lowest player payrolls in the sport, Oakland managed to field a playoff caliber team by using a new statistical analysis method pioneered by Bill James, a baseball outsider that became very influential to fans and later front offices.
Perhaps one of the more surprising elements of the 2002 A’s is that their statistical revolution came a full four years before the advent of Pitch f/x, a camera system that can accurately gauge a whole host of neat baseball stats, like velocity. Perhaps most importantly, the system also introduced the first real-time estimates of pitchers’ spin rates.
Spin rate is an important element to baseball because it helps explain why one pitcher throwing a 94 mph fastball gives up a home run and another pitcher throwing a 94 mph fastball gets strikes. To put it simply, the higher the spin rate, the harder a pitch is to hit. In 2018, the MLB average was about 2280 rpm.
And this brings us to Justin Verlander, baseball ace pitcher and husband of model Kate Upton. In 2012, Verlander was heading into the 8th inning, pitching for the Detroit Tigers against the Cleveland Indians. Detroit is down by one run, and Verlander knows this is his last inning of the game. (Pitcher’s arms are one of the most valuable assets in baseball, to limit the risk of injury managers often limit the number of pitches they can throw in a given game.) For Verlander, this means his stats are about to dip a little because he can’t technically win the game for his team. (How wins are calculated for pitchers can be a little complicated and it’s not really necessary here.)
This puts Verlander in a position where his team can win, but he’ll still lose. And this makes Verlander angry. Not enough to hurt someone. No, Verlander instead is going to take out his frustration on three multi millionaires who are paid to play a game. And he is going to make them look bad. Like real bad.
An immaculate inning in baseball is a special thing. A pitcher throws nine pitches, gets three straight strikeouts and leaves the field. A pitcher in this situation has rendered the rest of the players useless. In this situation, they’re being paid to watch two grown men effectively play catch. It’s also incredibly hard to do. As of 2019, it had only ever happened a total of 102 times in the over 100 plus history of baseball. Unfortunately, Verlander would not be joining them that day.
Instead, he threw 11 pitches. Two were balls. But wow, they were great balls! It was the way he threw, with elite levels of spin rate and velocity, that lead one YouTuber (see credit at the end) to describe the inning as “impossible”, i.e. no one could hit his pitches and those pitches shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Why shouldn’t they have happened, dear reader? For one simple reason, pitchers can rarely achieve triple digit (over 100 mph) pitches late in games. In fact, between 2008 and 2018, only 57 pitches greater than 100 mph have been thrown in the 8th inning or later. Justin Verlander accounts for 44 of those pitches. This was the 8th inning of a game that looked like Detroit was going to lose. A game that he had started but gave up two runs to give the other team the lead. Rather than beat himself, Justin Verlander threw 11 pitches that were practically impossible to hit.
Here’s a breakdown of the 11 pitches he threw during that inning with velocity and spin rates:
Hitter: Shin-Soo Choo
- Pitch One: 96 mph fastball, 2746 rpm
- Pitch Two: 97 mph fastball, 2794 rpm
- Pitch Three: 100 mph fastball, 2977 rpm (ball)
- Pitch Four: 98 mph fastball, 2616 rpm
Hitter: Jason Kipnis
- Pitch One: 98 mph fastball, 2618 rpm
- Pitch Two: 100 mph fastball, 2652 rpm
- Pitch Three: 101 mph fastball, 2671 rpm
Hitter: Asdrubal Cabrera
- Pitch One: 100 mph fastball, 2724 rpm
- Pitch Two: 82 mph curveball, 1919 rpm
- Pitch Three: 102 mph fastball, 2885 rpm (ball)
- Pitch Four: No swing strike, Cabrera just tosses the bat in frustration.
Going over the minutiae to explain how Pitch f/x and Statcast works and what specifically it does can be very complicated even for seasoned baseball fans and analysts. It’s basically a system of radar guns and cameras capturing footage at 32 frames per second. Or as the good people over at Grantland explained when Statcast debuted in 2014, “In short, it seeks to measure everything that happens on the field, and it’s the coolest/nerdiest advancement the baseball world has seen in a long, long time.”
Just a quick look at the Pitch f/x data from Verlander’s “impossible” 8th inning, and you start to get a sense of just how valuable this type of tech is for the game of baseball. Sports in general, but baseball in particular, is full of terms to explain intangible qualities that separate promising prospects from Hall of Fame legends. Phrases like “good body”, “ugly girlfriend”, and “uniform appeal” feature prominently in Moneyball, demonstrating the guesswork that dominated the game for so long. With the new technologies, for the first time, we are getting a real understanding of why some players outperform expectations while others never attain even modest success.
Long before Pitch f/x and Statcast came along, Verlander was considered an elite pitcher. No one was surprised by his success but the tech suddenly gave us a window into why he was successful. In addition to having a damn near literal cannon for an arm, he also gets more spin on his pitches than some dentist drills. They might have still lost the game but Verlander did something that will be remembered by anyone that bothers to look.
Who knows, maybe he’ll one day get to throw that illusive immaculate inning? Despite a Hall of Fame career, he still has yet to do so. Oh well, he always has Kate.
“How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
Which sport you prefer is entirely up to you and there’s no wrong answer. Despite their intensity and competition, sports are still just a form of leisure and entertainment. But they’re also a whole lot more. Anyone that’s been in a city after a championship win, almost regardless of the sport, can feel a more cheerful atmosphere. As if the collective mood of an entire population is improved because of the outcome of a simple game.
I witnessed this personally, albeit from a far, when my hometown Houston Astros won the World Series in 2017. I had just moved to New York City earlier that year and was heartbroken at the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey. My family and extended family were fine, so were their houses. My friends and neighbors? Many were not so lucky. Lives went on hold. Memories were lost forever.
Then a curious thing happened. The Houston Astros, who had never won a World Series, started to look really good; almost like champions, a rare event for a Houston sports team (and yes, I’m including the Rockets back to back wins in the 90s, which deserves an asterisk in my opinion). They just needed a little push, just a little more to get them over the finish line to bring a devastated city a little bit of relief after one of the worst years in recent memory. So they made a trade with Detroit. Who do you think they got?
With Verlander on the team, the Astros would secure the franchise’s first World Series. While it didn’t fix the water damage or bring back lost loved ones, for a few months it was a distraction and when the title came to Minute Maid Park, there was pride. Houston can almost drown, then come back almost immediately to do something great it never had before.
Before 2019, I didn’t really have an interest in baseball. That indifference shielded me from true elation in the moment. I was mostly just happy for my former community. Now, as a newly converted baseball fan, I have a decision to make. I get to pick any team in baseball to give my unwavering support in the good times and irrational criticism during all others.
So I did what any good Texas boy would do and made the decision that would make my mom the happiest …
(By the way, a quick shoutout to Bailey over at Foolish Baseball, whose video on Verlander’s inning is amazing and full of all the juicy baseball tidbits that are far better explained by him. His video is where we got that dope GIF at the top of this article. Go check out his work and hit that like and subscribe button, or whatever YouTubers say at the end of their videos.)