Braves Off-Day Off-Topic: Scientific Baseball, Then And Now

Much has been made in the last 10 years or so of the perceived gap between the "number crunchers" and the "traditionalists." The former are often parodied as lonely losers who, rather than watch a game, would prefer to destroy all the joy and beauty of it with their pointless analysis. The latter are sometimes derided as lurching neanderthals incapable of accepting a statistic that was invented after 1960.

This has always been a false dichotomy, of course. Most statheads love watching baseball, and most traditionalists have adapted somewhat to all the new information out there. But the debate is an enduring one. Over 100 years ago, George William Daley (sort of the Murray Chass of his day) wrote a series of editorials in the persona of one "Home Run Haggarty." The Haggarty character, like many old-timer baseball writers today, mocked the "scientific" approach that he felt was ruining the game. Only his definition of "scientific baseball" differs quite a bit from sabermetrics. Take this article (from the Washington Times in May of 1905):

Home Run Haggarty on the Intricacies of Scientific Baseball

Often when you go to ball games nowadays you hear some such expression as this:

"The day of the home-run hitter is over!"

This generally comes from one o' those heavy thinkin'-guys with a wrinkle in his forehead--the kind that run ball teams f'm the grandstand, announcing' the play that's comin' next to the poor, benighted ones alongside of 'em, and who howl with joy at a base on balls an' fall into a fit applaudin' a sacrifice hit. They're the guys who invented what you'd call scientific baseball and "inside play" and "headwork." They all amount to the same thing--simply a confession that a feller can't bat the ball hard enough to get out of the reach of the fielders.

(continued after the jump)

Fine thing for baseball, ain't it, when a combination of bad eyes an' weak arms an' laziness is makin' it so there's no more slashing' drives like they used to be--drives that whistled as they went for the fence, an' made the outfielders hump themselves* an' the pitchers shiver? There was a time when a feller'd make all sorts o' efforts to stretch a hit into a homer, an' the audience would applaud an' give him credit for it. But now it ain't scientific to make homers. You make a homer an' these heavy thinkin' guys up in the grandstand turn up their noses an' say "dumb luck," or "a horrible exhibition o' brute force; w'y ain't he made to play the game scientific? His play then was a sacrifice, prettily placed between first and second." All this guff, mind you, when the batter's home run has sent in two men ahead o' him an' cleaned the bags.

Yes, the day o' the home-run seems to be over; the day o' the three-bagger hitter is most over; the day o' the two-bagger hitter is about over, and soon the day o' the one-base hitter'll be over, too, an' then ball games'll be one grand, sweet song o' bunts, an' force outs, an' sacrifices, an' bases on balls--an' strikeouts. Why, I heard a guy say once that he'd rather see a man put out attempting' a scientific play than see him make a home run. What do you think o' tommy rot like that? He'd rather see it, maybe, but I wouldn't have it on any team o' mine, especially if runs was scarce an' we needed the money...

* Note: I'm about 80% certain that the phrase "hump themselves" had a different meaning back in 1905.

I would highly encourage reading the whole article (you can find it here, thanks to the Library of Congress). It's an off-day, so I doubt that you have anything better to do. Daley (as Haggarty) goes on to parody the hilarious lengths that coaches would go to in order to get their players to play more "scientifically."

I love that at one point, sac bunting was considered to be the height of modern baseball strategy, and that home runs were disdained. Sure, the article is talking about inside-the-park home runs (remember, this is over a decade before Babe Ruth made over-the-wall dingers cool), and I'm sure those were difficult to get. But bunting is rarely a successful strategy, as we know today. The Haggarty character is at least 75 years before his time in his hatred of excessive sacrificing. Or, apparently, a few years behind his time.

Of course, the game has changed quite a bit since 1905--back then, I would imagine that sacrificing actually made a bit more sense than it does today, given the low run-scoring environments and the difficulty of hitting home runs. The "scientific" approach was, in all likelihood, not quite so ridiculous as Haggarty makes it out to be. Still, a home run is pretty clearly much, much better than a bunt. (I don't understand Haggarty's disdain for the walk, though.)

All of this makes me wonder what the game of baseball will look like in the 22nd century. Will the traditionalists be those people who still cling to ancient concepts like wOBA and UZR? How will inevitable changes to the way the game is played affect the analysis of the game? Will sacrifices somehow come back into vogue, or will the next big thing be something that we can barely even contemplate (like a 60-homer hitter was in 1905)?

I can't answer those questions, obviously, but I can say that I am glad that baseball in 2011 is nothing like the gloomy prophecy of Haggarty above. The day of the home run hitter is not over, and sac bunts are blessedly rare. Baseball has improved quite a bit in the last 100 years. That capacity for evolution--overcoming the protests of the old guard in many cases--has kept baseball interesting and exciting when it could have easily faded into obscurity, and it should help baseball stay relevant for years to come.

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