MLB: What Happened To Baseball’s Human Element?

The statistical wave has taken over MLB, but why does it seem like many people have abandoned the all so important human element?

As MLB has progressed into a new era of sabermetrics and statistics, a consistent topic of debate is the traditional eye test and the human element in baseball vs. the new school approach; predominantly used on computers and calculators.

The sabermetric age took the baseball world by storm nearly two decades ago, and the outlook on the game as a whole has forever been altered. With the growth of technology and expansion of knowledge limitations, every major league team has caught on to the “Moneyball” strategy originally coined by the Oakland A’s. 

At first, the penny-pinching, number-crunching method was a way for smaller market teams to essentially level the playing field against big money sharks like the Dodgers, Red Sox, and most notoriously, the New York Yankees. However, the big market clubs have caught on and put their resources towards the best analytic experts, technologically advanced professionals, and forward-thinking baseball minds. With those teams on board, the entire sport has been overturned and forced to look at these confusing, yet extremely helpful developmental numbers.

The evolution of the game is one to surely be excited about, as it is a way for the players to boost their play with cold-hard evidence of what is working for them and what is not. The video technology and data recordings are astonishingly advanced and players nowadays love it. New Yankees Ace Gerrit Cole has made no secret of his admiration for the ability to review his video, improve his spin rate, and especially figuring out sequencing by analyzing patterns. Also new to the Yankees, pitching coach Matt Blake is a seasoned pro at obtaining this complex information and relaying it to players. But perhaps in that is where the problem exists.

Before all of the analytics and advanced technology, scouts, coaches, and front-office executives relied on the good old eye test to determine a player’s skill set. Surely this method is outdated and irresponsible with so many resources available, but a sudden Unhinged writer’s room debate forced the question into my mind…is the human element of MLB being overlooked in this new era of numbers?

An organization has a rather extensive process before deciding to trade for a player, sign a free agent, or draft a high school/college player. The vetting done prior to bringing someone into an organization is a natural sequence that reveals that organizational fit and character still account for the value that a player will bring to an MLB organization. 

So what about on the field? Are nerves, confidence, home-field advantage, pre-game prep, adrenaline, experience, and off-the-field distractions deemed non-factors now that we have several feet in the door to the numbers game? It’s hard to imagine so. It’s more likely that the overwhelming consumption of statistics has blinded many fans and even some in the game from the other aspect to one of the most mental sports in the world. I believe Yankee legend Yogi Berra may have mentioned something about it once or twice.

If you ask any big leaguer or high-level baseball player, they will absolutely tell you they would love access to as much analytics as you can get your hands on. But they will also tell you that the game of baseball is played in your head far before you step on the field. A player’s value cannot be determined solely by a collection of numbers, and perhaps it isn’t as explainable as statistical patterns and probabilities.

It is, however, the basis of the game that was developed far before an iPad could tell a pitcher his elbow was too low. That basis is the human element. It is why there are four human men in black shirts and grey pants calling balls & strikes, safe or out, two human men in either dugout who write the lineup cards, tens of thousands of human fans every night at a game… besides at Tropicana Field, more like a couple thousand…Yankee fans… influencing their player’s confidence and the opponent’s nerves, and 10 human men out on the field at a time playing the game out. If baseball’s human element was truly irrelevant, the games would surely be played out electronically and cost around $60 bucks while being titled, “MLB: The Show.”

Fortunately, the human element is still alive and well in the game. The raw emotion, the ups and downs during a long season, the ever so often and inevitable mistakes by players, managers and umpires, the passion, the anxiousness and the excitement every ballplayer shared as a young kid every time they step out on the field. That’s what baseball is truly about at its core. Analytics are here to enhance that experience. Not replace it.

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