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August 9, 2018

Inside Baseball: Instinctive Player Says Data Makes Baseball (More) ‘Boring’

Jayson Werth, the Jeramiah Johnson of baseball, usually did things his own way during a long and distinguished career that ended abruptly—and for now—in June. Werth decided to hang ‘em up after “tweaking” his hamstring during a minor league stint as he was awaiting a call-up back to the big leagues with his new team, the Seattle Mariners. After the injury, the big club told him to rehab in the minors. Werth, who said he’d at least convinced himself he could still play the game, chose instead to retire.

Werth, a member of the 2008 World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies, later led the emergence of their division rivals, the Washington Nationals. He became an immediate clubhouse leader in DC, a player who had “won a ring,” among the hardest things to do in professional sports—that and hitting a major league curve ball.

Werth did both, and then some, so when he spoke on a Philadelphia sports talk radio station the other day, the sportswriters took note. Among the instinctive ballplayer’s assessments after an illustrious 16-year career was a full-throated condemnation of the role of big data in sports:

“They’ve got all these super nerds, as I call them, in the front office that know nothing about baseball but they like to project numbers and project players,” Werth told the Howard Erskin Podcast on WIP 94 Sports Radio.

“I think it’s killing the game,” Werth continued as he rounded first base on his rant. “It’s to the point where just put computers out there. Just put laptops and what have you, just put them out there and let them play. We don’t even need to go out there anymore. It’s a joke….”

Heading for home, Werth continued: “When they come down, these kids from MIT, or Stanford, or Harvard, wherever they’re from, they’ve never played baseball in their life. When they come down to talk about stuff like [shifts], should I just bunt it over there? They’re like, ‘No, don’t do that. We don’t want you to do that. We want you to hit a homer.’ It’s just not baseball to me. We’re creating something that’s not fun to watch. It’s boring. You’re turning players into robots.”

Crossing home plate, the slugger and outfielder summed up his unvarnished assessment of what has come to be known as Sabermetrics: “They’ve taken the human element out of the game.”

Aha! A valid point. Where amid all those stats does it tell a ballplayer when to go first-to-third with less than two outs (a cardinal sin if you’re thrown out at third base)? It’s mostly instinct, the honing of one’s craft, understanding situations and turning points in a ball game, then doing the right thing in the right way. Sabermetrics can’t account for that.

Certainly the “super nerds” are useful at stocking rosters with guys like Werth who put the ball in play, make something happen, increase the chances of “moving the runner,” scoring runs, winning games, making the playoffs, giving fans hope. Ultimately, filling the seats at the ballpark.

Where Werth has it wrong is the old canard that baseball is boring. In fact, the slow pace of the game is one of its best features (despite what my son says….). It allows spectators to interact between pitches–although I notice a lot more fans sitting in the good seats behind home plate staring at their phones.

It’s also the game that gave us one of the great sports nicknames of all time: The Human Rain Delay.

Werth always played the game right: He understood situations and what was required of him. His walk-off homerun during the 2012 league playoffs remains among the sole highlights for the Washington club. At that moment, Werth may have felt that rarest of rare moments for a professional athlete when bat meets ball at precisely the right spot—the elusive sweet spot—and the hitter senses hardly a vibration as the ball jumps off the ash.

Baseball is awash in stats, and the “super nerds” will continue to crunch the numbers because, after all, professional sports is a business. It’s also entertainment, not to be taken too seriously. It’s guys like Jayson Werth who make it compelling to watch—even if it is boring.

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