New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, disirregardless of his political stripe -- and such categorizations are pointless anyway -- is a fine thinker and writer, and so I was please to learn last week that he knows a lot about baseball, too.
The occasion: Douthat was pointing out a column by a political writer who's apparently becoming a baseball writer -- you know, because we don't have enough of those already -- in which said new baseball writer argues that baseball is currently in the midst of a Golden Age. I basically agree, and so does Douthat.
However, Douthat does offer a few caveats, which I shall summarize:
1. Drugs have soiled the game, leading us to automatically question big power hitters.
2. Sabermetrics is leading to more Three True Outcomes, which makes for boring baseball.
3. The extra round of playoff games is the worst thing since Communism.
No. 1 doesn't bother me a whole lot, and (as Douthat admits) the jury's still out on No. 3. But I would like to discuss No. 2, because I think Douthat's both wrong and right about that.
I do think he's right about walks and strikeouts. To this point, it's not really a business argument, as it would be really hard (I think) to prove that fans are unhappy about the dramatic rise in Three True Outcomes, which is really just a dramatic rise in strikeouts (walks and home runs aren't today particularly common, relative to history). So far, this is more about taste, about aesthetics. Douthat and I would prefer to see fewer strikeouts and more grounders, fewer homers and more steals. We might also prefer to see fewer pitching changes, too. But I digress.
Where I will argue with Douthat is about sabermetrics, which I suspect have very little to do with all the strikeouts. The vast majority of players don't care about sabermetrics, and it's the players who are driving the strikeouts. It's hard to say exactly why strikeouts are soaring, but I'm pretty sure they would soaring if Bill James had never been born. Baseball statistics were fluctuating for a long time before Moneyball was a bestseller. I suppose you might argue that the growth of sabermetrics has led to more teams tolerating players who rack up a lot of strikeouts, but it's not like anybody's actively encouraging strikeouts.
I think all these Three True Outcomes -- and again, the only real change is all the strikeouts -- would probably have happened without modern statistical analysis, though maybe not to quite the same degree. Maybe.