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Friday, July 31, 2020

AUGUST 2020: THE SUMMER GAME: Baseball Returns -- Finding New Facets on the Diamond

by George Haloulakos

The long awaited return of baseball - deferred for several months due to the public health crisis - has put forth new challenges for both players and fans alike.  Since the players are plying their skills on the diamond before largely "empty" stadiums (unless you count the cardboard cutouts of people as real fans) this has renewed interest in enjoying the summer game by listening to radio broadcasts in which the "Voices of the Game" create a pastoral setting for a veritable theater of the mind rather than watching the action on TV or streaming via Internet.  This includes creating sound effects (e.g., crowd noise, the sound of the bat connecting with a pitched ball, vendors selling concessions, and so forth) that we associate when certain events occur that elicit a response from the fans "in attendance."

For people like yours truly along with my fellow Galaxy co-hosts Gilbert and Mike, following baseball by listening to radio broadcasts has been a lifetime activity.  However, with newer generations of fans who learned the nuances of the game through the use of analytics & metrics (i.e., quantitative methods based on statistical analysis & applied mathematics), the absence of live games for the current season has created yet another way to appreciate baseball from the distant past to the present.  

Baseball has long been a venue for numbers.  Consider the Topps brand of baseball cards that contain the yearly lifetime statistics for players going back a century or more.  Collectors note that Hall of Fame or veteran players with lengthy careers tend to have "microscopic" matrices of numbers telling their story while younger players or those with short careers have those same statistics but in larger font!  Whether you are an "analytics" person or one who prefers the "eye test" there is no doubt that in the context of baseball, numbers offer a compelling vehicle that transport us back in time. 

As already noted, a classic Topps baseball card will carry the entirety of a player's career (as expressed by numbers) in a neat matrix that fits neatly in your wallet or pocket.  A box score contains the entirety of a game with its universal scoring or tracking metrics.  And now, with computer power at your fingertips, one is able to reexamine games from last night, last year or the last century with a clarity that enables us to have even greater appreciation for what we have witnessed either in person, watching on TV or streaming, or having listened to a game broadcast.  This has allowed people to have new conversations about old memories and thereby create new memories that elicit the same joy that comes from following a sport that has measured the passage of time like no other in American history.

Here is an example on how analytics enable us to have even greater appreciation -- if not insight -- into this great game while perhaps creating new conversation and sparking renewed interest in what has historically been known as America's Pastime.  The World Series - where all players aspire to showcase their talent and help their team become World Champions - can now be viewed through the prism of "The Golden Pitch" - a new metric defined as being a pitch that can only be thrown in Game Seven of the World Series in the bottom of the 9th inning [or in the bottom of an extra inning] when the road team has the lead BUT the result of that pitch has the ability to win for EITHER team.  It can be viewed as a baseball equivalent of sudden-death victory / defeat.  This feat has only occurred only seven times since the 1903 World Series, with the most recent being 2014 when pitcher Madison Bumgarner turned the trick leading the San Francisco Giants to their third World Series crown in five years.  To put this into even a sharper perspective: out of the more than 50 MILLION plus pitches hurled since the first World Series in 1903, there have been no more than between 36 to 40 such Golden Pitches.

Here is where the conversation becomes even more interesting: Out of those 36 to 40 Golden Pitches, 12 of them belong to Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry (!962 World Series MVP), with ALL of them coming in Game Seven of that storied 1962 World Series in which the Yankees held on to beat the Giants.  No other pitcher -- including fellow Golden Pitchers Christy Matthewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Mariano Rivera -- even comes close to Ralph Terry.  What the analytics reveal is that an iconic moment that is a treasured memory for Yankee fans (while a heart breaker for Giants fans) is EVEN more special if not unique, thanks to the application of these metrics.  Arguably this would make Terry the best pitcher of the moment in the greatest game on the biggest stage in baseball since 1903!

While games are being deferred, rescheduled or cancelled in the midst of the ongoing public health crisis of 2020, you can use this summertime to review baseball through a different prism and relive favorite moments or continue conversations from your childhood.  On this note and just for fun, I will offer this as a conversation starter (or to be more accurate, a restarter) for those of a certain age:  Yours truly recalls the schoolyard debates regarding who was the best player, Willie Mays or Henry Aaron?  

This became especially intense when both were neck-in-neck chasing Babe Ruth's career home run record in the 1971-72 period.  In the midst of this ongoing debate I submitted for consideration the name of another transformative player - Roberto Clemente!  My reasoning was based on a very simple metric with the aid of the eye test.  Clemente was 2-time World Series Champion with the Pirates (1960 and 1971), equal to the combined total of World Series Championships won by Mays (1954) & Aaron (1957) while playing for Pirates teams that had far less talent and depth in comparison to the Giants team of Mays and the Braves team of Aaron.  So what is my current view with the passage of nearly 50 years since those schoolyard days?  With the aid of analytics, my appreciation for these three iconic, transformative players is: Mays is the BEST ALL-AROUND ball player, with Aaron as the BEST HITTER and Clemente as the MOST VALUABLE to his team (for the reasons I noted earlier).

What do you baseball fans in the Galaxy audience think?  Please share your thoughts by posting to the Galaxy FACEBOOK page (and be sure to "like" us when doing so) or via e-mail to the GNN web site.  Likewise, I am always receptive to hearing from our wonderful Galaxy audience and/or connecting via LinkedIn.
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