November 9, 2010

America’s Pastime Joins the 21st-Century

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America’s pastime, baseball, bizarrely came and went this season, almost as a ghost. The World Series became the epitome of this innocuous season, lacking any sensational, defining moment. Any hope of commercial resurrection was lost when the Yankees and the Phillies were knocked out of the playoffs, and the World Series was left to two mid-market teams.

Many Americans sadly did not watch an inning of the Fall Classic.

But this sad fact is merely the end result of a larger trend.  This past summer, as I sat for 10 weeks in an office devoted to analyzing baseball fans, I found the sport struggled from an entertainment perspective. The game had become statistically abused and over-analyzed, and is slower and less exciting than both basketball and football.

After all, the most exciting mid-summer moment transpired when Jim Joyce, an umpire, mistakenly called Jason Donald safe at first base, depriving Detroit’s Armando Galarraga of a perfect game.

I worried baseball was becoming a niche sport, with a unique, nostalgic and segmented fan base.

But maybe, at the same time, baseball is becoming ultimately more American than ever. Maybe it’s becoming hallowed out and specialized the way many of our other industries are.

I was personally excited to have the Giants and the Rangers play each other in the World Series because I thought these two teams represented the best for baseball. Here were two teams that defied the odds, and who had applied brilliant minds and unique strategies to improve their on-field performance.

Most fans might believe the Giants and the Rangers seemingly willed themselves to the World Series. After all, the Giants boasted a lineup where the biggest names were Aubrey Huff, Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria. Meanwhile Texas finished first in the American League West, but simply had not faced the likes of the Yankees often enough to remove doubt among fans, reporters and everyone else in baseball.

However, I am sure that those in the front offices of the Giants and the Rangers believed that they were destined for greatness, or at least the playoffs, despite excessive media coverage of the bigger market teams during the season. That is, of course, because there are some serious brains behind those balls.

What the Giants and the Rangers represent is the epitome of what America has become today — specialization. They both decided to specialize in areas of the baseball game that could give them a competitive advantage to make the World Series given a limited amount of resources. They also invested heavily in the most important part of any organization, senior management.

The Rangers, led by General Manager Jon Daniels ’99, a former AEM undergraduate, decided to invest in a robust farm system when he took office in 2005. With a 2010 payroll of about $64 million (about a fourth the size of the Yankees’) the Rangers certainly did not find themselves in the Fall Classic by buying up all-stars in the offseason. Rather, they acquired the league’s best pitcher, Cliff Lee (in terms of k/bb ratio during the regular season), by offering the scarce resources they had developed through their minor league system. The Rangers exchanged four prospects, one extremely promising, for the dominant Lee.

Meanwhile, the Giants, with a payroll of $40 million less than the Phillies, boasted a lineup without a batter who hit 30 homeruns or 30 stolen bases, a rarity for a World Series team. But the truth is, they had absolutely dominant pitching from both their starters and relievers. A story of how Giants “third starter” Jonathan Sanchez struck out 205 batters during the regular season somehow evaded the press, so fans simply underrated their talented arms.

For both teams, success came from using intelligence to gain a competitive advantage over larger organizations. While we can only speculate as to the formula for the Giants’ success, we do have to credit their owner, Bill Neukom, with bringing immediate success to the team. After the club won only 72 games in 2008 — polishing off four-straight losing seasons — Neukom brought two winning seasons in a row after becoming owner of the team.

But Neukom is more of a smart businessman and adept problem solver than he is a baseball aficionado. After all, the man received an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College, led Microsoft’s legal department for 17 years and served as the President of the American Bar Association for one. But who’s counting.

Neukom not only brought on-field success to the 2010 World Series champions, but also brings other innovations to the baseball industry, such as using demand-based pricing ticket methods.

But why does this matter?

It matters because Neukom is just another example of America’s meritocracy and obsession with effective business people who can apply analytical problem solving to any field — baseball had been late to adopt these methods, relying on traditional purists to run their organizations. But it appears the sport has finally caught up with the rest of the business world.

Daniels is an example of how baseball teams are seeking smarter front-office talent who can do a lot with a little.  He is one of four baseball GMs with an Ivy-league degree. He is tied with Andrew Friedman of the Toronto Blue Jays as the youngest hired-GM, at 29 years old. Lastly, he is one of only two general managers to have been hired with less than 10 years of baseball experience.

The GM’s role never used to be a specialist position, but rather, ascension to the position came from having played the game and watched the game for a long time. Today, though, the general manager is as much a quantitative analyst as he is a people manager.

Thus baseball, much like other American businesses, is no longer lead by intuition and experience, but by specialists who know what metrics to use to create a comparative advantage to win. This story may be sad for baseball traditionalists, and may take a part of the heart of the game away, but baseball is changing the same way America has been changing.

Mathew Sevin is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be contacted at msevin@cornellsun.com. You Wanted a Hit appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Mathew Sevin