Back in December, Eno polled a number of front-office executives with questions regarding the changing nature of the game.
It was the perfect time for such a survey, as the game is evolving rapidly in many areas: in swing plane, bullpen usage, and even (maybe) the composition of the ball itself. The depth and volume of data have changed. The game has always undergone transformation, but rarely at this pace — and, really, it’s a universal phenomenon across many industries in this age of rapidly advancing information and technology.
But it was one comment Eno extracted — one unrelated to swings or home runs or fastball velocity or breaking-ball usage — that stuck with me:
One source felt that this mode of analysis was so pervasive that it ended up changing the way we digest baseball, even more than just changing the game itself.
“I do think there’s been a fairly extreme shift in the makeup of front offices and even media coverage,” said the higher-up. “The general framework of a lot of conversations about the game has really changed. Roster-building is a year-round sport, and it does tend to feel at times like we’re all a part of some meta theater that’s somewhat loosely attached to dudes playing on a field. The focus of what it means to be a fan or follow a team has shifted at least somewhat from simply knowing the players and what happened in games toward some bigger picture perspective that accounts for assets in the farm system, where you are on the win curve, and how efficiently resources are being utilized.”
That one reads FanGraphs.
The way we consume the sport has changed. This very website is evidence of that. We typically allocate fewer words to the daily box scores here at FanGraphs than we do, say, a large transaction.
Many fans love to play general manager. There are those among the public, certainly, who believe they could run a team more effectively than certain front offices. That’s always been the case, of course.
What’s changed, though, is the information available to those would-be GMs. We’ve reached a point where the collective knowledge of the public — expressed most purely in the form of crowdsourced contract projections — is adequate for placing valuations on players. And it seems that transactions, the movement of pieces around the proverbial chess board, have become more interesting for some than the game itself.
The consequence of this interest is that the offseason becomes anything but an “off” period for the sport, but rather a soap opera of deals and possible deals. In itself, there’s probably nothing wrong with that. But what happens when nothing happens in the offseason? What about when, outside of the Brewers’ eventful Thursday last week, this offseason happens? If it represents the new normal, the current winter is probably not a great development for Major League Baseball.
This post was inspired by a question in last Monday’s chat:
Perhaps it’s not a significant issue. But nothing happening seems problematic at some level if there is indeed a sea change in how teams value free agency, and if teams have really learned how to wait out free agents. February signings will increase for a fourth straight offseason this winter, will perhaps set some sort of record. March might be becoming the new February.
While next year’s free-agent class might make us forget about the winter, that class is also a historical outlier in terms of its star power and relative youth. The bigger-picture trend — that is, of deals being signed later and later into the offseason — could continue unless the players negotiate significant changes to the CBA. Of course, the worst possible outcome for the sport would be future labor unrest.
If these slowly developing offseasons continue, that could be trouble for the game.
The peak of the offseason, from November until the opening of spring-training camps, should be a time when baseball’s dead air is filled with news and analysis of transactions. While you could argue that the slow burn of baseball free agency builds interest in a way that the quicker free-agent processes of the NFL and NBA doesn’t, it can be argued that a more predictable period of activity would best serve the sport. Certainly, something happening in the offseason would be ideal. On the cusp of February, only nine of our top 20 (and 22 of top 50) free agents have signed.
Periods of nothingness only serve to create a vacuum for the sport — one that’s been filled, this offseason, by suspicions of collusion and speculation of future labor unrest. Maybe filling in the offseason with more activity is a minor, short-term issue, but the offseason is a time for maximizing fan/customer engagement. It is in the sport’s interest to make the offseason newsy and entertaining, to have year-round relevance.
A lot people in and around the baseball industry, writers included, note that there is no offseason. We pride ourselves on this not being seasonal work, but rather a year-round endeavor. Well, we’ve had an offseason this winter.