Stepping into the Box

Pitchers and catchers report to camps this week, and while overaged futility infielders 14 years removed from shoulder surgery have a few more days before going on the clock, here I am, too. For those unfamiliar, I’m Jay Jaffe, FanGraphs’ newest senior writer. I’ve spent the past 11-ish years writing about baseball full time, first for Baseball Prospectus and then Sports Illustrated, with a pit stop at the lamentably late Pinstriped Bible and, this past summer, a book called The Cooperstown Casebook.

At any given time, there are only a few hundred people who get to write about baseball for a living. In that regard, as in so many others, I’m a very lucky person. Luck is the residue of design, as Branch Rickey famously said long before I came along. (While old enough to be disqualified from prospect lists, I’m not that old). It’s a mantra I’ve repeated for decades.

I didn’t rise through the ranks of traditional baseball coverage; instead, as a biology major-turned-graphic-designer who one moonlit evening in mid-2001 decided that the world simply couldn’t live without my opinions about baseball, I started up The Futility Infielder. Thanks to some exhaustive coverage of the Hall of Fame balloting — a renewable wellspring I somehow had the good fortune to stumble across — I came to the attention of Baseball Prospectus a couple years later. After creating a catchy (and surprisingly enduring) metric for Hall fitness, I began a long run at BP, gradually transitioning out of the design world and into full-time writing. In May 2012, SI hired me to start up their new daily baseball blog, where I was free to apply the kind of analysis that I’d had been doing in parallel to so many other statheads, this time via a mainstream platform.

Recall that this was a time when “The War on WAR” was still in its early stages. Advanced statistics (or sabermetrics, analytics, what have you) had barely begun to enter mainstream arguments regarding Hall of Fame voting and the annual BBWAA awards. Cabrera v. Trout was still five months away. Five years, eight months, and 1,862 articles of mine later, analytics (or advanced statistics, sabermetrics, again, pick your term) may not be everywhere, but they’re not out of place within the mainstream media, and their impact has certainly been felt in major-league dugouts and front offices, not always for the better. If this particular war has been won, at what cost?

On the field, the analytic-driven emphasis on the three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks, and home runs) has helped to create a version of baseball with a worrisome dearth of action. Once upon a time, we hailed the Three True Outcome heroes for their combination of patience and punch while tolerating a fair bit of swing-and-miss. In 2017, however — a year in which major leaguers both struck out and homered at record rates — more than one-third of all plate appearances ended without a ball in play for the first time ever.

Whether by focusing on optimal launch angles, taking advantage of juiced baseballs, or some combination of those factors and others, a record 117 players hit at least 20 homers last year, or one for nearly every two full-time lineup slots — so many as to render the milestone almost meaningless. Meanwhile, the rate of stolen-base attempts reached its lowest point of the past half-century, removing one of the most exciting (if not necessarily most effective) elements of the game. And where we once stressed the importance of platoon advantages, sounded the alarm bells about pitch counts, and worried about times through the order, now we have an endless parades of relief specialists producing enough strikeouts to power a sizable wind farm. Bullpens have grown so large that pitchers occupy more than half of all roster spots, benches are nearly as barren as they were in the 19th century, and games are getting longer with the increased number of mound visits and pitching changes.

Off the field, the emphasis on optimization, efficiency, dollars per win, aging curves, the dangers of signing over-30 free agents, and a fear of landing in the middle — not good enough to compete for a playoff spot, not bad enough to net a top draft pick — has produced cookie-cutter front offices that, at the very least, lack diversity and appear to be guilty of groupthink.

The stasis of this particular winter, with an unprecedented February glut of free agents, has produced allegations of collusion as well as heated rhetoric from the union, agents, and the commissioner’s office. Perhaps it’s simply a perfect storm involving a poorly negotiated (from the players’ perspective) collective bargaining agreement, a whopper of a 2018 free-agent class on the heels of a couple unimpressive ones, and a wave of simultaneously rebuilding teams. Or maybe all of this greasy stat stuff has broken baseball, producing a vast disconnect between its record-setting revenues and the quality of the product.

We all have our theories about how we arrived at this point, and as I’ve undertaken this change of scenery, I’ve wondered about my place in emphasizing so much of this stuff, for so long and with so much fervor. Have I, in my own small part of the grand scheme, helped to cause these problems? I’m 110% dead certain that a clutch of angry Twitter eggs whom I’ve long since muted or blocked would say yes. I’m 98% certain that, for the purposes of this little introduction, I’m giving myself too much credit for changing anybody’s mind, at least about something besides Hall of Fame voting.

It’s my job to write about baseball full time, and a vital part of the job description is to ask questions — not only of others but of myself. That’s part of what I’ll be doing here, perhaps not in immediately explicit ways, but as I settle into my new home and adjust to a new audience, I’ll be thinking about such stuff. The search for smarter baseball is a worthwhile one, but smarter baseball shouldn’t mean less entertaining baseball. And on some level, the search ought to be entertaining as well.

I’m excited to enter this new home and reach new readers. In my days at BP, the rivalry with FanGraphs often felt like a heated one because both sites were competing for a much smaller audience of analytically minded readers. More than half a decade later — half a decade of continually positive interactions with anyone representing FanGraphs, from David Appelman on down, I might add — it’s quite clear that this isn’t a zero-sum game. Both sites, and many other like-minded writers, have played a part in growing the audience for this kind of writing. As we keep growing that audience, we have a responsibility to keep growing our own minds, our own understanding of the game.

I’m honored to join the staff of FanGraphs, and at the same time, I’ll admit to feeling a little daunted by the responsibility of living up to the high standards that folks such as Jeff Sullivan, Travis Sawchik, the now-departed Dave Cameron and Eno Sarris, and so many others have set. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of this weird winter in which there’s been a dearth of fun to write about, as opposed to low-ball offers, labor issues, union rhetoric, and revenue trends, but as I sat down to write this, the blinking cursor looked more intimidating to me than it has in a very long time. I don’t recall feeling that way when I joined BP or SI, and I know it didn’t feel that way once I knuckled down to begin the Casebook.

Call it a case of batter’s box butterflies, wanting to impress my new teammates and fans but knowing deep down that the best way to do it isn’t by trying in vain to summon light-tower power. It’s simply by connecting — with the ball and with you, the reader. I’m looking forward to it.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Tom Rite
6 years ago

It’s great to have you here.

6 years ago
Reply to  Tom Rite

Holy shit was that well written