The Opening Bell

Rian Watt will now be contributing regularly to FanGraphs. This represents his opening salvo for the site.

I read last week that 100% of the S&P 500’s gains over the last quarter-century have come between 4:00 pm and 9:30 am, Eastern Standard Time. These are the hours during which the market is closed. For the last 25 years, in other words, you would likely have been better off buying at close and selling at open every day than bothering one bit about trading stocks outside those times.

This fact astonished me.

It also caused me to wonder who the heck would learn such a thing and draw from it the conclusion, as the New York Times did, that a sensible thing to do in response would be to sell at open and buy at close every day, and trade no further. This is partially because I have a natural skepticism of any market advice that involves participating in the market in the first place.

But it is also because it seems to me that, if you’re going to play the stock market, you might as well play during the day time, when everyone else is playing, too. The other way might make you money more surely and in larger quantities, but it’s also tremendously boring and does little to liven up the interval between when you’re born and when you die. So why bother at all?

I’ve been writing about baseball for three years now, at The Athletic, at Baseball Prospectus, at FiveThirtyEight, at VICE — and, as of today, at FanGraphs. That isn’t a very long time, really, but it’s long enough to make you think you’ve understood whether you’re part of the problem or not. Until this offseason, I didn’t think that I was part of the problem. I now think that I am.

In the three years I’ve been doing this, I’ve written plenty of articles that have praised teams for taking the long view — for trading two wins now for 10 later; for properly understanding their place on the win curve; for locking up young players on the cheap; for getting a good bargain on dollars per win. I’ve written plenty of articles that have praised teams for being very clever.

Too clever by half. It’s possible that some of the slowness of this offseason to date has come from a small handful of teams simply being unwilling to spend and using the powerful legacy of honest-to-God rebuilds in Houston and Chicago to cover for plain and simple grift. But more of it, I think, has come from a sort of mass intellectual narrowing that has captured, to one extent or another, even the 20 or so teams that are, actually, trying to win.

The dominant orthodoxy rests on three tenets I’ve slowly come to view as noxious:

  • That a win in the future is worth some large share of a win in the present;
  • That acquiring a good deal is better (or at least more defensible) than acquiring a good player; and
  • That baseball is a game primarily for and by the general managers, and not for the fans or for the players.

Look, I get it. I’ve thought those thoughts. I’m the guy who reads process stories for fun. (I write them, too.) I’m the guy whose copy of Moneyball fell apart from use, who got an Econ degree and wrote for Nate Silver. I’m the guy who’s been reading this site for years, and I value cleverness and smarts and marginalism, too.

But folks, we only have so long to live. The closing bell isn’t that many hours away. You’ve already come to understand that, like me, you’ve somehow been condemned to spend some substantial portion of your life caring about this stupid game with the dirt and the bat and the ball with 108 tight stitches of bright red thread gleaming against immaculate white leather.

Wouldn’t you rather watch Aaron Judge hit the everloving shit out of that glittering ball than watch his balding boss, back in the luxury suite, push some paper around? Don’t you do enough paperwork already? Isn’t it time to ditch the marginal and chase the absolute? It sounds, frankly, a lot more fun than the game we have now.

Even the best teams — the teams that are both good and trying to win — suffered from an overabundance of cleverness that led them to believe that somehow $125 million or thereabouts was a good price for Yu Darvish, but $175 million guaranteed was extreme to the extent that it pushed them to the brink of spring baseball without putting his name on a dotted line.

That’s insanity. Pretty much every MLB team could have signed Darvish for $175 million, been better in an instant, and still kept peanut prices exactly where they were. But none of them did it, perhaps in part because one graphed line met another somewhere around age 35 and they together suggested that a combination of Alex Cobb and half a backup catcher might return more value per dollar spent.

But wouldn’t you rather have watched Darvish pitch for your team in 2018 than whoever it is you have as fifth starter now? Sure, he’ll be worse in a few years than he is today. After that he’ll be dead. But maybe in the middle of all of that overpay he’d have won some ballgames for you and yours and give you just a few moments of transcendence along the way. Why do you watch this game?

I don’t know what the game wants that answer to be. As it is, this offseason has left fans considering for entertainment — instead of baseball played on a field under sunshine and on green grass — some half-acknowledged vaudeville of 10-dimensional chess played out in imaginary futures, where each year brings with it a new cast of contenders. The prospect of a 30-team competition for a title in the children’s game has all but vanished — and with it, I think, a great deal of the fun.

You may be reading this and thinking, “Well, yes. But so what?” (You might also think I’m an idiot, but I hope not.) The “so what” is this: I’ve spent too much of the last three years valorizing losing in order to win and praising teams for making marginal improvements when wholesale advances were appropriate. Some of it has been good writing, but too much of it has been far too incautious.

As I start this new chapter at FanGraphs, I’d like to change that — to reexamine the way I write about teams and what they do, and the frames I use to judge them. I’m honored and delighted to join this wonderful community of writers and readers (I was one of you for a very long time), and I am confident that spending time with you will make me a better thinker and analyst. Perhaps it’ll even provide some moments of interest for you, too…

For now, here we are, just a few short weeks away from beginning again. Life is too often lived balanced on the edge of a knife, in moments far too precarious to allow us the time to gather our footing and swing for the fences. But baseball doesn’t have to be played that way. Enough. The opening bell is about to ring. Wouldn’t you rather all 30 teams be out there going for broke?

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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6 years ago

Welcome to the site. Good that fangraphs got one back from the athletic:).

6 years ago
Reply to  Dominikk85

This is the article I’ll have in mind when I let my membership lapse.

I don’t mean that as an attack on the author, who I commend for engaging with readers below. Nor as a disparagement of his approach to baseball – there are an infinite number of ways to enjoy the sport, and I’m glad he has found one that works for him – but it’s just not for me.

More specifically, it strikes me as undifferentiated from the overwhelming majority of sports content I can find online, and that’s not what I have come to FanGraphs for.

“Who cares where you are on the win curve?” and “Chicks dig the long ball!” are obviously perfectly valid perspectives – but they are ubiquitous. An angle that I can get from ESPN, or Yahoo Sports, or a seemingly infinite breadth of sites across the internet. Heck, I could go back and read old Mike Lupica and Dan Shaughnessy articles (or new ones, if they are still alive and writing about baseball).

I personally love baseball both on the field AND off the field; I enjoy thinking about a franchise over the long term – including things like the allocation of finite resources, player value versus player cost, etc. And from a less wonky angle, as a fan I DON’T want my team to “just go for it” every year. I appreciate that moving from 77 wins to 81 wins doesn’t increase my enjoyment of the game if it comes at the cost of a move from 84 to 89 wins next year.

For a long time, FanGraphs has been a great place to read about the sport from that analytical angle. That is clearly changing. I had been thinking that some of the recent articles were just frustrated, overwrought responses to a slow off-season. But this is different; this is an explicit choice to hire a writer whose first article, to me, turns away from what I have enjoyed most about the site.

I don’t mean for this to sound petty, and from the comments and votes below, it appears I may be in the minority. That’s good; I hope the people who work here find success and the remaining readers find enjoyment. In the same way I don’t begrudge a franchise owner who runs his/her team to maximize long-term success, I don’t begrudge Appelman if this is what he has to do to maximize ad revenue. Online content publishing is a brutally tough business, and maybe the previous content has proven too nichey and a more boilerplate approach is the answer financially. But I’ll just make one tiny vote with my wallet and look to dedicate my support elsewhere.

The internet is a hydra, and in the same way that FanGraphs’ audience may have initially sprung from what Baseball Prospectus became in the first few years post Nate Silver, I am hopeful this post-Cameron FanGraphs may ultimately open an outlet elsewhere for analytically-inclined authors to flourish.

Until then – So long, and thanks for all the fWAR.

6 years ago
Reply to  DBA455

I definitely agree with DBA455, as a fan of a team that has routinely “gone for broke” by trading every prospect for better major league talent (My Seattle Mariners!). I’d rather get GM (or maybe ownership) who have a long term vision for the team.

PS Except it makes no logical sense for the M’s to have traded away all their minor league talent and then not sign a SP this season.

Rational Fanmember
6 years ago
Reply to  DBA455


It’s his opening piece and no where does he say to ignore analytics. You’re done supporting the site because in his opening piece he talks about baseball finding a balance between viewing players as long term investments as well as short term returns?

Dieter Von Wolfhausenmember
6 years ago
Reply to  DBA455

Reactionary much? This is his welcome post. Don’t worry FG, I’ll become a member in place of this drama queen.

6 years ago
Reply to  DBA455

Me too.