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Billy Beane would let ‘Jeopardy!’ champ James Holzhauer ‘ruin’ baseball

TV Jeopardy Champ

“Jeopardy!” sensation James Holzhauer speaks after being presented with a key to the Las Vegas Strip in front of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign in Las Vegas, Thursday, May 2, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)


Recently, record-breaking “Jeopardy!” champ James Holzhauer said that his real dream was to work in a Major League Baseball front office.

He loves baseball, of course, but as anyone who is aware of the way Holzhauer has applied an analytical framework and strategy to the popular gameshow is aware, there is a certain logic to that separate and apart from a love for the game. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he has, for lack of a better term, hacked “Jeopardy!” and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the modern baseball front office is largely in the business of hacking baseball, with each trying to get the most out of it they possibly can.

Holzhauer’s comment has sparked a number of baseball-related stories about him. Today Dave Shenin of the Washington Post has a story in which he asked several front office executives, including Oakland A’s president Billy Beane -- the first well-known analytical hacker of baseball -- if they’d hire Holzhauer: Beane:

“My first thought when I saw him was: We have to get this guy in baseball.”

It could happen I suppose. The guy is smart and his background in sports gambling is likely pretty applicable to various tasks in a big league front office. It’d be a heck of a pay cut for him -- front offices pay everyone except the top guys peanuts -- but he’s not exactly hurting for money either so maybe he’ll happily do it for the fun of it all.

The bigger part of the story, though, is the conceptual piece: is Holzhauer, as many people say -- my mom, a devoted 35-year “Jeopardy!” watcher who is turned off by his playing style included -- “ruining” “Jeopardy!” And, given his affinity for analytically-oriented baseball, is it safe to say that Beane and his acolytes in the game have “ruined” baseball?

We’ve had this debate many times around here. On the one hand, baseball is there for the analyzing and simply making smart observations and applying them to the game is not out of bounds, right? On the other hand, it’s possible to optimize a team’s roster and playing style in a way that makes the product less-than aesthetically pleasing. On the third hand, hey, front offices are hired to win baseball games so why should they care what happens aesthetically? And, hey again, baseball revenues are soaring, so if you’re complaining, maybe you’re the one who’s wrong?

The same can be applied to the “Jeopardy!” guy too. My mom, again, a woman whose devotion to “Jeopardy!” is extraordinarily hard to overstate, told me the other day that she was taking a break from the show for a while because it’s no fun to watch Holzhauer dominate everyone. She appreciates his skill and intellect, and does not begrudge him doing what he can to rack up wins and rake in dollars, but it’s just not enjoyable for her. For his part, Holzhauer has his own retort, similar to the revenue argument in baseball, correctly noting that the ratings for “Jeopardy!” are up during his winning streak. “There’s definitely some people who don’t like the product they’re seeing on screen right now,” he tells Shenin, “but I don’t think the producers are complaining.”

When it comes to baseball and revenues, I typically observe that the problem is that, in recent years, the money is coming in from sources that aren’t as dependent upon winning games and fan interest as it used to be. Corporate sponsorships, long term TV deals and side businesses pay the way for the most part. As a result, I’ve asked, is there not a danger implicit in the new way of thinking? Specifically, if fan interest is not as important as it once was, what happens if the financial model shifts and the game which has spent many years alienating fans with aesthetically-unpleasing baseball needs to get them back?

With “Jeopardy!” it’s possibly same: maybe the ratings are up, but how much of that is based on people tuning in out of Holzhauer-specific curiosity? How many are hate-watching, hoping someone will beat him? Will those people still be around when he’s gone? Will my mom come back when he’s gone or will she have found something else to do at 7PM each evening?

I don’t know the answer to those questions. But I also don’t think the people in power are thinking too hard about them. Here’s Beane’s final quote about the matter:

“It’s the same thing [Holzhauer] is doing: It’s bringing order to something that’s inherently chaotic. If he’s ruining Jeopardy, and if we ruined baseball, then ruin away.”

Thats all well and good, I suppose, assuming nothing changes.
Follow @craigcalcaterra