Baseball has become a numbers game.
Scratch that — Major League Baseball has become a numbers game. The sport may be played on a diamond with four bases, nine players in the field and one in the batter’s box just like it is in every local Little League and all around the world, but make no mistake: There is another game at play here.
Just ask the players themselves. Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman entered the league in 2005 and has since achieved the pinnacle achievement of the game: winning the World Series. As one of the team’s clubhouse leaders and its everyday first baseman in the playoffs, Zimmerman saw the franchise that for years couldn’t get past the first round finally win its first championship in 2019.
The Nationals faced the Houston Astros in that Fall Classic. The Astros, not yet vilified for the cheating scandal that helped it win a title in 2017, were heralded as one of the finest examples of how a sabermetric approach could translate to on-field success. Washington, though still well-versed in analytics from top to bottom, stressed scouting and team chemistry as equally important factors.
Zimmerman joined Mark Zuckerman and Al Galdi on the Nats Chat podcast published Thursday and talked about how the Nationals’ approach ultimately won out.
“I think baseball is one of the greatest sports because…you could not be the best athlete on the field and you could be a really good baseball player and people don’t know why you’re a good baseball player,” Zimmerman said. “I think that was one of the things with our 2019 team was we were the oldest team, we didn’t have a lot of the greatest numbers — obviously our pitching was great but you can’t put veteran leadership or experience or that kind of stuff into an algorithm and I think that has become so discounted in our game.
“A lot of these teams that use the analytics, they go younger, they platoon a lot of guys and it’s successful. You’re not gonna say the Tampa Bay Rays haven’t been successful, but they also haven’t won the World Series either. So I think it can get you to a certain extent and then to get over that hump or to really win it, you have to have obviously superstar players and I think you have to have team chemistry and you need veteran leadership and clubhouse guys to do that.”
The Rays represented the American League in last fall’s World Series, losing to the juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers in six games. No one has more of a reputation for playing the numbers game than the Rays, who drew the ire of many fans in the decisive Game 6 when manager Kevin Cash pulled starter Blake Snell in favor of a hard-throwing reliever. Snell was dealing, but the numbers said to take him out. The Dodgers immediately made Tampa Bay pay for it and went on to win the game and the Series.
Of the 44 players to appear on the Rays’ roster in 2020, only six were over the age of 30. The 2019 Nationals had 19 such players. That’s not to say Tampa Bay was short on clubhouse chemistry. Players such as Randy Arozarena and Ji-Man Choi endeared themselves to their teammates with their energy and outgoing personalities. But the Nationals, a team that had a relaxed and fun-loving clubhouse in its own right, relied on a large group of veteran leaders to guide the team toward its championship.
Zimmerman understand the numbers game. He has an appreciation for it too. He just doesn’t think it should dictate how a team is built as much as most front offices do.
“I think analytics have a place,” Zimmerman said. “I think analytics are also great excuses for people who don’t wanna take responsibility for what they do. The computer can say whatever you want it to say. So I think there is a place. I think analytics are useful. You can use numbers to your advantage, you can use numbers to your disadvantage, you can also make numbers say whatever you wanna say.”