Baseball is back - and teams can't rely on tried-and-trusted tenets to claim World Series

Baseball is back and after a weekend where every fan had optimism, the season slog now begins.
Los Angeles Angels' Justin Upton, right, is hit by a pitch from Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Aaron Bummer.Los Angeles Angels' Justin Upton, right, is hit by a pitch from Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Aaron Bummer.
Los Angeles Angels' Justin Upton, right, is hit by a pitch from Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Aaron Bummer.

For fans of other sports, particularly football here in the UK, it is hard to imagine a team losing 65 games and still winning a championship. However, that's the reality of baseball.

A season that spans 162 games in 185 days, losing five matches in a row – while frustrating – doesn't mean your season is over, but that's both the joy and torment of baseball.

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Of course, baseball goes through peaks and troughs of popularity in Britain and the difficulty of finding time to watch so many games while getting used to the intricacies can be off-putting. After all, isn't it just expensive rounders?

My love affair with baseball started back in the mid-90s when I spent an evening watching my first game as a teenager on holiday in Florida.

That game was St Louis Cardinals vs Florida Marlins in August 1997. In that game, Mark McGwire hit two home runs – the first in the third inning was a monster hit to the upper deck of left field.

I was hooked and watching that baseball travel was the moment I fell in love with the idea of watching adults play "rounders".

Luckily for me, the then-recent launch of Channel 5 in the UK gave me a place to watch baseball and helped me tutor myself in the minutiae of the game, learning the most important rule: a home run is fun, but not the sole goal of an at-bat.

Like all sports, baseball is ever-evolving.

In 2003, Michael Lewis brought sabermetrics into the light with his book Moneyball, the story of how the traditionally underfunded Oakland A's were competing with the big-spending teams.

Moneyball broke down barriers as managers were challenged to look beyond the "five tools" and understand the value of a player getting on base, taking pitches and advancing runners.

Once the cat was out of the bag, big-spending teams applied Moneyball and the A's were once again looking for a field leveller.

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The next evolution of sabermetrics, currently in full swing with Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs, raved about launch angle and exit velocity.

Launch angle was discussed way back in the 70s, but it found traction again as players sought to hit the long ball, while concerns about strikeouts diminished with players taking big swings on every play.

In the last four seasons, the strikeout rate in baseball has jumped nearly 15 per cent as players have focused on getting big hits, correcting their swing and ensuring the ball exits the bat at the right angle, anywhere between 13° and 20°, and the right speed.

Teams and coaches place different values on the stats, and as such, each outfit has a style they play, but the real question is just how practical are all these analytics.

The Red Sox are a positive example. They have won four World Series after 86 years without one. They applied analytics, worked with a budget and managed to get title wins, despite getting caught up in a cheating scandal.

But for their demonstration of success, there are significantly more teams that have invested heavily and not reaped the rewards.

Oakland would be the prime example. Since 2012, the A's have operated with the smallest budget in baseball but still managed four seasons with 90-plus wins, not including last years shortened season, which projected at 100-plus wins.

Yet, during that time, they have never won a World Series.

Unlike Oakland, the New York Yankees regularly top the salary spending in baseball and have also applied sabermetrics to their roster build. The Yankees have also had four seasons with 90-plus wins, two of those being 100-plus, but haven't won a World Series since 2009.

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So here's my point. Home runs make the game attractive to newcomers, and sabermetrics will get you so far. But more and more teams are finding out, building your team one way won't win you a World Series.

If you want to win in baseball, you need to find a balance because all the stats reset to zero in the post-season and the team with the hottest bats win.

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