Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fighting Sexism with Sabermetrics: A Proposal

Baseball is a sexist game. If you don't believe me, try explaining to my ten-year-old daughter why there are no women players in the major leagues. Or why girls interested in baseball have to play another game, with a larger ball, and they have to pitch underhanded.

"Daddy, this isn't baseball..."
But that’s not news. The news in baseball, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is a bunch of new statistics. Batting average and ERA are no longer seen as useful measures of a player’s performance on the field. Instead, we have new acronyms like OBP, WHIP, and the all-knowing omnibus statistic, WAR, which stands for Wins Above Replacement and measures, in one handy number, the value of a player relative to the average performance at his position.

The other new thing is that major league teams are flush with cash like never before, thanks to lucrative new contracts with cable sports networks. It seems the networks have realized that live sports are the onlly type of content that can’t be downloaded free with BitTorrent. (They can, but then they wouldn’t be live, which is sort of the point of live sports on TV...)

I smell a bubble, and I’m not the only one

I am, however, the only one who knows what to do about it. The new salaries can stay. Teams just need to attract more viewers. Specifically they need female viewers, since these astronomical cable contracts seem to assume that every American man and boy with access to TV will be watching major-league games every night forever.

So baseball on TV needs female viewers. That’s fine, except that baseball is a sexist game (see above).

Enter my wife. She’s irreverent, observant, and swears like a sailor: precisely the qualities required to appreciate baseball. I’ve watched dozens of baseball games on TV with my wife, but she’s still shaky on the rules. For example she’s not sure how many balls make a walk, or even why they call it a “walk” when the players seem to be jogging down to first. 

You might expect that my wife would prefer to be watching something else on TV, that she’s indulging me by keeping the game on, but the truth is she likes watching baseball.

How can that be? She doesn’t understand what’s going on! 

Au contraire. She understands perfectly well what she wants to understand, which is that baseball players are hot. 

“Where have these men been all my life?” she exclaimed one night during the 2011 World Series.

Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly, one of my wife's favorites 
I had to break it to her that baseball has been around for well over a hundred years, which means “these men” have been around at least that long.

Here’s another fun fact: she prefers watching games on TV to seeing them in person. Why? Because she gets to see the players up close. Which is important if you watch baseball like she does.

Women like my wife watch baseball now and then, but they could be watching it every night if we made an effort to draw them in. (Cable companies, are you listening?) Statistics like WAR have made it possible for fans to focus on the best players, to tailor their viewing so that not a minute is wasted on scrubs and losers.

Marco Scutaro, known in our house as "The Gentleman"

Let’s not leave women like my wife in the cold. We need a statistic that measures a player’s sex appeal the way WAR measures his performance.

What will this new stat be called? I propose ROF, which stands for Relative Objective F*ckability. My wife prefers COCK, which stands for nothing but cuts right to the point.

How will the stat be derived? Leave that up to the quants. For now, let’s just resolve that we need it. Imagine the possibilities! Fifteen or twenty years from now, when women are watching baseball in droves and mid-season games between the Astros and the Marlins are pulling ratings like Gray’s Anatomy, maybe we can start talking about real progress, like letting girls play hardball and making the major leagues co-ed. It may be a long way off, but imagine telling your granddaughter you helped open up baseball for girls. First thing’s first. Let’s get ROF.

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, ahead of his time, c. 1983

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