Baseball or Football: An In-Depth Look at an Age Old Debate
Baseball has been a sport for a really long time. For 165 years, actually. And it’s still pretty popular. And the players have arguably the best gig in professional sports in terms of money and the number of niches a player can fill.
But despite the staying power of Major League Baseball, and the fact that about 25 teams each year have a legitimate shot at a title (Sorry KC, Pittsburgh, Arizona, Cleveland, and Mets fans), people don’t seem
to get too fired up about it. I only know three or four people who I can have a knowledgeable conversation about baseball with. And that’s making the assumption that I’m capable of a civil conversation about the sport without frothing at the mouth and cursing the Yankees back to the hell from whence they came (That’s a pretty big assumption).
But why the apathy for out nation’s pastime? Ask anyone who doesn’t watch baseball regularly and they say it’s boring. It doesn’t have the intense pressure, hard hits, and breakaway speed of, say, football.
Which is true to an extent. A running back taking over a game is pretty special. A safety knocking the ball out of the hands of a receiver to force a fourth down is kinda awesome. A properly executed two minute drill can be electrifying.
And it’s true that football doesn’t have the downtime of professional baseball (Though I might counter that having two commercial breaks at every change of possession is pretty annoying). But does that really decide the argument? Maybe. Maybe in the day we live in, people don’t have the patience for a sport that takes three hours and doesn’t usually involve players being carried out on stretchers.
In any case, I don’t think either side is fair to the other. Football fans ignore the
way suspense is built into major league pennant races and playoff games in favor of pointing out how boring it is when a pitcher loses his command with his team behind by seven runs. In May. Baseball fans tend to ignore the genius behind effective play calling and strategy in football, in favor of saying it’s just a bunch of behemoths smashing each other to bits.
So I think it’s prudent to do an evaluation of the pros and cons of each sport, in relation to each other. Because I have the time, and since I picked apart the post of an accomplished blogger yesterday, someone might actually be reading.
What is required of players to succeed:
This is a big sticking point with me. What makes an athlete special is both athletic ability and emotional strength. When I’m watching a sport and a player is lacking in one of those criteria, yet still succeeding, I find this morally absurd and root against said player. God I hated when big fat drunk David Wells pitched a perfect game against the Twins when I was a kid.
But what is more impressive than a player who has the size, the quickness, the reactions, the flexibility, but also can outthink opponents and mentally undress them? This is why I think Tiger Woods at his peak may have been the best athlete ever. Golf is a sport governed by mental toughness. A lot of the guys on tour don’t spend any time in the gym, can’t touch their toes, and eat more big macs than protein shakes. But they have the wherewithal to bounce back from a double bogey the way you and I cannot. But Tiger Woods came along and had the body of a swimmer, the strength of a cornerback, AS WELL AS the mental prowess of… I have no idea. Maybe Peyton Manning? He was unprecedented. What little athletic ability golf demanded from its best players, Tiger Woods surpassed tenfold. He wouldn’t wear down because he was in the best physical shape. And his focus wouldn’t wear down because his mind was just as strong as anyone else’s.
So I think Football and Golf fall on opposite ends of the spectrum. In football, you can succeed without any mental ability at certain positions. In golf, you can succeed without any athletic ability. I don’t mean to diminish what NFL players do. It just seems like if you’re big and fast enough, you will succeed in football. That’s what the scouts look for in their draft strategies, and that’s who gets the big contracts. At least for the following positions:
Offensive lineman – There is technique in what they do, of course, but technique doesn’t mean shit if you aren’t 6’4″ and 300 pounds.
Defensive lineman – Their job is to get to the quarterback or running back and essentially kill them. It doesn’t matter how they do it, but they can’t do it effectively unless they’re really big or really fast. And they have to be at least somewhat big.
Running backs – They too must be fast, and it helps if they’re big, but they must have the added ability to change direction quickly and with deception. So running backs have the added chore of needing to be good… dancers?
Fullbacks – They have to be big, but fast enough to move themselves so that defenders can’t get around them.
Wide Receivers – Being big and fast is paramount at this position, with the added caveat of running routes, and being mentally stable enough to not drop the ball.
Quarterbacks, linebackers, tight ends and defensive backs all need more specific skills, most notably the ability to read defenses/offenses. I think you can see this difference in how many players of each position are selected in the first round of the draft. Since 1980, the most represented position in the first round is defensive linemen (199 picks). The second most is offensive linemen (156 picks). Then defensive backs (148 – Maybe the thinking is that so few excel at this position that the only ones worth having are 1st round talents?). Then running backs (119), then wide receivers (114). Quarterbacks and linebackers, the positions that arguably require the most mental strength and ability to survey and react to surroundings, are the least represented (103 and 74, respectively). My point being that it’s a lot easier to bank on drafting Lenny from Of Mice and Men and molding him into something useful, than to spend a precious draft choice on someone who needs to be smart as WELL as big and fast.
As for baseball players, I think they fit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between football and golf. I don’t think you need to look past someone like Brad Lidge to come to that conclusion. How does someone go from the the most effective closer in the game to the worst one in a year? Certainly Lidge has the ability; his slider has always been devastating and his fastball still has life. Bu if you lose confidence as a pitcher you. are. fucked. You can’t just steamroll your opponents into submission. You have to play cat and mouse with the hitter. The hitter is trying to force you into a count where you have to give them something to hit, and you’re trying t0 deceive them by changing speeds and locations, or trying to get them to chase something out of the zone. And you can’t play this game without the confidence that you can pull it off.
As a hitter, you are hitting a small ball with a round bat. That’s hard enough. But then you have to have good pitch recognition by detecting spin on the ball and subtle changes in arm movement from the pitcher. You have to have a good gauge of what the pitcher is going to come with, whether he’s going to throw a strike or a ball, where the infielders are positioned, what the situation calls for as far as outs and who’s on base and where. If the pitcher has an overpowering fastball, you need to account for that. If he has a good slider, too, you need to be prepared for that, as well. And even if you are great at all of that; recognition, plate discipline, analyzing the situation, you still need bat speed, and leg torque and strong wrists to be able to succeed. And even then you can get unlucky and hit hard smashes to the third baseman over and over until you’re batting .200.
Furthermore, baseball scouts talk a lot about tools. Guys who have power, strong throwing arms, fast legs, quick wrists. But having tools doesn’t equate to success. That’s why so many prospects, previously heralded as the next big thing, flame out (I’m looking at the Mets here; Fernando Martinez and Carlos Gomez, what overhyped jokes). The player must convert those tools into skills in order to succeed. In football, there are a lot of positions where simply having the tools; big body, quick feet, fast legs, are enough to be a star. They may learn some subtleties of the game that allow them to be even better, but once they turn 30 and lose a step, it won’t matter, because they’ll be facing off against someone young, giant, fast and crazy.
And really, for non-kickers football doesn’t really allow for old or small guys to compete. Take Emmitt Smith playing his last season for the Cardinals. It was sad. He was once one of the best running backs the game had ever seen, and here he was playing for Arizona and averaging 3 yards per carry. Sure, quarterbacks can play into their 40’s, and they can be successful. But the quarterback position is a whole different animal. The myriad things you have to account for relies on rock solid mental strength. Which is why Tarvaris Jackson is, and always will be, a terrible quarterback, and Brett Favre had his best season at age 40. Show me a 40 year old defensive lineman, or running back, who still plays at a high level. They are true freak anomalies, if any of them even exist.
Now look at Jamie Moyer. The guy started pitching before I was born. His fastball royally sucks. He’s 47 years old, and attempting to come back from ligament replacement surgery on his pitching elbow. It’s absurd that he doesn’t just retire. But he posted a 3.1 WAR season as a 45 year old, which is over 15M worth of value.
In baseball, there is a distinction often made between pitchers and throwers. Jamie Moyer is a pitcher, he does all the things I mentioned earlier; changes speeds and locations, fools hitters into making weak contact. Basically you can be a pitcher without being a thrower, like Moyer, but you can’t succeed as a thrower alone. Ask Juan Morillo. Haven’t heard of him? Exactly. He could throw 99 but couldn’t pitch to save his life. But he’s probably entertaining for the Japanese baseball fans he now throws in front of.
You know what? I could beat up Jamie Moyer. I could, but I don’t think that could be said for any non-kicker NFL player. I find that really cool. David Eckstein paced his 2002 Angels in WAR and led them to a world series title. I could definitely beat up David Eckstein.
I couldn’t beat up Albert Pujols. He’s like the new Tiger Woods in his combination of physical and mental ability. The media gets on him when he hits too many line outs and his average drops to .301. But then he just comes back and combines his ridiculous reflexes and coordination, strong wrists, powerful legs and bulletproof mind into hitting 5 home runs over the next week. Like coming back from a double bogey.
Which is all a long way of saying, I think baseball requires a more well rounded athlete than football does.
Parity and the way teams operate:
Different teams in baseball have different stances on what skills, or stats, or philosophies, they value. Oakland and Tampa try to exploit market inefficiencies in their evaluation of players, the Yankees try to outspend to remain competitive and to compensate for their farm system, the Twins and Angels have the reputations of focusing more on pitching and defense and baserunning than other teams, the Padres try to lure in pitchers with their expansive home ballpark, while a slugger coming off a down year might be courted by a team like the Diamondbacks or Rangers who have hitter friendly parks and the possible promise of a bounce back, 30 homer season.
Philosophical differences are prevalent in the NFL, as well. The Steelers have been defense first for more than 40 years. Oakland is seen as a place for misfits and castoffs. New England seems to be a place for players who are done with individual accomplishments and want a chance for a ring. Denver, at least until recently, was an assembly line for quality running backs. The Vikings will choke for eternity. I think it’s cool that those things can last for generations in some cases.
Parity is a different subject, however. I think the two sports are somewhat of a wash, really. There are mainstays at the top (The Patriots, the Yankees, the Steelers, the Braves), but there are always teams that come out of nowhere (Last year there were the Chiefs, the Reds, the Bears to an extent, and both pennant winners in the Rangers and Giants). Sure the fans of the Bengals and Browns and Royals and Pirates might have something to say about parity, but they are the exception, and mainly suck due to bad drafting and poor management more than luck and the system working against them.
Which brings us to the salary cap issue. It’s something football fans will point to when arguing for the NFL over MLB. They argue that since every team has the same money to spend, that makes everything fair.
Which is true. But then, isn’t that a little boring? I’ve written at length about this before, so I won’t delve too far into this, but isn’t it more exciting to see the Rangers beat the Yankees in the ALCS knowing they spent 100M less in payroll? As opposed to the Seahawks beating the Saints this past year (Which was a tremendous upset, an under .500 playoff team defeating the defending champions), when they both spent the same. Doesn’t that make it a little less terrific? I suppose I’m overly sentimental about these things; I always prefer David to beat Goliath and not Goliath beating Goliath. But I’m a Twins fan, so can you blame me?
I think when teams have to make do with less money than the big market teams, it forces them to be creative. Which is essentially what Moneyball was all about. And I think that’s a cool part of baseball and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not even if I was a Pirates fan (I grew up with the mid 90’s Twins, so I can empathize to an extent).
The Role of Random Chance:
This is where I have to give the NFL it’s props. Good teams generally destroy bad teams. It might be because they’re bigger, faster, stronger, trickier, or smarter, but they generally win. A bad call or a freak injury or a mental blunder might turn the tide, but mostly the best team wins. And this usually holds for the playoffs. Most would say the Packers had one of the most talented rosters in football last year. And the Steelers had a great team, too. The Packers won the superbowl and not the Seahawks.
This past October, the Giants WERE the Seahawks. They capitalized on late season collapses by their division rivals, the Padres and the Rockies, and squeaked into the postseason on the strength of their pitching and some nice seasons from Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres and rookie Buster Posey. So like the Seahawks, they had some strong points, and some good players, but were deeply flawed. They didn’t have much of an offense, and still don’t. Returning a similar roster this year, I can almost GUARANTEE the Giants won’t make the postseason in 2011. But baseball is all about bad hops, ground balls with eyes, pitchers who have bad nights, hitters with ill timed slumps and a myriad other things that have little to do with the strength of the team, the wisdom of its coaches or the talent of its players. The Phillies were the best team in the NL. Any three of the AL teams not named the Rangers could have claimed to be the best team in the AL.
When confidence and mental strength is at issue, sometimes the best teams don’t win. Hot and cold streaks take over. To succeed in the MLB playoffs, you need a higher percentage of your players to go on hot streaks than the opposing team. Cody Ross usually is a pretty average player. Doesn’t walk, can hit 20 homers a year and play average defense. But in the playoffs, he got hot. So did Madison Bumgarner, a rookie who had his ups and downs in the regular season. The Giants rode these performances, among plenty of others, straight to a world series title.
As for the Twins, Joe Mauer went cold. So did Jim Thome and Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. Delmon Young was pretty good, hit a triple, but it wasn’t nearly enough. I thought they stacked up pretty well against the Yanks, but they had fewer players get hot and more players go cold. That’s how it goes.
The Packers had a good pass rush, and it caused Roethlisburger to force things and make mistakes. If they played the super bowl 100 times, barring injury, the Packers pass rush would stay good.
If the Twins played the Yankees in a 5 game set 100 times, Joe Mauer would probably hit well in 70-75 of them.
Ways to Measure Player Performance:
I’m not well briefed in advanced football statistics. I do know that there are basically no stats that measure what offensive lineman do, which is infuriating to me. How can you know definitively if a player is good if he accumulates no statistics? I suppose that is what scouting is for. But couldn’t there be instances where a lineman is actually performing very well, but looks really bad doing it? Kind’ve like how Rick Ankiel LOOKED really smooth out in center field this past year for the Royals, but in fact had terrible range and was costing his team runs?
Defensive Lineman are celebrated, and paid, for how many sacks they accrue (Stopping the run is important as well, but again, what if they LOOK good at stopping the run, but in fact are terrible at it?). But what about when the pass rusher gets double teamed? What about when he forces the quarterback to make a bad throw?
I bet there are stats for at least some of these things, but with baseball, I KNOW there are stats for just about everything. Defensive stats are getting more accurate, WPA is a great way to measure what a player actually contributes, regardless of his talent or projectability going forward. OPS is flawed but pretty telling of a batter’s effectiveness, while also having been accepted into the mainstream baseball following public. WAR can actually quantify how many wins a player provided. Basically, with baseball we can now pretty accurately measure everything a player does, even if we can’t SEE it. And in football you can hardly see anything outside of what the guy with the ball does.
Further, baseball’s abundance of stats allows for great arguments, because there’s always a way to “prove from the text,” as it were. If someone starts saying Nate McClouth deserved his gold glove, there are tons of stats you can draw from to prove that guy wrong. In football, if someone says Bryant McKinnie is “A beast out there,” you kind of have to take that guy at his word.
I think this has gone on long enough. Out of the various criteria I’ve drawn from, I can say with confidence that baseball requires a more well rounded athlete than football. I can say that parity in the two sports is pretty even and that a winner in that regard depends on your opinion of salary caps. I can say that there are more easily accessible ways to measure player performance in baseball than football. I can say that in football, the better teams tend to succeed more in the playoffs (The 98 Vikings notwithstanding), as opposed to baseball and its 2010 world champion Giants. So yes, I think baseball is more complex, multi faceted, measurable, requires more skill and is more interesting to follow. But I’m biased and if you’re a football fan and you root for the best team in a given year, it is probably nice to see them win sometimes. And not the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, yeesh. Well, maybe I just wasted 3,000 words. You be the judge.
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