Don’t hate the football nerds because the baseball nerds blew it

Phil Perry
·5 min read

Perry: How analytics might actually improve the NFL originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO — It’s been a rough 24 hours for baseball. Not because a major-market club won the World Series, of course. Not because the commissioner of the league sounded . . . odd . . . after the game. 

It’s about the numbers. 

Those numbers — or the binders, or the computers, or the calculators, or however you refer to numbers-driven decisions in the sport — ruined the deciding game of 2020 season, in the eyes of many.

You know what happened by now. Kevin Cash pulled stud pitcher Blake Snell from the game before Snell could see the Dodgers order the third time around, despite the fact that Snell was pitching lights-out. He hadn’t allowed a run. He’d allowed two hits. He’d thrown 73 pitches. He’d already struck out the three batters he was scheduled to face six times. 

The Rays promptly blew the lead and their season was over, leading baseball fans to search for reasonable explanations as to why Cash would make that move when he did. 

The answer is obvious, though. That’s what the Rays do. They play the numbers. It got them where it got them. Obsessing over the numbers burned them. 

This could end up being a good thing if the Rays’ failure ends up being a lesson for the rest of baseball. It could shine a light on the over-reliance on numbers with every decision made in that world. It has bogged down the game, reduced a whopping percentage of at-bats to three possible outcomes — home run, walk, strikeout — and made the sport unwatchable for many as pitch counts and minutes played climb while the number of balls in play go the other way. It’s a bore.

Consider this a call for some perspective, though, after Tuesday night’s hours-long social-media roast of Cash. As even more attention across the country is devoted to football with baseball in the rear view, remember that your vitriol for analytics shouldn’t extend to what you watch on Sundays.

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What happened to the Rays aside, numbers-influenced decisions can be good ones. In any sport. But worshiping the numbers, eschewing feel and real-time facts, has neutered our one-time national pastime.

In football, meanwhile, numbers-influenced decisions can make an already eminently-watchable sport even more so. It’s already happened. 

The numbers say to throw more, to be more aggressive. The result has been more points. And as point totals have ballooned — along with a year-long schedule, fantasy football and an uber-aggressive league marketing department — league popularity has gone with them.

There’s still plenty of room for football to expand analytically, too. Football, it could be argued, has been the last of the four major sports to adopt analytics. The teams that do, tend to be exciting to watch. They chuck it often, and chuck it deep, understanding explosive plays translate to wins. They hate to punt. They go for it on fourth down. They value touchdowns over field goals. 

At the lower levels of football, ideas are trickling up to the NFL slowly but surely. High schools are a chemistry lab where the stakes are lower, but where numbers-driven football theory can be put into practice and coaches don’t have to fear for their jobs the way coaches at higher levels might. 

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One high school coach in particular, Pulaski Academy’s Kevin Kelley, has been on the forefront of the analytical revolution in football and has been sought after by college and NFL coaches alike for guidance on his approach. He joined the Next Pats Podcast over the summer to explain how coaches at higher levels, many of them without long-term job security, aren’t willing to try what he espouses even if it might help them keep their jobs if they would just buy in.

More trick plays. Less aversion to things like hook-and-laterals, which may lead to more explosive plays and more wins. More onside kicks. Kelley believes there are opportunities there and elsewhere that NFL teams are missing out on. But he also believes smart teams in the league are coming around on certain ideas — like “positionless football” and when to go for it on fourth down.

Everything in moderation. Obviously. 

If the NFL turns into a chuck-and-duck contest week after week, with every team taking the same all-or-nothing strategy that all of MLB seems to have adopted at the plate just because the numbers say it might be a good idea (they don’t, by the way), then that would be bad for the sport. It would slow it down. It would homogenize the product. It would be baseball in shoulder pads and girdles. 

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But a little more openness to being aggressive in big moments — which the football numbers would suggest is beneficial — might actually lead to a little more fun.

It’s gone too far in baseball. Tuesday night told the world as much. 

But don’t let your hatred of baseball’s “nerds” poison your view of how the nerds might help your favorite football team win games and make the sport more exciting in the process.