Fun baseball v. winning baseball. Are they the same thing?
The quick and dirty answer: fun baseball is not necessarily winning baseball. But, winning baseball is going to be, in all but the most extreme situations, fun baseball.
Why am I, a Phillies blogger, writing about this? Because it seems that Phillies fans and commentators, especially those in the print and television media, focus almost exclusively on the former and completely ignore the latter.
When you hear or read about "fun baseball," what do you think of? Most people would agree on some or all of the following (among a long list of others): clutch game-winning hits, stolen bases, diving catches, running into walls, suicide squeezes, sacrifice bunts (warm and fuzzy memories of little league), not striking out and instead putting the ball in play where "anything can happen," short at-bats, complete games by pitchers, hustle, energy, 100mph pitches, triples, sliding into first base, gunning someone out at home plate, etc.
But are all of these "fun baseball" events part of "winning baseball"? And are there things that would be on a list of "winning baseball" components that aren't part of "fun baseball"? I have no doubt the answer to the first question is no and the second is yes. The explanation isn't that complicated. Let's take a few examples. Diving catches and crashing into walls are exciting and fun. But, a fielder who was better positioned or fleeter of foot wouldn't have to crash into the wall or dive for the ball. The better-positioned or faster fielder makes a boring routine play; the out-of-position fielder makes a more exciting play. Both contribute to winning if the play is made. But, what's important is that if a fielder is better at positioning or quicker in the field, he's more likely to get to more balls than the fielder who is slower or not good with positioning but makes the occasional acrobatic catch. In that instance, fun baseball can actually contribute to losing baseball.
Another example is putting the ball in play rather than striking out. Related to it is short at-bats compared to long at-bats. A batter who works the count is more likely to strike out. Working the count, to most baseball fans, is not fun and possibly even boring. Striking out, even to the most ardent sabermetric devotee, is not fun at all. But, working the count is winning baseball in many ways: tires the opposing pitcher, gives your teammates more pitches to see to evaluate the pitcher, more likely to get a pitch you like, more likely to walk, etc. Striking out can also be winning baseball because it avoids the double play. Putting the ball in play just to do so risks two outs, instead of one from striking out, when there's a man on first.
One more example from the basepaths. Speed on the basepaths is something fans love. Triples are undoubtedly good and winning baseball. But, stolen bases are good only if you do so at a clip of about 80% or higher. Too many caught stealings kill an offense. Hustling into first base by diving is also a risky play - it decreases the runner's speed while increasing the likelihood of injury. But, it sure looks fun.
The problem is that many fans and many baseball commentators, especially those in Philly, focus exclusively on what makes a game fun. Does a guy put the ball in play? Does he hustle? Does he crash into walls? Does he get his uniform dirty trying to steal bases? These are the things too many fans and commentators care about. In doing so, though, they ignore winning. Winning may be a result of these attributes, but there's no reason it has to, especially when talent and performance is missing from the equation.
Even worse, I have no doubt that not recognizing the difference between these two things (along with focusing on "complicated" small ball instead of "simple" long ball) contributes to fans' and commentators' reluctance to accept modern baseball statistics, whose central goal is to determine what makes for winning baseball. If that's also fun baseball, then great. If it's not, no matter.
Isn't that the attitude Philly fans should have? After a century and a quarter with only one championship and more losses than any other professional franchise, shouldn't our priority be a winning team, with fun a secondary concern?