Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Braves’ Lineup and Sports Media in General

When I saw the Braves’ batting lineup on Opening Day, it didn’t take 140 characters to convey disappointment:

My first ever Fredi complaint: McLouth hitting second?

After Joe Sheehan wrote in Sports Illustrated that Gonzalez was making a mistake by putting his best hitter so low and his worst hitter (or one of his worst hitters) so low, Rob Neyer has also made this point, although he downplays the significance of the batting order:

Of course, you know as well as David Schoenfield that it really makes little difference where McLouth and Heyward bat. Granted, McLouth's will cost the Braves a few runs over the course of the season if he stays in the No. 2 slot all season. Which he won't. And Heyward might account for two or three more runs if he were batting third or fourth rather than sixth. But the odds against the Braves missing a playoff spot because of Fredi Gonzalez's batting orders -- as opposed to the players he actually uses -- are exceptionally long.

Really, this is about aesthetics more than anything. It just looks wrong for McLouth to be listed four slots ahead of Heyward. And yes, I wish Gonzalez would stop it. If only because we don't get to see Heyward hit quite as often. And because we have to watch McLouth bat more.

An interesting discussion ensued in the comments section.  As I read the article, I thought to myself that this is a good indication that sports media is far, far ahead of where it was when I was becoming a baseball fan in the 80s, let alone what the media must have been like during baseball’s glory days.  (You know, the era when the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers played in the World Series every year, because the true test for a sports league is whether the teams in Gotham are doing well.)  Not only do we understand baseball much better now as a result of the proliferation of sabermetric analysis, but that analysis has infiltrated a number of different platforms.  Thus, if I’m dissatisfied that AJC columnists still talk in terms of batting averages, I have a plethora of options, both team-specific and national-oriented.  You have a relatively minor issue like Jason Heyward’s spot in the batting order and a number of smart takes on it.

The Heyward issue reminds me of a terrific piece by James Fallows in last month’s Atlantic about the changes to political media.  Fallows is generally excellent at exploding hysteria-producing myths (his writing about China is excellent and it led to a terrific piece about America's strengths and weaknesses) and his piece on the media was no different.  He does a nice job of attacking the notion that we are somehow less informed now because of the media:

[Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard] added that since the 1940s, political scientists had tried to measure how well American citizens understood the basic facts and concepts of the nation and world they live in. “It actually is a constant,” she said. “There is a somewhat intractable low level of basic political knowledge.” When I asked Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at UC San Diego, whether changes in the media had made public discussion less rational than before, he sent back a long list of irrationalities of yesteryear. One I remembered from my youth: the taken-for-granted certainty among some far-right and far-left groups in the 1960s (including in my very conservative hometown) that Lyndon Johnson had ordered the killing of John Kennedy. One I had forgotten: Representative John Anderson of Illinois, who received nearly 6 million votes as an Independent presidential candidate against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, three times introduced legislation to amend the Constitution so as to recognize the “law and authority” of Jesus Christ over the United States.

Fallows then identifies four potential problems with the direction of media before proceeding to cite potential evolved responses that can address them:

If we accept that the media will probably become more and more market-minded, and that an imposed conscience in the form of legal requirements or traditional publishing norms will probably have less and less effect, what are the results we most fear? I think there are four:

that this will become an age of lies, idiocy, and a complete Babel of “truthiness,” in which no trusted arbiter can establish reality or facts;

that the media will fail to cover too much of what really matters, as they are drawn toward the sparkle of entertainment and away from the depressing realities of the statehouse, the African capital, the urban school system, the corporate office when corners are being cut;

that the forces already pulverizing American society into component granules will grow all the stronger, as people withdraw into their own separate information spheres;

and that our very ability to think, concentrate, and decide will deteriorate, as a media system optimized for attracting quick hits turns into a continual-distraction machine for society as a whole, making every individual and collective problem harder to assess and respond to.

It’s an interesting exercise to apply these elements to sports media, if for no other reason than to illustrate that sports fans seem to have fewer of the qualms about the direction of media than political junkies.

1. Truthiness – there is a certain validity to this criticism.  With every team having its own media apparatus, we have evolved into a post-modern world where all the truth adds up to one big lie.  Yahoo! publishes a heavily-researched series of pieces illustrating that USC was looking the other way as Reggie Bush got improper benefits, so the rest of the college football world nods its collective head at the Trojans’ ultimate punishment while the USC fan media refuses to go along and thereby provides its readers with the content to reject what everyone else accepts.  This pattern plays out with every college football team that finds itself under the NCAA microscope.  That said, this just doesn’t seem to be a big issue because fans can differentiate between USC’s Rivals site and credible media outlets.  At the end of the day, USC fans can think that they were railroaded, while everyone else dismisses that position as self-interested claptrap.  Is that any different than how things would have been before the media avalanche?

2. Too much fluff – yes, there is plenty of sports fluff (watch College Gameday if you disagree), but there has always been sports fluff.  The difference now is that there are more outlets competing for eyeballs, so there is far more material with substance.  AS a Michigan fan, I’m privileged to get to read MGoBlog’s UFRs after every game.  For those of us who want analysis that goes deeper than “Michigan State was the tougher team,” there are a wealth of options.  And moving away from x’s and o’s to macro issues, there is far more investigative work done now by outlets like Yahoo! than there ever was before.  The various scandals that have broken in college football over the past several months have led to several writers questioning whether the sport is destroying itself, but what we’re really seeing is the net result of an increase in scrutiny because there are more media outlets covering the sport.  A little more attention and transparency are not bad things.

3. Balkanization – Let’s see, we have ESPN, which covers just about every major sport in depth and employs a small army of writers.  We have Sports Illustrated, which has gone from a weekly magazine to a weekly magazine plus a detailed web site that has a number of talented sport-specific writers.  We have Yahoo!, CBS Sports, SB Nation, and Deadspin.  These are all national sites.  The avalanche of media includes a bevy of team-specific entities, but it has also increased the volume of national coverage.  There are plenty of outlets to suck fans into the vortex of national issues.  Fans are now like the yeoman farmers of the first half of the 19th century who feared that the national economy would pull them out of their traditional existence; for better or worse, we are pulled into a world where we all have opinions on Brett Favre.

4. The Continual Distraction Machine – Mrs. B&B is surely nodding her head right now.  On the one hand, this is a valid criticism.  As opposed to going to games and paying attention to the actual contest, we are now distracted by our smart phones, Kiss Cam, the cheerleaders, and t-shirt cannons, among other niceties.  We’re less likely to come out of a game thinking “man, we should have run more screen-and-rolls with Hinrich and Horford.”  On the other hand, if the criticism is that media is trending towards shorter, fluffier articles, then I’m not inclined to buy that criticism in a world of and

In sum, despite the fact that I devote a good chunk of this blog to media criticism, I see the progression of sports media has being very positive.  We have more choices and content from which to choose.  Moreover, with fewer barriers to entry, the current sports media universe is more likely to produce and reward superior writers because consumers can choose winners with clicks as opposed to editors choosing winners based on who interviews the best.  The question that now arises is whether these same positive developments apply to coverage of weightier issues, or if political media is inherently different than sports media.

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