Bill Simmons Favors Postal Delivery

For a guy who claims to have gotten his start because older sports columnists were consistently mailing it in, this column wherein Bill Simmons dismisses as “impure” virtually every single year of baseball ever played seems to be pretty mailed in. For example:

1969-1976: The sport began to assume its current form — all kinds of ethnicities and offensive players (speed guys, power guys, you name it); the dawn of semimodern closers, like Rollie Fingers; teams, like the Big Red Machine, that valued OBP as much as power and speed; even a first taste of overpaid stars mailing in seasons with Bobby Bonds and Richie (a.k.a. Dick) Allen.

But I have issues with this time, too. Managers foolishly affected games with too much hit-and-run and too many reckless steals. Leadoff hitters were chosen for speed, not an ability to get on base. There was still no real bullpen specialization, and the power numbers weren’t quite there either. Starters threw too many innings (poor Catfish Hunter’s arm). Closers were routinely burned out by pitching 125 to 150 innings. Too many artificial turf stadiums rewarded double/triple guys and slap hitters and wore down everyday players. This is not a polished enough era for my taste — although the Afros and sideburns were sublime.

All this proves is how ludicrously contrived this column this is. Why should an era of baseball be “impure” because leadoff hitters were chosen for speed or there were too many “reckless” steals (and can you demonstrate that)? If that’s all the evidence you can summon, it’s probably time to reconsider your premise.

What bothers me more about this though, and Simmons’ writing in general, is the stunning lack of self-awareness with which Simmons writes. Though sabermetrics have ushered in many intelligent strategic changes, it’s almost as if Simmons discounts completely the possibility that the present incarnation of the game will look different 10, 15, or 20 years from now. It seems completely plausible that Bill Simmons could write this exact same column many years down the road and dismiss the “post-steroid era” because it wasn’t standard practice to move the third baseman behind second base when a pull-hitting lefty was up, or some other development that isn’t totally foreseeable right now.

Anyway, I’m aware I’m making a fairly obvious point — but that’s precisely it. The notion that any wide range of stylistic, mechanical, or environmental factors make “pure” statistical comparison between different eras very difficult for the layperson is  totally unremarkable, yet somehow, its enough for ESPN to float Bill Simmons millions of dollars a year for easily disproved garbage. At least they probably don’t pay Gene Wojciechowski a lot of money.

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