National League baseball fans in the major markets of New York and Los Angeles have had a difficult first half of the 2011 season thus far, not so much because of the tribulations of their beloved Mets and Dodgers on the field, but because of -- literally -- the trials of ownership off the field.
The ownership groups of the Wilpons in New York and the the McCourts in Los Angeles have left the future of these franchises, and what type of talent can be brought in, very much up in the air.
Maybe the Mets and Dodgers look to places like Cleveland, where the resurgent Indians have taken a page in growing home talent, or Minnesota, where the Twins have been perennial contenders, to find ways to balance the books and grow in the win column.
Of course, the trend of getting more with less is not old, and in today’s economy it was really brought to light by Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, which highlighted the issues and obstacles general manager Billy Beane encountered while building the cash-strapped Oakland A’s into a contender. As a matter of fact, the ownership groups won’t have to go far to be reminded of Beane’s work this fall, as Sony Pictures will bring the film version of Moneyball (written by Aaron Sorkin) to the big screen this fall, starring Brad Pitt as Beane and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe.
Even since Lewis’ book came out and opened the eyes of fans to the inner workings of teams and finance, other technology has come along to maximize analysis in the best of worlds for the baseball front office. Bloomberg, one of the world’s leaders in finance analytics, has unleashed a series of tools for players (via iPad), for teams and for fans that take every piece of data available and combine it with video technology to produce almost real-time analysis for showing the positives and negatives of player performance.
Stats Inc. has developed a series of tools for teams to use in measuring pitch accuracy and placement, and Sportvision (the creators of the yellow line in football and the glowing puck in hockey) have created other tools that combine technology and analysis for teams who are looking for the best possible information, the best tools, and the fastest ways to make educated judgments.
While none of this eliminates the human element in analyzing players, it certainly does help, and it should make for more compelling arguments when teams with or without cash look to the marketplace for where they can or can’t spend money.
We live in a world of ultimate fan engagement these days, and technology has brought both the teams and the fans together to see more deeply into each others worlds. MLB recently brought us “The Fan Cave,” which combines pop culture and technology as two guys watch, analyze and hopefully enjoy every nuance of a full baseball season from a storefront in Manhattan.
A Chicago-based company, Game Time Live, recently introduced “GameSlam,” a new game that lets fans use virtual dollars to determine the next pitch, hit, or run in any game being played on a given day, literally pitting thousands of fans against each other in the manager's seat for a few minutes or hours.
All of this makes the decision-makers in baseball more accountable and more on the clock for their high priced personnel choices than ever before, and it makes ownership even more important in that decision-making process. Every dollar and decision is analyzed more closely today, because the tools for looking at those decisions are more readily available.
Does all that mean that whatever is determined by the judges in the McCourt divorce case or the Madoff case will cinch the future of the Dodgers and the Mets, and with it their hopes for contending in the future? In some ways yes, as those running the organizations need to make smart and sometimes difficult decisions on where to best spend dollars.
The good news is that technology today can give those teams a leg up on making educated choices, more so than ever before. That may not let fans sleep easy today, as every dollar is accounted for more closely, but it can give hope for the future, as we have seen in small markets who have invested in technology and chosen wisely.
Baseball is an emotional and physical game that is played on a field, not on a laptop. But using a laptop to help make those decisions for teams is becoming more the standard, especially in challenging financial times.