Awesome: Yale won the men’s ice hockey national title last year.
Not awesome: I missed all the goals—even though the TV was on in front of me—because I was playing Doodle Jump.
Even though I love hockey, I can’t sit down and watch college or junior hockey like I can NHL hockey. I’m too put-off by the low quality of play and need a distraction. If I can’t focus on a slick first-round draft pick seemingly activating LeBron mode every time he’s out there, I’ll do something else.
I went to a few Columbia baseball games in the spring, and my expectations weren’t high. First, I don’t like pro baseball, let alone college. Second, there weren’t any exciting prospects to distract me from the banality of the game. Third, the sun was out. (Also, I was a little miffed that I had to pay to get in.)
The only reason I stayed was my allegiance to Columbia, knowing that those games might have been the only time I see the Lions win an Ivy title in a marquee sport. Nonetheless, I needed to find something to keep my attention. Baseball (and football and basketball) beat writer Eli Schultz says he likes the strategy of baseball. So I looked for the strategy—not between batter and pitcher, which is what Eli talks about, but from the coach.
I was skeptical. The Lions’ head coach Brett Boretti is a big fan of small ball, which is loosely defined as prioritizing scoring a run over potentially scoring many. The trademarks of small ball include bunts, sacrifice hits, and stealing bases. Sabermetrics research in Major League Baseball tells us that the majority of the time, small ball is a bad strategy. The idea is that it’s usually more valuable to conserve your outs than it is to advance a runner.
Clearly, though, small ball has worked for Boretti at the college level. The Lions have appeared in the Ivy Championship Series three times in the last six years, winning it twice. They have led the Ivies in steals during conference play three times over that span, including by an especially large margin of 42 in 2013—or more than two per game—to second-place Yale’s 24. Junior Jordan Serena and now-graduate Nick Crucet finished last season first and second respectively in the Ancient Eight in stolen bases, a statistic that is demonstrably better at the college level than in pro ball. (If I had to guess, it’s partly because college catchers lack the arm strength to throw out base-stealers as frequently as their MLB counterparts.) Somehow, the rest of the Ivy League hasn’t caught on quite yet. Either that, or they can’t recruit the speedsters necessary to steal base after base. Good on Boretti for taking advantage, regardless.
(Regarding the other parts of small ball, the Lions also led the league in sac bunts and flies. While I’ve been attuned to not be a fan of those numbers, I guess you only make sacrifice plays when there’s already someone on base in the first place. Whatever works.)
It’s important to remember that college sports are different from pro sports. The caliber of play is lower in most regards, so strategies can change. That’s why you see college teams play zone defense so often while it’s rarely used by NBA teams, and why you see some college teams steal a base as often as every other inning. As skill sets change, the game changes. You can expect the other team to make plenty of mistakes and adjust your strategy accordingly. At times, it’s almost like watching a different sport entirely.
The differences are what I tried to focus on, and I kind of enjoyed it. Not only is a base-steal or a bunt an exciting play, but clinical execution—thanks to understanding the differences in baseball at different levels—also made it seem like the Lions were toying with a perennially strong team in Dartmouth. (The Big Green Balls of Yarn?) Even though most Columbia players don’t have the physical tools of pros, they do seem to have a comparable amount of “baseball IQ.”
I felt like they weren’t so much playing a sport as using it. Displaying that sort of mastery, in sports or in academics, definitely gets my attention. It was, dare I say, interesting.
Muneeb Alam is a Columbia College junior. He is the sports columnist deputy for Spectator. Picked Apart runs biweekly.