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Why the human side of the game is crucial for the 2020 Yankees

This season will be a reminder of the value of intangibles.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Baseball has always been a game of counting — hits, runs, pitches, even how many inches a curveball breaks. As data gathering and analysis has grown more sophisticated, that predilection for numbers has only intensified.

In the rush to wield new analytical insights, the game’s human elements are sometimes overshadowed. At its best, the application of advanced statistics to baseball questions adds layers of complexity that grow our understanding. At its clumsiest, it flattens nuance, as if a player’s entire career can be summed up by a single calculation.

Some natural internal tension exists between the old school and new school, eye test and analytics, intangibles and hard data. But the different human and analytical aspects of the game are equally important, and often interrelated.

It’s an idea championed by Russell Carleton, a longtime writer for Baseball Prospectus with a background in clinical psychology and in MLB front offices. In 2018, he authored The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking, a reflection on how modern trends are integrating with the sport’s intuitive traditions.

The 2020 season, to be played under the looming threat of another coronavirus shutdown, underscores the enduring relationship the human element has to the modern game. The shortened schedule’s logistical and health challenges foreground the touchy-feely side of the game that resists quantification.

For example, in light of the sport’s new emphasis on social distancing protocols, the traditional interpersonal dynamics of baseball — like much of the rest of our lives — will have to be revisited.

In a recent interview, Zack Britton revealed he will be apart from his family during the upcoming season due to safety concerns. A prolonged physical separation from his wife and kids will undoubtedly affect him as a person and as a player.

Life will be different on the field, too. Britton has already been training himself to avoid licking his fingers to improve his grip, in accordance with new health and safety measures. And encouragement from teammates and fans will change. High-fives and hugs are off-limits, and there will be no roaring crowd to exhort a Yankees pitcher sitting on a 3-2 count.

The acts of pitching, hitting, fielding, and running aren’t just physical; there’s an underlying urge for human connection that suffuses the game’s culture. Interfering with this norm is no small disruption.

For the Yankees’ part, they have a manager in Aaron Boone who seems to possess the savvy and the skills to navigate this upheaval. Boone understands and embraces the value of analytics, but he was also hired for his emotional intelligence and knack for communication. He leads by connecting personally to his players and staff. Brian Cashman, for all his embrace of a data-driven Yankees organization, raved about Boone’s openness and charisma after his job interview, a response to his intangible qualities.

The team will need those qualities to thrive during the upcoming 60-game season. Major league competition is already a pressure cooker. The additional strain of coping a pandemic — whatever that means to each individual player — could diminish their well-being and performance.

All this uncertainty comes at a time when athletes are calling greater attention to the importance of mental health. NBA stars Demar DeRozan and Kevin Love, for instance, have both spoken publicly about grappling with mental health issues — DeRozan with depression, and Love with anxiety. Such concerns are worth taking seriously.

None of this is to say that athletes will suffer uniquely this year — just the opposite. Many of their trials will mirror those of anyone navigating these unsettling times. In this sense, at least, players really are just like us: human.

This Yankees season, in ways previous iterations have not, will pull back the curtain on that side of baseball. It will provide a reminder that intangible assets — a robust emotional support network, camaraderie among coworkers, a sense of purpose from fans — are still vital to happy, healthy players who perform at a high level, even if they don’t show up on the stat sheet.