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Why We Watch

Contrary to a narrative that — against all odds — has yet to die, it’s probably fair to say that most people find their way to sabermetrics not as a replacement for baseball, but as a means to appreciating baseball more fully. This, I’m almost positive, is the case for my fellow writers here at FanGraphs*, and also for the largest segment of the readership. It’s a fact: we like watching baseball. The numbers simply enhance our understanding of — and, thus, our capacity to enjoy — the experience.

*Except for Dave Allen, that is, who — as I’ve mentioned before — would like the robots to take over, stat.

Here’s my question today, though: why do we watch? Or, more specifically: all things being equal, what compels us to watch one game and not another?

Obviously, team allegiance is a powerful motivating factor. The popularity of SB Nation’s and other, unaffiliated team-specific sites is evidence enough of this. But when our fave team isn’t playing — or just for those of us without very strong ties to our hometown teams — what is it exactly that we’d like to see?

Below are five criteria that some disgustingly haphazard polling has elicited. Feel very free to provide other suggestions in the comments section.

Pitching Matchups
In any given contest, and assuming about six innings per start, a starting pitcher will be involved in roughly a third of a game’s plays. If a certain, unspecified demigod is pitching for a certain, unspecified team located near or around the Dallas Metro area, the odds of a life-altering (or merely ecstatic) viewing experience are pretty good. Make that two notable starters and, just as with so much mint-flavored gum, the pleasure is doubled.

Statistically Notable (or Otherwise Compelling) Players
If the pitching matchup is no great shakes, it’s still possible that three or four or five players between the game’s two teams offer some sort of intriguing storyline. Very often the players might share some of the traits of the All-Joyer (i.e. underrated by traditional metrics, unlucky in a way that xFIP or BABIP might explain). Also, it could just be as simple as liking the looks of a certain player*.

*Side note: while Jayson Werth‘s chances of remaining with Philly have probably taken a hit, I have it on good authority that that Ruben Amaro is very interested in signing Jayson Werth’s beard to a long-term deal.

Rookies (and Debuts)
Hope is a powerful force. If it weren’t, lottery tickets would probably be way less popular. In baseball, nothing embodies hope like the rookie player. Stephen Strasburg, and his imminent arrival in the Majors, is so highly anticipated because of feats we think he might accomplish. It’s smart of us, this instinct: if we’re in the business of witnessing the amazing, it’s smartest to invest in relatively unknown, but promising, commodities.

Seasonal Context
Remember last year’s Game 163 between Detroit and Minnesota? I do. I was cheering for the Twins outta my mind despite the fact that I have almost zero connections to that team/city.

Quality of Broadcast
As I mentioned just yesterday in re CSN’s Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, there are times when the broadcasting team makes a game less watchable. There are other cases — like when Vin Scully is wrecking the mic — where you couldn’t give two frigs about which teams were playing. (Seriously, Vin Scully is like the Platonic Grandpa. Sabermetrics schmabermetrics: if Scully says something, I accept it as incontrovertible fact, owing to his cadence and obvious capital-W Wisdom.)