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Fightin’ Words: The Startling Similarity Between MLB & UFC

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A look at post-Moneyball baseball through the lens of the Ultimate Fighting Championship

Leaders UFC Breakfast Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

The word analogy is defined as: “A comparison of two otherwise unlike things based on resemblance of a particular aspect”. I can’t think of a better way to describe this somewhat odd post.

For a short time growing up, I was a rabid fan of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. This was in the early days of the sport, when it truly was “anything goes” and the entire enterprise was based on a clash of fighting styles. The first official UFC match ever? Sumo wrestler vs. kick-boxer...

During those formative years, Ultimate Fighting saw an eclectic stream of fighters step into the octagon. Boxers, wrestlers, street fighters, and combatants of all styles vied to be considered the “toughest of all-time”. Fairly quickly, however, it become clear that one style was dominant, that being the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu of Royce Gracie...

Despite matching up with competitors much bigger and stronger than he, Gracie set the standard with his winning formula of submissions and smart fighting, not just brawling. Pretty soon, the UFC began to reflect the persona of its greatest superstar. Fighters had to be schooled in both hand-to-hand combat and the art of tactile submissions or they would be quickly dispatched. While creating a product that arguably surpassed professional boxing at the top of the fight-game food chain, it also produced a stable of competitors that all basically looked the same:

UFC 234 Adesanya v Silva Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Now, all the body types pretty much are uniform, with each fighter an expert in striking and submissions. In essence, the UFC transformed from “which fighting style is best” into “which fighter can out-maneuver the other”.

I see many similarities in what is currently happening with major league baseball. Billy Beane’s now-infamous “Moneyball” is the model by which nearly all teams operate...

FILE PHOTO: Biopic Roles Traditionally Lead As Oscar Nominations Are Announced Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Before that, baseball was more “Wild West” in terms of team-creation. Some clubs stacked up dominant pitching (Atlanta Braves), others tried to blast the ball out of the ballpark (Texas Rangers), while one built their foundation on solid defense and pitching to contact (yours truly). Basically, each team had their own unique strategy for trying to win.

Now? To a certain extent, all major league clubs look roughly like the Moneyball A’s: information departments, sabermetric analysis, and a focus on player-development. Sure, each team may tweak the formula a bit, but for the most part the same approach is being emulated league-wide. If it isn’t, your team is “behind the times” and likely not competing for any sort of championship.

In terms of winning-and-losing, the post-Moneyball model is clearly the way of the future, just like cross-training in the UFC. More information is never a bad thing in evaluating performance, so things like launch angle, spin rate, and Ultimate Zone Rating are always useful, much like the abilities to deliver a devastating uppercut blow and perfect arm-bar submission.

What gives me a bit of pause, though: After the first few years of UFC events, I found myself losing interest. What initially attracted me to the endeavor was that “battle of styles” to see which would reign supreme. Once everyone started looking and fighting the same, the enterprise lost its luster for me. Of course, I love baseball a heckuva lot more than I ever loved UFC, so in that sense I don’t see myself completely drifting away from the sport just because individual franchises are becoming more homogenized. But it still makes me wonder if the overall product is more or less exciting than it was before analytics sank its teeth in.

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Perhaps change is inevitable. Eventually, someone was going to discover that the best way to evaluate player performance wasn’t strictly based on body type, opinions of grizzled scouts, and wildly-fluctuating counting stats (BA, ERA, RBI, HR, etc.). Once Beane—with the help of Bill James—let the proverbial analytics cat out of the bag, it was never going to find its way back in. Maybe instead of worrying about whether degrees of launch angle and RPMs will define the sport going forward, I should instead be on the lookout for the next “defining thing” on the horizon. If baseball has proven anything, it is that the game has always managed—for better or for worse—to evolve in a significant way (integration, expansion, free agency, steroids, analytics, etc.) just when it might be thought a bit stale.