Baseball, Judgment, and Technocracy

Having been invested in a variety of sports since my youth, I’m basically down to baseball as I come into middle age. I should just go ahead and admit that I have a somewhat romanticized relationship with the sport, which began when, late in my childhood, I started listening to the New York Mets play on the radio. This was an odd and fateful development. It was odd because I was living in Miami, but this was before an expansion team came to Florida and I suppose there were lots of transplanted New Yorkers in town. It was fateful because, of course, becoming a life-long Mets fan is the sort of thing you don’t wish on your enemies, although apparently it is something you foist upon your children who don’t yet know any better.

I’m the type that, in the right mood, will go on and on about the smell of the leather, the crack of the bat, the feel of the grass and dirt underfoot, the pace of the game, the rhythm of the season and how it tracks with the natural patterns of life, death, and rebirth, etc., etc. I will mean it all, while acknowledging the hackneyed sentimentality of it.

I also think baseball offers an interesting vantage point from which to think about technology, or, better, the technocratic spirit. The sport itself seems to contain conflicting tendencies:  one resistant to the technocratic impulse and the other embracing it. On the one hand, one way of thinking about baseball emphasizes its agrarian character, its deliberate pacing, its storied tradition, and so on. Another way of thinking about baseball would emphasize the fixation with numbers, statistics, analytics, etc. Baseball in this vision is an as-yet-to-be-realized technocracy.

This post, I should have mentioned by now, is chiefly held together by baseball, and, somewhat more loosely, by reflection on the theme of judgment. That said, here are some pieces that I’ve read in the last year or so on the theme of baseball, which also raise some good questions about how we relate to technology.

First off, I began mentally drafting this post when I read the first paragraph of a review of a book about Roger Angell’s prolific baseball writing, which spans nearly 70 years. The reviewer opened by recalling Angell’s first column:

“In its May 27, 1950 issue, The New Yorker published Roger Angell’s short, whimsical piece about ‘the decline of privacy,’ a development ‘speeded by electronics’ that was subtly reshaping politics, relationships, and the national pastime. ‘At a recent ball game,’ he reported, ‘a sensitive microphone at home plate picked up the rich comments of one of the team managers to the umpire and sent them winging to thousands of radio sets, instantly turning the listeners into involuntary eavesdroppers.'”

When I read something like this, I immediately wonder how this struck people at the time. I wonder, too, how it strikes us today. It must seem quaint, yet with an air of familiarity. It suggests to me a trajectory. Privacy was not suddenly taken from us. We did not yield it up in one grand Faustian bargain. Rather, we trade it away here and there, acquiesced when it is seized for this reason or that, hardly notice as the structures that sustained it were eroded. Along the way, of course, some have noticed, some have expressed their concerns. But at any given point, until it became much too late, these concerns were too easily dismissed, the pattern was mostly obscured.

It is tempting to think about the relationship between society and technology as a series of grand and sudden disruptions keyed to the arrival of a new device or a new machine. But the relationship between technology and society is complicated by the fact that the realities we think we are naming when we say “technology” and “society” are, in fact, always already deeply intertwined. Techno-social transformations are as likely to gradually unfold, in subterranean fashion, before they are suddenly obvious and become the explicit source of cultural angst.

I’ll now go backwards to the oldest item on the list, a column by Alan Jacobs titled “Giving Up On Baseball.” In this piece, Jacobs, a life-long fan, explained why the game was losing its hold on him. Chiefly, it amounted to the triumph of fine-grained analytics dictating team strategy. As Jacobs succinctly put it, “Strangely enough, baseball was better when we knew less about the most effective way to play it.”

This paradoxical point, with which I tend to agree, raises an interesting question. By way of getting to that question, I’ll first recall for us Heidegger’s distinction between what is correct and what is true. What is correct may not yet be true, in part because it may be incomplete and thus potentially if not actually misleading. Perhaps we might similarly distinguish, along the lines of Jacobs’s analysis, between what is correct and what is good. As Jacobs readily concedes, the analytically sophisticated way of approaching the game yields results. GMs, managers, and players are correct to to pursue its recommendation. However, granting this point, might we not also be able to conclude that while it is correct it is not good. Its correctness obfuscates some larger reality about the game, or the human experience of the game, in which the goodness of the game consists.

We might generalize this observation in this way. The analytically intensive approach to the game is a mode of optimization. Optimization seems to be something like a fundamental value operating at the intersection of technology and society. Like efficiency, it is a value that seems most appropriate to the operation of a machine, but it has seeped into the cultural sphere. It has become a personal value. We seek to optimize both devices and the self. But to what end? Is such optimization good? Perhaps it is correct in this field or that endeavor, but at what cost?

This segues nicely into the next piece, a recent installment of Rob Horning’s excellent newsletter, which is also a weekly dispatch at Real Life. In it, Horning opens with a series of observations about the ever more refined data that is now gathered in a baseball stadium:

“That left the bat at 107 miles per hour and traveled 417 feet.” These figures, often cited with a “how about that!” enthusiasm, are not only advertisements for the new surveillance capacity that is circumscribing the game, but they also evoke the fantasy of a completely datafied world where every act can be rendered “objectively” and be further analyzed. In that world, everyone’s individual contribution can be cleanly separated and perfectly attributed.

From here, Horning winds his way through a discussion of WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, a statistic that intends to render a player’s total value to their team in abstraction from the rest of the team. As Horning puts it, WAR “posits an ideal:  that any positive contribution a player makes can be isolated and measured directly or inferred from other data sets.” This then brings Horner to a discussion of productivity in conversation with Melissa Gregg’s Counterproductive. You should read the whole piece, but this section seemed especially relevant to the path along which this post is unfolding:

Gregg argues that “the labor of time management is a recursive distraction that has postponed the need to identify a worthwhile basis for work as a source of spiritual fulfillment.” Instead, there is a sense that saving time is an end in itself. You don’t need any good ideas about what to spend it on. This unfolds the possibility of a fully gamified life, unfettered by actual games, rules, standings, actual victories — just statistical simulations of wins pegged to tautological efficiency measures that serve no perceptible purpose. As Gregg writes, “personal productivity is an epistemology without an ontology, a framework for knowing what to do in the absence of a guiding principle for doing it.” It’s a treadmill masquerading as a set of goals.

One last item in this meandering post. This one is an interview the philosopher Alva Noë gave the Los Angles Review of Books. I learned in this interview that Noë is also a Mets fan, and so a brother of sorts in the fellowship of the perpetually disappointed. I was chiefly interested, however, in Noë’s discussion of the role of judgment in baseball:

I love the job played by judgment in baseball. Its what makes the game so vital. Baseball highlights the fact that you can’t eliminate judgment from sport, or, I think, from life. Sure, you can count up home runs and strikeouts and work out the rates and percentages. You can use analysis to model and compare players’ performances. But you can’t ever eliminate the fact that what you are quantifying, what you are counting, that whose frequency you are measuring, is always the stuff of judgment — outs, hits, strikes, these are always judgment calls.

“We as a culture are infatuated with the idea that you can eliminate judgment and let the facts themselves be our guide,” Noë adds,  “whether in sports or in social policy. Baseball reminds us that there are limits.”

But not really, because as Noë himself observes a bit later on, the possibility of doing away with umpires in favor of automated decision making does not seem altogether implausible. Noë does not think it will come to this. Perhaps not, who knows. But it does seem as if this is where the demand for correctness inexorably leads us. 

Toward the end of the interview, Noë talks about what worries him about the new “moneyball”:

It eliminates players as agents, players as human beings who are on a team and working together for an outcome, and views them, instead, as mere assemblages of baseball properties that are summed-up by the numbers.

This, I would argue, is a warning that speaks to trends far beyond the world of baseball. This development in baseball is but one instance of a much larger pattern that threatens to swallow up the whole of human affairs.

There’s much more to the interview, and, as with the other pieces, I encourage you to read the whole thing.

One last thought. It seems to me that at some ill-defined point the pursuit of efficiency, optimization, correctness, etc., simply flips in such a way that something essential to our experience is lost. We pass a threshold across which ends are forgotten, truth is obscured, and the good is undermined. It is as if, not unlike Huxley’s Savage, we need to claim the right to be not only unhappy, but also, to give one example, wrong. The status of judgment as a human good obtains only if we can err in judging.


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5 thoughts on “Baseball, Judgment, and Technocracy

  1. The conflict you describe here—as it pertains to baseball, at least—is beginning to be recognized by some in the analytics community. The most recent example in this soul-searching category comes from Jay Jaffe, an excellent writer, formerly of Sports Illustrated, but now published at one of the vanguards of the sabermetric community, FanGraphs. He writes “We’ve Reached the Point of ‘Too Many Homers'”: https://blogs.fangraphs.com/weve-reached-the-point-of-too-many-homers/

    There have been other similar posts in the past year or so, as analytics enthusiasts begin to wrangle with the consequences of the philosophical changes that have taken the game by the throat and squeezed some of the life from it.

    As a Royals fan, a club whose successful teams have traditionally been built around speed, slick defense, and timely hitting, I’m particularly cognizant of how the changes brought about by the pursuit of “The Correct” have altered the game in ways that may not be Good.

    Thanks for the post and the links contained within. I do always look forward to reading your pieces.

    1. I realized, shortly after posting, that I had misrepresented the gist of that FanGraphs article. (My memory no-doubt atrophied by soaking in the modern technological milieu.) The piece probably illustrates your point even more vividly. Jaffe doesn’t address a possible conflict between analytics and aesthetics, but focuses on the numbers surrounding the manufacturing of baseballs. Though, to be fair, I’m sure he has mulled over the possible conflict between correct strategy and an enjoyable game at one time or another. It’s an idea that’s thick in the air these days – mostly because the friction has become glaringly obvious, even among proponents of sabermetrics.

      I’d have done better to reference this piece from last season: https://www.theringer.com/mlb/2018/10/11/17962146/bullpenning-starting-pitcher-protagonist-cost
      or this one, published on Bill James’ site, no less: https://www.billjamesonline.com/how_sabermetrics_has_ruined_baseball/

      Apologies for the non-sequitur.

  2. This article (which I’ve enjoyed reading) reminds me of one written by Joe Posnanski. I used to read Posnanski all the time when he was with the Kansas City Star, but for some reason I forget about him. Randy G. has gotten on my case about not reading him. Anyway, Joe. P. writes a similar column about technology and the trade-offs we make for having it by comparing the great throws by Yoenis Cespedes in 2014 and Bo Jackson in 1989.

    The former was in high-def, came complete with four different camera angles, and people could see it over and over again on Youtube within a day (now a few hours or less). You watch the Cespedes play and you can see a guy in the field level seats filming the action on his phone.

    The latter had maybe two camera angles, starting out with a split screen (ooooh). As Joe P mentions, you don’t even see Jackson pick up the ball or actually throw the ball. You see Harold Reynolds rounding third. The audience is as surprised as the catcher, Bob Boone, to see the ball coming, because he had started to walk off the field and instead makes an amazing tag.

    You would’ve either had to have been watching the game live to see the replay or watched it on the sports segment of the news. The next time it would pop up would be two weeks later on This Week in Baseball (Gathering Crowds) or on the occasional baseball’s greatest highlights show every few years. After that The Throw becomes a thing of legend. You don’t pull out a phone to watch it (like you can today with the grainy footage). People talked about it at a picnic, or at the barber shop, or at a Royals game. “Man, remember that throw Bo made? Harold Reynolds still can’t believe it!”

    Plus, by not seeing the video constantly, the Throw can actually take on a life of its own. People would probably embellish the story a bit. Those like me that like accuracy would be going stir-crazy listening to it thinking, “No, that’s not what happened!” But I wonder if we should let the embellishments stay. Let people tell the story and get lost in it, rather than try to analyze it to death.

    The trade off is in what we have as a memory. People still talk about Bo’s throw. How many people talk about Cespedes’?

    https://joeposnanski.substack.com/p/the-throw-2114

    By the way, don’t you still ow me a beer for the Royals win in 2015?

  3. Yes, I believe I do. If you ever meet a Royals fan named Tim, be sure to ask him, “Does the name L.M. Sacasas ring a bell?” and you might just get to collect on the debt. I extend this offer to any Mets fan reading this comment*.

    *Limit three Mets fans. Not valid in Alaska or Hawaii.

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