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May 8, 2014

Pebble Hunting

The Baseball Sandbox Experiment

by Sam Miller


When Ken Rosenthal wrote about his interview of Astros GM Jeff Luhnow last week, he included this line: “Some think the "team of the future" is making frequent use of shifts merely to gather information for the future. Not so, Luhnow said.”

Just like that, in two sentences, Rosenthal introduced us to a conspiracy that we were unaware of, then quoted a denial of it. I’ll take the Astros at their word, and trust that they’re—

Hey, why are you winking at me? No, I’m serious. I’ll take the Astros at their wor—

Stop winking at me. I mean it. I believe the Astro—

Ugh, you cynics are the worst. Really, if the Astros felt like testing some new theory of defense in game situations, it would be easy enough to do it on backfields, instructional leagues, rookie ball games, places where nobody’s watching and winning doesn’t matter. Look, money-saving service-time shenanigans are one thing; opting not to invest short-term expenses on a lost cause is one thing; but, thus far, so far as we know, no baseball team has used its pitiable place in the winning cycle as justification not to try to win once it actually takes the field. Doing so would be a whole new doctrine for tanking, one that I don't believe has existed at this level of the sport to date.

But now imagine with me: What if they were doing experiments just to gather research for the seasons that matter to them, or were at least open to the idea? What if you had a team that was, under practically no circumstances, going to compete for an achievement of significance this year? In a ruthless, business-oriented approach to running a team, every asset would be maximized for future profits, and one of the assets that a bad team has is that it gets to play 162 games however it wants to play them. You and I can’t run an experiment using real-life baseball action. A major-league team can, theoretically. If chaining a top prospect to the minors for a few months just to take money out of his pocket is considered moral in Major League Baseball, why not a few controlled studies?

So here are the rules: The experiment has to look enough like baseball that you don’t get expelled from the league or otherwise sanctioned. For that matter, it’s probably best that even your own players can’t suss out your motives, lest morale suffer when they realize that despite all their range they’re still just a rat in a cage. So it has to either be invisible or a credible effort at winning.

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<< Previous Article
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