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May 1, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

Spitting Imaging

by Rob Warmowski

‚ÄčBelieve it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Rob Warmowski is a writer and consultant living in Chicago.  Baseball fans are invited to follow him on Twitter at @whitesoxski.
 

"My industry is comprised of human capital—the players are our assets."
—Paul DePodesta

Innovation. Freedom. Entrepreneurship. How many buzzwords have we been taught describing what makes big business successful? How many of them are nonsense?

All of them.

Fortunes are most often made with one common ingredient: the relentless exploitation of the people who do all the work. The greater the fortune, the greater the exploitation that built it.

Without owners busily extracting wealth from a working class of irreplaceable talents, the history of the United States wouldn't be very United Statesy. Averaging as we do the lowest number of vacation days in the western world, exploitation is our true national pastime. Baseball is only the humane face of the American workplace.

As a fan and student of this greatest of games, I celebrate baseball as a benign laboratory of worker exploitation. I can afford to be cheerful about it; unlike most such laboratories, the game was strongly unionized recently. Considered chattel in my lifetime, players fought for and won compensation more or less commensurate with contribution. Or, in Barry Zito's case, theoretical contribution. (Wait, that joke might not work anymore.)

All workplaces monitor, all laboratories measure. But where most workplace surveillance grimly centers on disappearing office supplies, web browsing, and bathroom breaks, baseball's inspires something incredible. It compels perfect strangers to join in the hunt for someone else's hidden or leaking money.

Once, efficiency experts were rarefied elites, buttoned-down Bob McNamaras with impeccable pedigrees hired by corporate titans to "do more with less." Today, a sabermetrician is anybody who claims to be one, part of a volunteer army of independent, often pantsless technocrats gazing into spreadsheets with all the electric animation of Jonah Hill's monofacial performance in Moneyball. Like all the internet's past murder victims—the music business, civil discourse, porn magazines—formal qualifications for this job fit into the wood chipper just fine.

Nothing wrong with any of that, especially for owners. But when it comes to player evaluation techniques, we're told the new and the old don't get along. That's just an oversold narrative: objective-minded statheads and subjective-minded scouts are really two sides of the same coin jingling in an owner's pocket. Without the people who do all the work, neither one is much worth talking about.

Not so for everybody in the field. If it's an objective innovation in employee monitoring systems you're after, look to PITCHf/x and its inventor Sportvision's upcoming expansion on the theme, FIELDf/x. Sportvision's work involves, well, work. Original, non-derivative work. Theirs are engineering accomplishments involving monstrously tough and expensive problems in computer science, video motion capture, and physics. Even though FIELDf/x has yet to be widely described or deployed, one presumes it will tell a very data-heavy story of every batted ball, starting with the wind and the shift, including trajectory and fielder route and ending with, say, Curtis Granderson's latest baffling route to the ball. FIELDf/x promises a giant step in wiping out the subjectivity of defensive stats.

As is the story across capitalism, the people who do all the original work have to contend with the people above who don't, and the more original the work, the tougher that challenge becomes. FIELDf/x' financial and political hurdles are unprecedented. FIELDf/x, as compared to PITCHf/x, is much more difficult to pull off, and the amount of data it handles would dwarf PITCHf/x, driving expenses up.

So reportedly high is this expense, and so great are the potential payoffs for owners, the likely scenario for the deployment of FIELDf/x does not resemble that of PITCHf/x. It's not likely that its data will be freely shared the way the information produced by PITCHf/x is. To put it one way, to get at this data, the technocrat blogosphere will likely be forced to put on pants.

Closing off a completed and working FIELDf/x to the sabermetric community would be a minor tragedy. Not just because the current subjectivity in defensive statistics should be thrown aside for the common good, but because there's no reason to believe that good old fashioned 'merican knowhow can't find a solution. Also, because I don't want to put on pants.

A bold idea is needed to bridge the gap between the thirst for information and the costs of building a magnificent information fountain.

Today, that bold idea is CHAWf/x.

CHAWf/x is a clandestine extension I propose to be built into FIELDf/x. Where FIELDf/x' job is to watch the relationship between batted balls and fielders, CHAWf/x will, at the same time, motion-capture not baseballs, but player tobacco spit.

The system will capture spit frequency, discharge viscosity, left-right-center orientation, plug consumption incidence, cheek bulge, dribble, chaw/dip preference, and other basic variables associated with smokeless tobacco use.

These events will be compiled into statistics, such as D/I (average discharges per inning), ASD (spitting distance on average) WIT (wind-independent sputum trajectory), and so on.

Compiling a salivary profile of each player should have a low marginal cost when tacked onto the overarching FIELDf/x data capture and processing costs. Which means that if appropriately monetized, CHAWf/x could pay the big bills for FIELDf/x's development and deployment.

So how does data on tobacco use translate into dollars? Any health insurance executive already knows that answer. A secondary market in consumer data has long existed to provide intelligence on individuals to a variety of industries. One industry most interested in learning the consumption habits of people is the industry that earns profit by insuring—or declining to insure—the healthcare costs of those same people. Use of unhealthy products is a matter of great interest to insurers.

Major League Baseball could simply join that market. Like any workplace surveillance program, CHAWf/x-FIELDf/x would pay for itself by delivering data on player employees that enables the powers that be to optimize risk and loss management. In this case, that management would be MLB's health insurance carriers. The actuarial tables telling the story of smokeless tobacco use and medical risk have been part and parcel of the insurance industry for decades. To link them in a meaningful way with player coverage risk is all that's needed to unlock hidden value.  MLB and the carriers negotiate into the next CBA a clause that withholds some degree of medical benefits for those players statistically identified by CHAWf/x. Insurance carrier projects the future savings, then uses some of the saved revenue in the present to finance FIELDf/x in every park. Done.

Devious? Deeply intrusive? Exploitative? Ethically bankrupt?

I prefer to call it American business as usual.

Related Content:  PITCHf/x,  FIELDf/x

2 comments have been left for this article.

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