"The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it. I'll tell you what has happened, these guys played Rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever the f— they went and they thought they figured the f—ing game out. They don't know s—.” – Goose Gossage, March 11, 2016.
Perhaps some of you heard about this quote, which came from a member of both the baseball and the mustache Hall of Fame, Richard Gossage. It made all the newspapers. For those of you born after 1990, it made all the podcasts. And the backlash was mostly loud and somewhat predictable. It’s March, and now that we finally got our wish to have the pitchers and catchers report and start playing (pretend) games, we’ve come to realize that the games aren’t all that interesting when the only thing at stake is figuring out who the Red Sox' fifth outfielder is going to be. So, the comments probably got more press than they should have, mostly because we’re all bored.
Despite Mr. Gossage’s less than elegant f—ing vocabulary, I think he raises an issue that’s actually worth considering, even though he may not even have known it: baseball’s ability to be culturally competent. And I don’t mean it in the sense that in the same article, Mr. Gossage made comments about Jose Bautista and Yoenis Cespedes which seemed to tie Mr. Gossage’s distaste for overt displays of emotion on the baseball diamond to Mr. Bautista’s and Mr. Cespedes’s Latin American ancestry. At least not directly. That particular thread deserves its own examination elsewhere.
Whether or not it’s the case that the “nerds running the game” have actually figured the f—ing game out, Mr. Gossage felt the need to comment on the matter. I don’t think what he said is actually as important as the way that he said it. The clinical psychologist in me recognized the behavior right away. He doesn’t think that he’s being heard, and so he threw a tantrum. (Before you get all haughty about that, everyone – including you and me — does this from time to time.) And like a lot of people who throw a tantrum when they feel like they’re not being heard, the message was also easily recognizable. You don’t understand me. Whether he speaks just for himself or for a select group of players or for all baseball players or for all baseball players of a certain age, it’s worth asking the question. Do the nerds really understand Goose Gossage?
Yes, it matters. It matters because Gossage has some constituency among the players and coaches currently taking the field in those pretend games who would agree with his statements about “the nerds.” We’re good at the #GoryMath, but are we good at the #GoryCulture?
There’s a tendency to reduce “culture” to an examination of race/ethnicity, or at least through racial and ethnic categories that correspond to how groups are clustered in the United States. That’s a big part of culture and it shouldn’t be discounted, but there’s also a lot more to it than that. As a Midwesterner living in the South, I can say that there are subtle differences that I’ve picked up on here. Some of them are mere trivia, others actually make a difference in my life. Culture is more than skin-deep.
Consider for a moment the move afoot among teams to improve their player’s diets, particularly at the minor league level. Once you realize that interventions like springing for healthier fare for the guys and hiring a chef to help them learn how to make better food choices can actually return on-field value, then it’s a matter of designing a food distribution program that will reach the players. Sounds easy, but let’s remember that a meal is a cultural product. Baseball players come from a lot of different parts of the world, and people eat different things in different parts of the world. It isn’t that baseball players (or people in general) can’t ever learn to appreciate new foods. They certainly can. Just ask my Russian wife who makes fantastic manicotti. But there will always be someone who will want the foods that he grew up with, and that can vary from region to region, country to country, and across all sorts of lines. It’s one thing to acknowledge that paying attention to nutrition is a good idea. It’s another to implement it in a way that will actually serve its purpose. Are the people who are implementing the program actually skilled in understanding the cultural needs of the 200 or so guys in the organization? That can be the difference between a food program that makes a sustained impact on the health of an organization and one that just wastes a lot of money on catering.
Then there’s implementing all that on-field stuff that we spend so much time making pretty graphs about. Smith would be a better pitcher if he threw his curveball more. Jones would be a better hitter if he didn’t swing as much. This here regression proves it. Those statements may actually be true, but someone has to tell that to Smith and Jones for it to make a difference. Not only that, but someone has to convince them to change their behavior. That’s probably going to come from someone in a position of authority, and authority itself is a cultural construct. More than that, Smith and Jones may have grown up with totally different concepts of what authority sounds like. Some people respond to the velvet glove, some to the iron fist. It’s not that knowing where a player was born will tell you which one he will react to, but the idea differs around the world (and even within the United States). It’s not that someone who was raised in one part of the world can’t become cognizant enough of other ways of doing things that s/he can’t adapt, but it takes a little work to get to that place.
Finally, there is the issue that I think Goose Gossage was trying to bring up directly in the quote at the top of this column. Baseball itself has its own culture, even if it isn’t a unified culture. Gossage brings up the question of whether nerds who went to Harvard (or wherever the f— it was that I went) can understand that culture. It’s a classic question. Can an outsider truly appreciate the culture? While mathematically, it might make sense to structure a bullpen a certain way, would it make sense to the people who actually have to live that out? Once we account for how the new bullpen structure changes the culture of the bullpen, do we have pitchers who now are living in a strange land? Is there a cultural cost to implementing the strategy that we aren’t accounting for? Deep down, I think that’s what Mr. Gossage was trying to say. He may or may not be correct, but his question can’t be dismissed out of hand.
Do we have baseball figured out, or a sterilized and stylized approximation of the game figured out? As pretentious as it is to call anything the #NewMoneyball (there are about 10 things that can properly be called the #NewMoneyball), I’d suggest that the answer to this question of cultural competence and how we move things from spreadsheet to locker room is one of the key struggles that will define the next generation of Sabermetrics. It will separate the teams who get good mileage out of what treasures they find hidden in the spreadsheets and the teams who just have a few quants running numbers in a back office somewhere.
In the off-season, there was talk of an “Ivy Invasion” into baseball’s front offices. Suddenly, it’s more likely than not that a team’s GM spent four years at a prestigious university, rather than having spent four years playing for the Blue Jays back in the 80s. It’s not just the GMs either. There are plenty of Ivy League diplomas hanging on the walls of a bunch of other baseball operations offices throughout the game. In fact, there’s a critique to be made that the way in which new baseball operations workers are minted (the pipeline of GM candidates) is set up to favor these folks. Baseball, like a lot of industries, “screens” its future employees through an internship process. A lot of times, it’s an unpaid internship process. Not that they have much trouble finding people who are willing to move to a city for a summer and work for nothing to get their foot in the door.
Who can spend a summer in a city where they’ve never been and pay for an apartment and food, despite not making any income? It would take someone who has a support system – usually parents – who can foot the bill for such things. Not only does that significantly limit the pool of talent that a team can draw from, but it also selects for people who come from economically more well-off families. Remember how we talked about how culture is much more than race/ethnicity? Do you think socio-economic status might come with some trappings of culture built in?
Again, birthplace is not destiny. Among those who study cultural competence, there is talk of people who are consciously competent and those who are unconsciously competent. (One can also be both types of incompetent.) Those who are unconsciously competent in understanding a culture are most often those who have lived within the culture. Not everyone who lives in a culture is good at navigating it, but those who are need little explanation for some of the quirks that might trip up someone who is less tuned in. Those who are consciously competent have taken the time to learn those quirks. That’s entirely possible, but again, requires a bit of work.
In something that just about anywhere else in the journalistic world would be a massive violation of ethics, but is a piece of the Sabermetric community culture that people have just come to accept, I have interviewed with teams about job openings in the past. I have consulted for a couple of them here and there. (The same teams that I write about each week. This is part of why I don’t call myself a journalist.) One of the questions that I always found rather interesting was “Did you play?” I do have a 40 fastball, though that’s denominated in miles per hour, rather than a scouting grade. At first, I puzzled over that question. Why ask that? I’m interviewing to run regression equations. The obvious reason that I see now is that they were trying to get at this idea of unconscious cultural competence in the world of baseball culture.
It’s comforting that teams have bothered to ask the question. They understand that someone like me at least needs to demonstrate conscious cultural competence. But then again, it’s not like baseball as a whole has a stellar record on the topic in general. When Gabe Kapler was hired in late 2014 as the Dodgers’ director of player development and decreed that all Dodger minor league affiliates would have at least one Spanish-speaking coach, this actually made news. Considering that more than a quarter of MLB players were born outside the United States, most of them in countries where Spanish is the lingua franca, it seems strange that someone actually had to mandate that.
The danger that a baseball team runs by drawing its baseball operations departments from a select pool of people from well-to-do backgrounds, and yes, Goose Gossage’s “nerd” colleges, is to set up a situation where unconscious cultural incompetence prevails. It’s not that teams are hiring blatant racists any more (and good for that!) It’s that when everyone shares the same or near the same cultural assumptions, they run risk of not asking a key question on whether the people whom they need to buy into this great new idea, whether that’s the players or the coaches or the scouts or the fans or the guys in the silly costumes racing each other in the middle of the sixth inning also buys into that assumption. And if not, will that make a difference. There are ways around that (ask the questions!) but the greatest plans are not often scuttled by the wrong answer to a question, but by the silence that accompanies the question that no one thought to ask.
When Mr. Gossage went on his now-famous tirade a week and a half ago, he blamed “nerds” for (among other things) the Buster Posey Rule (against home plate collisions with the catcher), the Chase Utley rule (against take out slides at second base), the use of pitch counts, and the demise of multi-inning relievers. He clearly values a game which involves more contact (and injury risk), likely as a way to establish dominance within the game. Perhaps the fear that the possibility of these events creates some edge that he feels that players and teams should be able to use. Whether the game is better or worse off for these developments is something of a matter of taste, but it brings up an interesting question.
Prior to the Buster Posey rule being implemented, there were already managers who instructed their catchers not to block the plate aggressively. Conceding one run was not worth the risk of losing the catcher to injury for three months. I suppose that statement could be tested mathematically, but let’s assume that it is factually true. Does the catcher have a cultural value around protecting “his” territory, even at the risk of personal injury? Is it noble to sacrifice oneself for the team, even if that doesn’t make logical sense? Does that loss of honor mean that the catcher will slack off somehow and hurt the team more than just letting him have his chance to be a hero? Maybe. Maybe not. Did anyone ask the question?
I’d propose that Sabermetrics (yes, you beautiful nerds, I’m talking to you) needs Gossage’s Law. When proposing some sort of remedy to whatever problem the spreadsheet says is out there, run it by Goose Gossage. Too often, we are too convinced of our own cultural competence around baseball… sorry, to believe that we have the f—ing game figured out. It’s not that Goose should have the final veto power over things. After all, he doesn’t have a monopoly on having things figured out either. He might be wrong. But he looks at the game from a different vantage point. He probably asks different questions than I would, questions that I wouldn’t think to ask, but once I heard them, I’d realize that they needed to be asked. We ignore Goose Gossage’s message at our own peril.
And yes, teams need this too. I have to assume that some teams have methods for implementing Gossage’s Law and to consider issues like culture when putting together whatever plan they are working on. I have to assume that some teams are behind on this one. In a world where just about every team has an analytics department (and all of them do now…) the ones who will have the advantage are the ones who are thinking about the translation of that work into plans that go beyond the numbers and into implementation.
Thank you for reading
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