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Baseball is coming out of a culture war fought between establishment forces and a coalition of forces representing the values of modern capitalism, the democratization of publishing[1] and the advancement of empirical science. The end result of this war is that while 25 years ago, baseball was run by baseball men who did baseball things for baseball reasons, and was commented on by men who viewed the game largely through that lens, people who run the teams are younger men with business degrees, who employ physicists, statisticians, scientists and engineers to figure out how to understand how to build a winning team. Some of these empiricists reside in a somewhat more diverse media landscape, alongside orthodox baseball voices as well as people who came to at least some level of authority involving baseball through nontraditional means.

I can’t speak to what’s happening in front offices themselves, but in media, the war metaphor is instructive. The so-called baseball people and their adherents resent that the intellectual hegemony they enjoyed before baseball’s empirical revolution, and before the advent of the internet, is gone. Like any conquered population, some are adapting and moving on under the new paradigm, while others are attempting to stage an insurgency.

Meanwhile, the victorious coalition, now with nobody else to fight, is starting to fracture. Empiricists fight amongst themselves over methodological issues, and against statistically literate but non-research-focused writers and fans who care a little, but not, like, that much. Part of the democratization of publishing means that many of the writers who didn’t start as beat reporters came through team-focused sites—including me—which often makes the coalition of online writers an uneasy one as Cubs fans snipe at Cardinals fans, Yankees fans snipe at Red Sox fans, and so on.[2]

The other—and more insidious—side effect of writer partisanship is that entering the game from a standpoint of team allegiance naturally makes people side with the team in issues that have real-world implications: labor disputes, stadium funding, and so on, which leads to at least discomfort with the growing portion of the baseball public that not only cares about the game for its own sake, but as an instrument for political and social progress.

The war has been won. So how do we win the peace?

In other words, let’s talk about this.

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” wrote the psychologist Abraham Maslow—an aphorism that came to be known as Maslow’s hammer.[3] So when you hire MBAs and mathematicians to run your team, they’re going to look for quantifiable solutions to problems that might not be quantifiably solvable—ontologial blindness, as a professor of mine used to say. The possibility exists that we might be turning the game over to numbers people, just as we start running into problems that numbers people are staggeringly ill-equipped to solve.

In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski discover that team morale was the new market inefficiency, so to speak—making sure foreign players assimilated to their new surroundings, and the like. Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger took English soccer by storm by educating his players on diet and fitness, allowing them—if only for a short time—to run roughshod over athletes who played an endurance sport but subsisted mostly on potatoes and beer. Are these scientific questions? To an extent, but at the risk of falling back on a tired cliché, the players are human beings. Discovering a solution, or an inefficiency, is pretty straightforward. Implementing it, getting buy-in from employees whose goals and wants aren’t always the same as their employers’, is anything but straightforward.

To some extent, that’s why athletes are trained to be obedient, almost from birth. “Put the team first” is a mantra of self-abnegation that’s uttered on every 6U team in North America. It’s a big part of the reason why military metaphors are so common in sports—no one’s obedience is more important than a soldier’s. Soldiers doing what they’re told is a matter of life and death, and sometimes of unfathomable political and historical importance, so if athletes see themselves as soldiers, they’ll do what they’re told.

Of course, the idea that anything that happens on a baseball diamond is that important is patent nonsense to anyone who thinks about it even for a moment, and when athletes start thinking, their employers need to find alternate means of persuasion.

That’s where philosophers come in. Or if not philosophers, people who can persuade athletes that their incentives line up with the team’s—or better yet, actually make the incentives line up.

It’s even more important in the media. In today’s frenzied and polarized political atmosphere, we talk a lot about existential threats. One existential threat to the republic is false equivalence. The idea, in so many words, that we’ve gotta hear both sides. While commentators and reporters bend over backwards avoid the appearance of bias, consumers see it everywhere. Because all versions of the truth get reported, people see inconvenient facts as evidence of bias and disregard them.

The bedrock of journalism isn’t avoiding bias, it’s pursuing the truth, and the standard isn’t balance, it’s fairness. American elections take place under single-member plurality rules, which Duverger’s Law[4] states makes us into a two-party system. The practical result of this is that we tend to look at politically divisive issues as having two discrete and equally valid options, when the truth is there might only be one, or there might be five, or 500.

To put it in baseball terms, we’ve got a tendency to choose from an existing menu of options and dig in. Is Mike Trout the MVP, or is Miguel Cabrera? Is UZR the best defensive standard, or is FRAA, or Total Zone? Too rarely do we express uncertainty, or even apathy—sometimes it really just doesn’t matter.

Even more rarely do we think to consider the idea that institutions and traditions do not need to be respected, or that they could be changed if enough people wanted them to.

Political scientists ask “What makes people vote the way they do?” the way sabermetricians ask “How do we measure the value of a baseball player?”

Political operatives ask “How can we get people to vote for a particular candidate?” the way GMs ask “How can we win more ballgames?”

Political philosophers ask “What is justice?”

I don’t know what the equivalent question is in baseball, but I want us to ask and answer it.

Let’s be philosophers.



[1] This war started so long ago that you could accurate describe this wing of the coalition as “Web 2.0”

[2] Except Giants fans, who have experienced so much victory in the past five years they’re immune to unhappiness and incapable of experiencing anger anymore.

[3] One of my professional goals is to coin a saying that ends up on Wikipedia’s list of eponymous laws. If it ends up being called Baumann’s Hammer, that’d be cool by me.

[4] Another eponymous law, the best kind of law.

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kcshankd
4/14
Schrodinger's cat calling balls and strikes.
oldbopper
4/14
This article is superb. Just like everything in life, the pendulum swings back and forth and is only near the middle for brief periods. In baseball it goes without saying that the analytical approach is ascending, but has, maybe, perhaps, possibly already passed equilibrium. All the while the field is shifting quite rapidly, as it should, toward increased use of advanced analytics but what is the correct balance? Does a team only draft pitchers who are at least 6'4" and ignore Marcus Stroman or Luis Severino? Is the ability to hit in college a much better indicator of major league ability than bat speed and and big tools in high school? Can these be quantified? Will the team that still uses the eye test more than the stop watch and tape measure be more successful? Which team will recognize the value of baserunners and attack the shift differently? I know if I was managing the Braves it is something that might be worth a try. In the meantime, Let's Play Ball!
kmostern
4/14
The baseball question is "what makes baseball aesthetically interesting to watch," and the only reason this isn't obvious is because people think that athletics and the arts are two different things.
cjgeisler
4/15
"Because all versions of the truth get reported, people see inconvenient facts as evidence of bias and disregard them." Thank you for summing up the US political system in one sentence.
carlbrownson
4/16
As a professional philosopher and a committed baseball addict nutjob, I think about this a *lot*. I think there are many, many unexplored and under explored baseball-philosophical questions to work through: questions of language and meaning, aesthetic questions, metaphysical questions (about identity and change in the game, for instance, or about necessities and contingencies, time, etc., etc.), questions about the intersection between the physical and mental - I could go on and on.

Deeply underexplored world to mine here. I might do some of it myself when I get a chance.
qwik3457bb
4/17
How about: What wins baseball games?