Note: Before you begin reading this article, I’d like to ask you to make a little wager. No prizes, just pride. The question: After this paragraph, will the author mention former journeyman starting pitcher Tim Belcher? Don’t search for it, don’t cheat. Just guess.
Thanks. Okay, ready? Let’s begin.
[The Wrigley bleachers. RICHIE enters; his pocket is lined with pens, and one of the lenses of his glasses are cracked. DECKER and ZIG are watching batting practice, going on offscreen.]
RICHIE (desperate): Hey, Zig, Zig! I’ll give you the Cubs, six to five!
ZIG: You ain’t givin’ me nothin’, except a pain in my tuches.
RICHIE [Turning to Decker]: C’mon, make me a bet, I want some action here! C’mon!
DECKER: Alright, alright. You wanna go on the gate? Whaddya say?
RICHIE: Okay, sure, sure! Supposed to be pretty big here today. Looks big. Uh… thirty thousand!
DECKER: Alright, I’ll make–
RICHIE: Wait, wait, no, no. Thirty-one.
DECKER: I’ll take–
RICHIE: Well, no, nah. [nods.] It’s thirty-two.
RICHIE: No… thirty-one. [Decker stares at him, he nods.]
DECKER: I’ll say thirty-three.
RICHIE (whining): For a buck, right?
DECKER: You’re on.
(From the opening scene of Bleacher Bums, 1979 WTTW Channel 11 movie)
In one sense, I try not to gamble. Part of it is that I’m generally risk-averse, living as I do on a short stack; my liberal arts degree taught me to keep both my expenses and my income lean. A larger part is that I find most gambling games boring. I hazily recall a scene from the miniseries I, Claudius, where the emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in the world, tossed a pair of dice into the dust while his coterie cheered over whether they came up even or odd. It seemed almost barbaric in its simplicity. And yet it isn’t much different than heading to the craps or roulette tables, the same concept dressed in extra digits. Or compare it to the easily-mastered dominant strategies of games like Monopoly or Battleship, the thrill of victory far removed from a sense of accomplishment.
At its base level, baseball is no different. If I were to somehow trick my 3-year-old daughter into investing herself into a single game–say with a bowl of ice cream if the blue team gets more runs–the seemingly random action would spill out in front of her in slow motion, like the tumblers falling in a slot machine. She’d resort to watching the numbers on the chyron increment, like a story already written. Las Vegas, with its betting lines, seeks to maintain this point of childlike indifference, distilling any skill out of the act of gambling and leaving only the thrill of the act itself.
At its worst, as a tragic flaw, gambling addiction is revolting to witness: the compulsion it breeds, the rationalization and the destruction of self-interest and rationality that can tear apart lives. It’s Richie, from the passage above, who is no longer gaining something pleasant out of the risk but has clearly lost something else. The dollar he risks, someday a thousand, is no longer equivalent to the dollar he gains; neither dollar, in fact, matters at all. Nor does the subject of the bet, the meaningless attendance total, of which he lacks even a strong opinion. As the others continue to bet for “real” stakes, Richie attempts to insert himself, but they reject him, push him away like an obnoxious drunk, protect him for their own sake.
That’s not the cause of the stigma of gambling as connected to professional sports, of course; baseball has always officially rebuked the practice, partially because of its insulation from the gambler but primarily because of the near-downfall of the pastime in its early days. And yet, as gambling itself has crept toward social acceptance in the modern, libertarian era, it’s also begun to pervade baseball as well, most recently through the brilliant, flickering flame of daily fantasy sports. But fantasy baseball in general, dating back to Daniel Okrent’s local diner, connects baseball to gambling in a different way.
There’s another sense in which I gamble all the time. We all do. The popular image of the gambler is the person bent low over the tables, a thick cloud hovering just above, refracting stray lasers into cancerous balls of light. But this gambling is only a single type, a simplified, monetary one, refined so tightly that only the money and its promise remains. And yet everything we do is technically a gamble, as it relates to the future: the decision to go seven over the limit on the freeway, the calculus of predicting both wealth and contentment when choosing between MFA and MBA. Each morning we get up and make gambles based on how we think the world will work that day.
It’s this level of gambling that draws so many of us to the game: not actual wagering, which is already so much easier in the high-scoring, high-instance sports of basketball and football. It’s the guessing, and the feeling of being right. It’s what devotes the common fan to the holy tradition of second-guessing the manager, what drives the billions in the fantasy baseball business. In this, the money is secondary, almost a service rendered, because it’s no longer the most interesting part; while games of chess for money can bring satisfaction, it can also just feel good to win. Predicting the future, and the expertise that comes with writing about it and understanding it, is the bigger thrill.
Perhaps the true endpoint for the progression of fantasy sports, or at least the next stop on the search for variety, is to break down the sport even further, to mix monetary gambling with the predictive gambling already inherent in the sport. The closest current approximation for this is the prop bet, like Richie’s ridiculous attendance wager. In the online age, however, the game theory of baseball presents far better opportunity for this kind of instantaneous wagering though the game theory that goes on in the field. Betting on managerial decisions are possible, but too slow and too easily tampered with. You don’t want anything that could open up opportunities to affect the game itself.
Instead, I can envision an app for a smart device that synchronizes with a given game. The player’s goal: to guess, as recorded by PITCHfx, what type of pitch will be thrown in each count. Players in a league would receive points for their correct guesses, and have them subtracted for missed calls. Tendencies for various pitchers (including Wade Leblanc’s contrarianism) can be studied, game and run states would be taken into account. Pitch fantasy contestants would perform against each other, with the provider taking a cut from the league (or from the paid advice), meaning that everyone can go ahead and guess on the 3-0 fastball.
It would be the Ian Kennedy 2-1 delivery, man on second with two outs, where the challenge lies. Kennedy knows the quality of his pitches; the batter knows as well, and estimates what he should expect; the audience makes its own call. It would be like betting on poker, but not the actual poker itself: instead, it would be betting on how the players would bet.
Contrast this hypothetical gambler to poor Richie. Sure, there would still be Richies, pressing buttons on a screen and watching the dollar total go up and down. But there’s so much unconscious skill in the act of prediction: it requires a level of perception, and intuition, to read into a string of variables and break its code. Is Aroldis Chapman throwing only sliders in Game 7 because he’s tired and has nothing left on his fastball? Or is he doing it to set up the batter for a pitch up at the eyes?
Also contrast this concept of gambling with the smoke-filled casino and its random, unbeatable games. One could argue that, given a small stake, this type of gambling is actually a good thing. Probability has forever been a subject neglected in math classes, banished to the back of the algebra textbook in the pages the teacher never quite reaches. It’s not left there because it’s not useful, but because it’s hard to teach. Even when the mathematical computations themselves are simple matters–multiplication and factorials–it’s the counter-intuitive nature of the concept that proves difficult. Probability is one of those things that has to be felt, not explained.
You can explain to a child the distribution of a pair of dice, even draw them a colorful chart. But the best way to really show how the numbers settle out is to roll those dice a hundred times and list off the results. It’s the only surefire way to defeat the human instinct of recency bias that drives the sports radio caller to fury: “Why didn’t he use his best pitch in the big spot?” Charting pitch usage, and charting pitch usage predictions by hypothetical fantasy players, would reveal valuable data regarding our patterns, our pattern recognition, and how difficult it is to be truly random.
Game-calling ability is one of the most fertile current grounds for research in today’s sabermetric landscape; fantasy leagues built around it would only drive interest and money toward better understanding it. Building a real-time, pitch-based fantasy league seems crazy. It probably is. But people, as we all know, can bet on just about anything. It’s not a business idea that I’m going to invest my life fortune in tomorrow, but I’d bet it would be interesting if someone did.
(By the way: if you guessed that the Dodgers starter from the introductory paragraph would get mentioned, I’m afraid you lost. But at least it made reading the article a little more exciting, right?)
Thank you for reading
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