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Image credit: USA Today Sports

Last week, the civilian formerly known as Jayson Werth engaged in some radio conversation with Howard Eskin, and the conversation turned to sabermetrics. If you haven’t read his comments at this point, you’ve read them under other guises, but they are also included here:

“They’ve got all these super nerds in the front office that know nothing about baseball but they like to project numbers and project players,” Werth said.

“… I think it’s killing the game. It’s to the point where just put computers out there. Just put laptops and what have you, just put them out there and let them play. We don’t even need to go out there anymore. It’s a joke.”

“When they come down, these kids from MIT, Stanford, Harvard, wherever they’re from, they’ve never played baseball in their life,” Werth continued. “When they come down to talk about stuff like [shifts], should I just bunt it over there? They’re like, ‘No, don’t do that. We don’t want you to do that. We want you to hit a homer.’ It’s just not baseball to me. We’re creating something that’s not fun to watch. It’s boring. You’re turning players into robots. You’ve taken the human element out of the game.”

It’s an argument that’s bound to soak the average baseball interneteer in nostalgia, and pine for the heady days of Fire Joe Morgan. The computers in the field, the “kids” who have never played the game: these are honored cliches, artifacts from a battle long since fought and lost. The nerds who know nothing about baseball proved how little they knew by winning, and winning so much that the rest of the league was forced to assimilate.

But there’s actually something compelling in Werth’s very old argument, which is that it’s even older and more well-worn than 10 years of talk, or a hundred. It’s an argument we’ve been having for more than two millennia, and may for as long as we exist as a species. And it goes far beyond baseball. The computers and their projection systems are just one facet of a universal threat to our human identity: our free will.

The baseball of our forefathers, of individual heroism and team camaraderie, has slowly shifted away from that model and toward one centering on resource management. It’s become less of a spectacle and more of a puzzle. Granted, it’s a fascinating puzzle, but puzzles and sports are inherently finite; they can be solved. And as it turns out, knowledge and choice have always been, in baseball and in life, conflicting forces. The more we know, the more obvious some actions become, the more automatic. When it comes to questions like “should I eat this bright red berry?” streamlining processes can be extremely valuable; when the question is “which pitch should I throw in this situation?” a single correct choice is less appealing. It takes some of the mystery out of things.

***

The idea of having free will is so fundamental that it’s hard to imagine how we started worrying about it in the first place. And yet every single philosopher from Plato on down has had to comment on it. William James once wrote, a century ago: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” It did not, shockingly, settle things.

There’s an obvious allure to the idea of having free will, and most of it falls under two categories. Free will provides us the ability to take ownership of our own choices and (hopefully) resulting successes; it allows us to feel self-created, meaningful. This is big stuff, but perhaps even more importantly to theologians and politicians is the inverse, that free will allows the existence of ethics. Without choice, there can be no sin; without responsibility, there can be no punishment or justice. Most people don’t sit around worrying about the existence of free will, but it bleeds into every element of society: debates, for example, over the effectiveness of rehabilitation, and the degree to which various criminals are evil or broken.

So we started off under the impression that we got to make our own choices and think our own original thoughts, and everything was fine. Until we started losing it. It became pretty clear that there were things happening, storms and earthquakes and eclipses, that were beyond our control; from that, it became an inevitable slide into either natural/evolutionary or supernatural determinism. Once you start adding gods to the equation, especially gods who know everything and how it fits together and how things affect each other, it’s a short step to knowing the future, like Werth’s laptops (and positioning lasers) in the outfield. And once you have those, we no longer have control. We’re just part of the program.

One of the many feints in the battle of free will is the paradox known as Laplace’s Demon. Laplace, a French scientist, imagined a demon who was theoretically omnipotent: it knew everything in the past, everything in the present, everything in the future. But by knowing this, Laplace noted, the demon had to know its own future, and thus would be powerless to do anything except fulfill it. Laplace didn’t really think much of his own demon at the time, but it’s not hard to swap in God, or a supercomputer, to achieve the same effect. That leads us to the problem of evil, a swamp I really don’t intend to delve into. But the point is that as science progressed from the time of the Greeks, and more of the natural laws became evident, it was easier to string causal events together—and harder to deny that determinism was the true law of the land, and all our perceived freedom dictated by the repercussions of earlier causes we simply don’t recognize.

***

The interesting thing about Jayson Werth’s argument above is not the statistics or the laptops themselves: it’s the contrast he uses of the “human” element. That element, the one that computers and Ivy Leaguers can’t touch, is chaos. There are some areas, Werth is arguing, where the numbers cannot reach—at least not yet—and that in these situations, our ability to improvise, to react unconsciously to the unpredictable, is what comprises the value of baseball.

Epicurus made this argument one generation after the discovery of atoms, and like Democritus for actually nailing that there were atoms at all, his argument ages incredibly well. If the existence of atoms and their natural behavior was a blow against free will, Epicurus argued, there are times when atoms “swerve”—seemingly randomly—and break the causal chain, giving us a chance to add our own input again. This idea got reinforced more than 2,000 years later, when Heisenberg thought about the subatomic particles we were starting to look at under the microscope and realized that the light we were using to see them was changing them. In the world of atomic physics, we don’t get the same order we get with apples and gravity. But it’s not that those particles are random, as Jim Al-Khalili argues in his book, Paradox: it’s that we lack the tools at present to understand how they aren’t random.

This is what the sabermetric revolution did to Jayson Werth: it robbed us of certain elements of the game by putting them under the magnifying glass. We know now that sacrifice bunts are worth -0.02 WPA on average, and that we generally shouldn’t do them. We know that, on a long-term basis, the benefits of leaving in a starter for the no-hitter aren’t worth the potential health risks down the line. We know that swinging down on the ball is less productive offensively. Baseball teams want to win baseball games, and now they have the tools and dominant strategies to do that better than ever before. Of course, it’s natural to blame the computers and the microscopes. But the problem was never with the projection systems; it’s with the game itself, with its lack of multiple win conditions and mixed strategies.

Baseball is a closed universe based on rules and systems, and those systems are designed—purposefully!—to rob people of their freedom. Jayson Werth cannot step into the box and hit the catcher with his bat. He cannot tackle the first baseman on a close 6-3 play. And, if he wants to win based on the conditions in place, he can’t lay a bunt up the first base line no matter how novel or aesthetically pleasing it would be. It’s a losing proposition. The disassociation between the aesthetic and the victorious in baseball, another example of the horrific lack of clarity in the English word “good,” has never been stronger in the game than it is today. Like managers a generation ago with their fancy, generally wasteful in-game strategy, the players on the field have fewer choices than ever before.

But it goes beyond that, as it always does with free will, as you trace everything back through the choices you think you were making. So much of what we’d consider the human element is less human than you’d think. That fraction of an instant when the batter swings the bat, pulling talent out of his muscle memory and subconscious, was planted there through years of training and education, which were developed through their own years of training and education. The decision to shake off the catcher calling for a 3-1 fastball is equally rooted in years of earned, forgotten, instinctual experience. So much of what we think we are, our character, is pounded into us by the external world. The mystery is not in creation—we cannot escape our pasts, and what they have made us—but in veering into the unknowable, the causality that escapes our measurements. We can’t be free, but we can feel free.

***

Many people have mocked Jayson Werth for his comments, but they’re echoed a century ago by the effects of quantum physics. The analytics movement is, undoubtedly, a sea change, and one that the sport hasn’t completely understood. Greater specificity is a box we cannot unopen, and even the Uncertainty Principle couldn’t even save us (as later physicists noted that the randomness on the subatomic level evens out, making the visible world just as predictable and deterministic as before). The only thing keeping us safe is chaos theory: the flap of the butterfly’s wings, the speck of dust on the felt of the pool table before the break. But even these aren’t actually random, just a part of the equation that’s a little too difficult for us to do the math. Yet.

Werth’s case comes out as a little pathetic, given the march of progress, but he’s not wrong regarding the autonomy of the players on the field. We should all want free will, whether we actually have it or not; it’s what gives us purpose, and the things that happen to us meaning. It’s easy to oversimplify his concerns (and he doesn’t help when he proposes to put laptops on the field, leaning into the caricature) and think of him as blaming the super nerds for everything. But they have broken something, at least a little.

Sports are a simplification of life, a narrowing down of human expression that allow for limited verbs, limited nouns, and designated ways to win or lose. That’s part of what makes it appealing to the spectator: it can be understood. A pitcher can’t give up seven runs, draw a beautiful sketch of the first baseman as he’s waiting to be lifted from the game, and declare his day a victory. But the pleasures of watching (and playing) baseball rest in a balance between too few and too many limitations, that fine line between being understandable and being boring. We’re not hovering over that edge yet, but we are drifting a little toward the boring side. Fortunately, we’ve got one thing in our favor: baseball is completely artificial and arbitrary. Nothing is permanently broken.

It’s just that instead of complaining about the laptops on the field, we might need to build a sport that gives them more to do.

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ChicagoOriole
8/17
But Werth is right that the computers are missing something. It is a long season for both players and fans. The computers dictate monotony. How can players be expected to maintain a high level of commitment, and fans a high level of interest in the face of that? The occasional crazy bunt might be able to do something for player morale and fan interest, things the computers are not figuring.
Aaron Barbara
8/24
Correct the avg is a slight negative however that average, like any avg, is derived from all outcomes positive and negative. Therefore that strategy ,like any, is useful when applied correctly, optimally as a surprise, most strategies are successful when well executed and the opponent is not expecting it. So surprise (sarcastic emoji) sports have an intellectual element. Computers calculate average result often without regard to the timing a strategy is used.
Carlton Davis
8/17
You are an awesome writer Patrick!
Patrick Dubuque
8/17
Thanks. I really appreciate it.
Michael McKay
8/17
Patrick -- thanks for a great article -- there's one point Werth mentioned that does nag at me -- have SABRmetrics pushed baseball in a direction where the fundamental entertainment product is "less interesting"? Helping teams to win, but at the expense of -- no fans to watch? That's a serious Karma blowback.

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