A Rainy Day Post
Happy candy hangover day, everybody!
Game 3 of the World Series was rained out on Monday night, as you know, so let’s just talk about a couple of baseball things.
First, a happy mention to our Twitter friend Ed Chung and his family.
This is obviously not quite as hard as Ed made it out to be — his delightful family dressed up as Nolan Ryan through the years. There are all sorts of nice touches here, including Ed’s wife wearing a ring around her neck to represent Nolan’s one World Series ring.
But here’s where I must admit my own failure. I saw the blood on Ed’s oldest son and made the quick but erroneous assumption that he had that to represent Nolan’s famous fight with Robin Ventura. That was a clear mistake on my part. He is wearing a bandage on his hand, which I assume is to represent the fight.
But the blood on his face obviously comes from the Bo Jackson comebacker.*
*I absolutely should have gotten that because, as you might expect, there will be quite a lot of Bo and Nolan in my upcoming book Why We Love Baseball. I have to tell you: I’m at that particular book-writing stage where I’m getting giddy about people reading this book, but there are still so many pages to write and so many months to go before it publishes in September. This is a tricky time for me; I’m so used to writing things and publishing them immediately and getting all the instant feedback that comes. It’s a little bit dispiriting to be writing stuff that you know nobody will see for a long time. But I just have to tell you: I absolutely love this book. I’m having more fun writing it than probably anything in my career. I truly can’t wait for you to see it.
In any case: Good on ya, Ed and family!
You might have seen this interesting story that Derek Thompson wrote for The Atlantic, called “What Moneyball-for-Everything Has Done to American Culture.” I’ve probably had 10 different people send it to me, and I’m grateful to all of them because it’s really thought-provoking and, I think, illuminating.
You should read the whole thing, but Derek writes about an issue I’ve thought about a lot, not only in baseball: Can you basically figure out a sport or a game? And if you can, do you in the process ruin it?
I’ve thought about it as the Superman Conundrum. Many years ago, I fulfilled a dream and bought an actual arcade game. But I couldn’t afford a popular game like Ms. Pacman or Donkey Kong or whatever. So I bought a video game called “Superman.” If you’ve never heard of it, join the club, it was not one of the big ones. It looked like this:
It was actually a fun game; you were a flying Superman dealing with a bunch of bad guys and there were challenges and all the rest. Here’s the thing, though: I got really, really good at Superman. Like REALLY good. Like I made it to the end.
And once I made it to the end, I never played it again. It’s like: What’s the point?
Derek makes the argument that analytics people have essentially solved baseball. And once that has happened, what’s the point?
Here’s the key paragraph:
The religion scholar James P. Carse wrote that there are two kinds of games in life: finite and infinite. A finite game is played to win; there are clear victors and losers. An infinite game is played to keep playing; the goal is to maximize winning across all participants. Debate is a finite game. Marriage is an infinite game. The midterm elections are finite games. American democracy is an infinite game. A great deal of unnecessary suffering in the world comes from not knowing the difference. A bad fight can destroy a marriage. A challenged election can destabilize a democracy. In baseball, winning the World Series is a finite game, while growing the popularity of Major League Baseball is an infinite game. What happened, I think, is that baseball’s finite game was solved so completely in such a way that the infinite game was lost.
You intuitively know what he’s saying here, because so many of you (and, yes, me too) have been saying it for a long time. Teams have figured out, for example, how to optimize pitching staffs. By pitching so many pitchers in short bursts, managers make sure that batters are in a constant battle against high-90s fastballs and violently spinning breaking balls and perfectly tunneled change-ups. Batters never face tired pitchers anymore. They never face struggling pitchers for very long. They only occasionally see the same pitcher three times in a game.
And as a direct result, strikeouts are at all-time highs, singles are at all-time lows, triples are at all-time lows, stolen bases are at all-time lows, etc. And, as Derek rightfully says: “The sport that I fell in love with doesn’t really exist anymore.”
Derek, by explaining the concept of finite and infinite, really gets into something that I’ve had a hard time putting in words. I don’t want to bring up the intentional walks again, but of course, I will: I realize now that the real argument I have with people about the intentional walk is the argument itself.
They want to argue STRATEGY. And I want to argue ESSENCE. Sure, I think a huge percentage of the time the intentional walk is a terrible strategy, but I don’t care about that. What I care about is that the intentional walk is a fundamentally corrupting force in the game. It takes an exciting situation and makes it boring. It takes away key at-bats from the best and most thrilling players in the game. It robs us of joy.
And yet, people constantly defend it, constantly make spurious comparisons to annoying strategies in other sports, and I’ve lost my mind over this countless times, but Derek has opened my eyes to what the real disagreement is here.
The real disagreement is that they think baseball is about winning and losing.
And I don’t. I think baseball is about entertaining millions of people.
That’s finite and infinite.
For many years, you did not necessarily have to choose between finite and infinite in baseball. The two seemed to have a positive relationship. Players and teams tried to do things to win — steal more bases, play better defense, hit more homers, develop new pitches — and these things often did make the game more fun and popular.
But — and this is important — that was never the motivation. Teams were not built around the idea of making the game more fun. No, they were built around winning and losing. Managers and general managers did not get fired if their teams were boring; they got fired if their teams lost.
And as more and more data has become available — and more and more analytical minds have been brought in to study that data — the efforts to find winning formulas has gone up exponentially, and these winning formulas simply do not make the game more fun and popular.
You can’t blame teams for shifting a lot more now that they can pinpoint with amazing accuracy where a batter is likely to hit the ball. But it doesn’t make the game better for you and me.
You can’t blame teams for carrying 13 or 14 pitchers with great arms and sending them out there one after another in a barrage of flammable sliders and fastballs and curves. But it doesn’t make the game better for you and me.
You can’t blame batters for putting an uppercut in their swings and trying to hit the ball out when the pitching and defenses have simply cut off the chances of putting together longer rallies. But it doesn’t make the game better for you and me.
You can’t blame teams for understanding that outs are their most precious commodity and that throwing them away on frivolous stolen base attempts or rash efforts to take an extra base is counterproductive. But it doesn’t make the game better for you and me.
No, this doesn’t come down to the teams or the players. This comes down to