"What is finished… is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It’s the individual that’s finished. It’s the single, solitary human being that’s finished. It’s every single one of you out there that’s finished, because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It’s a nation of some 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-that-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods… Well, the time has come to say, is dehumanization such a bad word. Because good or bad, that’s what is so. The whole world is becoming humanoid - creatures that look human but aren’t. The whole world not just us. We’re just the most advanced country, so we’re getting there first. The whole world’s people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, numbered, insensate things…"—Paddy Chayevsky, Network, 1975.
I watched Network the other day with my dog in an effort to wade through a rare Southern California rainstorm. I had seen it once in high school and had always meant to revisit it, but somehow hadn’t found my way to it until just this past week. Not to overstate, but it was like finding a cinematic soul mate. It hit dead-on in so many areas of my interest: the 1970s, subversiveness, pointed satire and anarchic spirit. It fucking ruled. But this isn’t a screed on how awesome Network is. Everyone knows that. There are whole books dedicated to it.
This is about another blow to the humanity of baseball. MLB Advanced Media announced yesterday at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference that they have developed a revolutionary tracking system designed to completely explode defensive analytics. If you’re a futurist or SABRmetrician it is cum volcano-XXXX-illegal in 40 states-ball draining porn. For people who love baseball, it’s what Robert Oppenheimer and Bhagavad Gita called “the destroyer of worlds”.
Humanity has a funny way of designing it’s own destruction. I could get specific, but it would ultimately undercut my point, seeing as I’m talking about baseball, but the fact remains. This isn’t the start of something, it’s the end of everything.
In the clip demonstrating the power of the new tracking system—which doesn’t yet have a name—Braves center fielder Jason Heyward robs the Mets’ Justin Turner of a potentially game winning hit. He slides to make the catch and thus ends the game, rising to his feet with appropriate excitement, the announcer aptly commenting that the catch was a “big league play”. Why? BECAUSE JASON HEYWARD IS A BIG LEAGUER AND BIG LEAGUERS ARE GOOD AT BASEBALL. What more did we learn from knowing his 97% route efficiency and 18mph foot speed aside from what we knew before? That Jason Heyward is fast and smart. We got that. Understood. Anyone with eyes could see that it was a great catch. It’s fancy and shiny and I’m sure FOX and ESPN will find some cool sound effects and whooshes and whips to make it all pretty-like, but what this system can’t account for is the rare, but existent, chance that Heyward makes the dive and the ball done pops out and the Mets win. Why? Not because his route was inefficient or somehow less than optimal, but because chaos and randomness finds a way. It’s the very nature of the universe and humanity itself. We are the sum total of all the inefficiencies and cruel randomness contained in the cosmos.
Why do we keep trying to perfect the imperfect? Symmetry is overrated. What this truly is, is more useless metrics for people to wax rhapsodic about after the fact. It’s simply a way to engage non-athletes and imbue them with their own “special skill” to somehow “better understand” baseball. Well, guess what? Baseball don’t want to be solved. That’s why weird shit never stops happening and never will, no matter how many metrics and tracking cameras we try and throw at it. Because the unfortunate and terrifying endgame to “figuring it out” is that we know what will happen before it does, and at that point, why even play? Why not just simulate and crown a statistical champion? Because it’s not fucking fun. Because it’s not baseball and at their core, all these Brian Kennys and Bill Jameses know it. They’re just trying to make sense of inherent nonsense. I’ll tell you how this ends: the metricians cannibalize themselves under an insurmountable pile of data and sterility and humanity wins, but none of that can happen unless you get MAD and resolve to take back the game from the death grip of math and unfun. The only thing at stake is baseball itself.
Once Major League Baseball installs the trackers in every ballpark and figures out how to handle disseminating the whopping 7 TERABYTES of data produced each game (that’s 17 petabytes of data per season in case you were wondering.), you can bet your ass that they’ll slap a price tag for access as an add-on to your existing MLB.tv subscription.
You can bet that this will be the sort of thing that the people who like this sort of thing will like. No, they’ll love it. There will be websites dedicated to it and we will continue to further distill baseball into a neat package of tendencies and probabilities until it bears only a passing resemblance to the thing we once knew.
Unless we fight back and treat our ballplayers as more than replaceable piston rods. They’re human beings, dammit! Their lives have value! For how pervasive these analytic overlords have become, isn’t it time to tip the scales back in favor of baseball? Isn’t it time to watch pitchers pitch, hitters hit and fielders field, if for no other reason that they are the ones who have dedicated their lives to achieving the type of greatness that advanced stats live to minimize and eviscerate?