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Sports Authority

Kramer: Oh, the humanity!

| Thursday, September 3, 2020

True friendship propagates a certain sense of power among companions. Power to evoke an unparalleled share of our attention as we edify, incite and validate each other. Power to craft us into the best version of ourselves. Power to sculpt each other’s ideology and viewpoints with a degree of passion that we would never dare to brandish with anyone else.

And of course, our confidants harness the ever-treacherous temptation to get under our skin in ways that only they know best. With interpersonal knowledge comes the deep-seated license to ruffle our feathers, to agitate our firmest beliefs and insecurities on an effervescent whim. Annoyingly overzealous and effortlessly rattled conversationalist that I am, my closest circle of friends knows my ideological makeup like the back of their hands — maybe I can partially blame The Observer for that. Their responsibility becomes a remarkably easy one: all it takes is a simple “21st century country music deserves wayyyy more credit” or “reality television destroys our morals” text message for a mutual smirk to form through the phone.

The past weekend brought about a five-minute lull on my part as I carelessly thought that I’d heard it all. Fittingly striking when I least expected it, a devastatingly alluring bait hooked my phone: “Bill James sucks. With advanced analytics, baseball players just become assets to a business. The human aspects of the game are completely ruined.”

I imagined a cackle trailing those words, not only because of my fervent discipleship of James, the pioneer of modern baseball analytics, but also because of its persistent relevance in the highly polarized clash between traditionalists and data-driven revolutionaries across major sports. Granted, reducing the near-ethereal “miracle” comeback, the unpredictable hot streak and the inspirational breakout story to conversations of distributions and deviations from the mean feels callous. Understandably, backlash behind statistically proven adjustments to game strategy, scouting and development heavily leans on consideration of history’s control group: the generations of elite players that navigated their careers without the novelties of Statcast or extreme infield shifts.

And surely improvements in draft selections, scouting classes and on-field decisions through data insights bear benefits to the business side of baseball. With an ever-increasing body of metrics calculating the expected value of trade acquisitions and roster moves in light of upcoming game schedules, general managers and owners limit their time wasted on young “projects” or veteran “gambles” in farm systems and free agency. Player development that deliberately targets launch angle and exit velocity — two metrics that can maximize offensive power at the plate — yields massive surges in ticket and broadcasting revenue, capitalizing on homer-hungry fans. Pitching metrics like effective spin rate — a measure of a pitcher’s efficiency in mechanics — protect the invaluable assets of coaching staffs and executives by detecting potential causes of injuries before they occur.

But financial ploys aside, perhaps the crux of this widespread loathing for analytics in sports — a distinctly human endeavor —  lies in our collective fear of science. We despise the thought of objective formulas and metrics overriding our years of experience watching and playing a game of metaphysical minds in motion. We cherish our imperfections in hope that we retain the autonomy to make our own decisions, however ineffective and misguided that they may be. The heart of the statistical matter beats to the rhythm of freedom, a refusal to act as data-driven pawns in a power-hungry struggle for competitive advantage.

Regardless of your stance on the forward-thinking baseball analysts that flood your television screen, however, the very nature of sports statistics protects against the very thing this argument criticizes. Take, for instance, Major League Baseball officials’ detection of widespread steroid use throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. The names Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa soared to household status as they shattered seemingly unbreakable single-season home run records. While the trio of bombers painted a historical sensation, the 1997 Seattle Mariners colored a masterpiece of their own by tattooing 264 baseballs in a single season. Never before did fans witness home runs so majestic, so euphoric, so pivotal since the reign of Murderers’ Row.

Beneath all of the glamor in the “new era of baseball,” the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) perpetuated a sweeping scheme to catalyze the home run race. As later investigations confirmed, the laboratory administered supplements of human growth hormone (HGH), erythropoietin and other anabolic steroids while undetected for nearly 14 years. Investigations into the actions of BALCO began in 2002, a year after Barry Bonds attained an almost unthinkable feat: 73 home runs in 153 games played.

Basic applied statistics undoubtedly prompted the MLB to investigate. At base level, league executives and lawyers deemed the influx in long balls too significantly strayed from league averages for us to label Bonds’ performance as a random occurrence; chance alone does not justify his output at a reasonable level.

In this infamous case, analytics protected the humanity of Major League Baseball against the artificial development of steroids. By mining data from the performance of both past and present players, the MLB held Bonds, McGwire and Sosa to the standard of hitters’ greatest natural capacities — and no more. Basic metrics derived an optimal level of performance under current conditions, and when enough players breached this deduction, commissioner Bud Selig administered a call for retribution.

But analytical methods are not anabolic steroids. When coaches remove their starting pitcher from the game after four strong innings, they act with the promotion of their teams’ refined success in mind. Chains of individual decisions and short bursts of focus define the identity of this game like no other, and certainly an agent like analytics should offer suggestions as a natural antidote for baseball’s otherwise complex chaos.

Of course, more traditional choices reap rewards in many cases, and I might argue that human intuition should solely influence the dugout and bullpen as coaches evaluate the preparedness, health and energy of their players. But once the best nine “assets” for the job take to the field, or the spring training facility, or the off-season workout complex, analytics promote the deepest desire of friends: to help our beloved become the best version of themselves. If that’s not humanizing, I don’t know what is.

Above all, amidst the persistent teasing and flustering, friends lovingly uplift each other for the sake of our humanity. Maybe Bill James merits some of that love, too.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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