For those who don’t follow the nerdier forms of sportsball, those aren’t the sounds Batman made punching out villains in the 60s. They’re “sabermetrics,” the latest and greatest statistical analyses of professional baseball players. I love talking about how people talk about baseball; it’s a great illustration of a dangerous thought pattern.
Obviously, one can predict a lot about human behavior, in the aggregate and even individually — advertising’s a gazillion dollar industry for a reason. The more specific the scenario, the greater the predictive power, which is what makes “sabermetrics” such fun. Baseball has a coherent set of rules. It’s played in parks with known dimensions. There are only so many trajectories a pitched ball can take such that a hitter can hit it fair, and there are only so many trajectories the ball can take once hit. Even with complicating factors like the pitch’s rotation, you’re not too far past high school physics when it comes to determining the possible outcomes of any given instance of ball-bat interaction.
Baseball “strategy” is a further complication, but here again, there are only so many variations, and thousands of instances, going back over a hundred years, from which to extrapolate. There are only a few options that make sense in any scenario, and all of them have been done, thousands of times before. And thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we’ve got “tape” on every player going back (probably) to Little League. If we know that a baserunner like X tends to steal 75% of the time in situations like this, we can be confident predicting that X will at least think about going this time… and since we’ve got lots of instances of X himself in similar scenarios, we can further refine our predictions.
Get enough data, it seems, and we can live out the sabermetric ideal — playing the whole game on paper, free of silly distractions like weather and human interaction. And since sabermetrics works so well in this case — Moneyball!!! — it’s beyond tempting to try and apply it in other situations. Hence “cliometrics,” “cliodynamics,” and all the other attempts, going back to Karl Marx himself, to make History into a hard science. Get the “social instability index” or whatever juuuuust right, and you can watch History unfold the way Bill James watches baseball…
Or not, because the game isn’t played on paper. It’s played in real ballparks, by living humans, and humans — curse their silly irrational souls — have free will. Whatever the numbers say should happen, no matter how high the probability or how tight the math, the guy at the plate still has to decide to swing the bat.
Sabermetrics is, in fact, an excellent illustration of the inherent flaws of sabermetrics. Start from the top. Sabermetrics was popularized by Michael Lewis’s bestseller Moneyball…. and Moneyball is the most bafflingly misunderstood book this side of the Bible. All that “left handed hitters tend to swing at curveballs on 2-1 counts when the moon is in Aquarius and a boy band has a song in the Hot 100”-type stuff, though integral to the Moneyball approach, is just a subroutine.
That particular subroutine — call it “swing batta batta swing!” — sure looks dramatic
The infamous “Adam Dunn shift.”
but it only feeds into a larger one. Call the larger subroutine “out maximization.” There are 27 outs in a standard baseball game. If the other team reaches theirs before you reach yours, you win. “Swing batta batta swing!” is an attempt to maximize the chances of one particular player on the other team making one of those 27 outs, once.
Simple, right? Run “swing batta batta swing!” for each of your 9 opponents’ players, 3 times each, and if everything goes according to the numbers, you win, because you’ve maximized their outs.
But: While it’s certainly possible to play an entire baseball game that way, that’s not Moneyball. Moneyball — and this is the point, the incandescently obvious point, the “it makes my brain hurt that professional baseball people can’t seem to grasp it” point — aims to maximize outs while minimizing costs. Take any given player’s salary, divide it by his likelihood of making one of those 27 outs, and that’s what he’s really costing you. Adam Dunn, the guy they put those insane shifts on for, would drive in 100 runs per year, and score another 70 (by getting on base so that others could drive him in). He’d also strike out almost 200 times a year, meaning that he not only took away any chance of driving in a run himself, but also took away any chance of being driven in by another player. Was he worth it? Specifically, was he worth the cumulative $112.6 million teams paid him?
I forgot my calculator this morning, but hell no. You can have Dunn do all that for $50 million a year, or you can have 3 guys cumulatively do the same thing for $2 million a year each. That’s Moneyball. The Yankees can afford to pay a guy like Adam Dunn $50 million a year… and they do, and they make the playoffs. The A’s can’t, so they don’t… but they still make the playoffs, because they’ve juggled their roster in such a way that they get Adam Dunn’s offense for a fraction of the cost.*
Now, here’s the fun part. I can think of a couple big objections to the Moneyball approach right off the top of my head, not because I’m a baseball guru. but because I’m at best a casual fan. To wit: Maximizing your team’s revenue is about a lot more than just making the playoffs with a cost-effective roster. You’ll notice, for instance, that the Yankees sell out every game even when they’re terrible. Hell, the Chicago Cubs built an entire religion around being lovable losers. The Cleveland Indians did the same thing, and got a movie franchise out of it back in the 1980s. Causal fans who show up for playoff games are great for top-end revenue, but bottom lines are built on lifelong fans… and those are built on personalities.
Adam Dunn is a big, doofy-looking guy, which is part of the reason he’s a fan favorite everywhere he goes. He’s got a personality. He’s a known quantity, and everyone loves a big, dumb, hard-partying slugger. Adam Dunn sells jerseys; these guys don’t. If you scan that link, you’ll also notice that the main reason none of those guys sell jerseys is that none of them, with the arguable exceptions of Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton — that is, the two guys that weren’t Moneyball-style draft picks — had much of a career. Most of them never got close to the show, because the vast majority of all draft picks don’t. Not even die-hard fans who are all-in on Moneyball are going to put up with year after year of draft classes failing to pan out, when established free agent superstars who can help you win now are, you know, right there.
Seems obvious, right? BUT: nobody raking Michael Lewis over the coals actually made those points. Most of the “debunkings” of Moneyball were so off base, it’s hard to believe the critics actually read the damn thing. For instance, this piece (in the Guardian!) by professional baseball writer Allen Barra:
That [the disparity between the Yankee’s $140M payroll and the A’s $40M one] is the foundation of Moneyball. But in fact, in 2000, just two years before Lewis and Beane’s Moneyball season, there had never been, in the history of the major leagues, greater competitive balance. For the first time, not a single team finished with a win-loss percentage above .600 or below .400. Stated another way, for the first time, the difference between the best teams in baseball and the worst teams was narrower than it had ever been.
But that’s NOT the foundation of Moneyball. The real foundation of Moneyball is even quoted by Barra himself, right before this paragraph:
The growing disparity meant that only the rich teams could afford the best players. A poor team could afford only the maimed and the inept, and was almost certain to fail. Or so argued the people who ran baseball.
The bold bits are the key, as Victorian era PUAs must’ve said. Michael Lewis didn’t say this, professional baseball guys did. Lewis’s point — and again, it hurts my brain to think of ways people could possibly miss it — is that, given the greater competitive balance, it’s obvious that spending more money DOESN’T result in better win-loss records. The Yankees spend $140M a year, the A’s spend $40, and they end up playing each other in the postseason every year. DESPITE THIS, professional baseball guys, all of whom get paid millions of dollars to be professional baseball guys, all seem to operate as if “throwing more money at superstars” = “more wins and fewer losses.” Professional baseball guys are the ones who say that the low-end teams don’t win because they can’t afford the Adam Dunns of the world, not Lewis. Lewis says the exact opposite, in every way the English language will bear, over the course of several hundred pages.
Barra’s piece was actually one of the more reasoned responses. Others, from guys like Hall of Famer Joe Morgan (who always calls himself “Hall of Famer Joe Morgan”), brag about not reading it … and then opine on it anyway, at great length. According to the Morgan thesis, Moneyball is about some top-secret method of finding the next Joe Morgan that only the A’s seem to know… and, oh yeah, Billy Beane is the greatest GM in baseball history and Michael Lewis, who has never taken a pro at bat but is actually some kind of finance geek, knows more about baseball than Hall of Famers like Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.
The point of all this — if you’ve stuck with me so far — is that we tend to look at events as if they’re part of a closed system, with known (or, at least, intuitive) rules, and we get lost and frustrated when events don’t behave accordingly. Stat-heads forget that the batter is a human being — the numbers all say Adam Dunn will hit into that shift, all else equal, but Dunn is a human being. He’s got his own motivation, his own experience, and his own knowledge of the closed system. He knows what the stat-head knows, and because he knows it, he’s able to change his approach — Dunn himself didn’t get “the Adam Dunn shift” for very long, because a player who’s good enough to require his own defensive strategy is good enough to beat that strategy once he figures it out.
This is where most of the traditional Political “Science” people are now. Even the cucks are, I think, less concerned about collecting a paycheck than they are shoring up their own self-concept. Yeah, the money’s nice, but the reason they’re so mouth-frothingly mad at Trump is that he confuses them. The stuff Trump does shouldn’t work. They have a lifetime’s worth of very expensive training, plus vast experience, all telling them that it shouldn’t work. They’re like Adam Dunn looking at that shift the first few times: “What the fuck is this?!?” They can’t not swing at the pitch, even though they know it’ll go directly into someone’s glove.
We on the Alt-Right, or whatever the hell we’re calling it this week, often find ourselves in Allen Barra’s position. We think we’ve got a handle on a higher level. We see how wrong the “traditional” analyses are, but we go off the rails ourselves when we start critiquing the new ones. We think we know what must be done, but we stop short at some of the obvious implications. That “migrant” caravan heading towards our borders, for instance. It must be stopped. The Border Patrol can’t do it, so the Army must. Right? Ok, but then, what happens if the Army opens fire?
If they’re not even allowed to open fire, then it’s just a show. Letting the “migrants” waltz right past our tanks would be worse — far, far worse — than not having the tanks there in the first place. But if they are allowed to open fire, what then? Unless you’re willing to bet Western Civ’s future on the chance that none of them, not ONE, will even attempt to cross the border in front of those tanks — will stay back at least 100 yards, just to make absolutely fucking sure — then you have to figure it’s extremely likely someone’s going to get killed.
What then? Amritsar? No matter what else happens, the US Army has just opened up on foreign nationals who are currently on foreign soil. That’s a declaration of war against somebody, right? I know we drone guys in the sands of Yemen all the time, but the only way we get away with it is that there are no tv cameras on hand. Do you figure maybe CNN is going to be there on the border? Pan left, a US soldier locked and loaded. Pan right, a “refugee.” Pan left, and he opens fire; pan right, a dead Guatemalan on Mexican soil.
How, exactly, does this end? Whichever way it goes, it’s going to be broadcast live to the entire Earth.
The Left hasn’t thought it through either, of course. They’re Joe Morgan in our scenario, relishing their ignorance. It’s an insult to cognition, actually, to say they haven’t thought it through, because nothing so puny as thought could ever pierce their adamantine self-regard. The migrant caravan is a thumb in America’s eye; that’s all they know, and all they need to know. They’ll be singing the migrants’ praises even as they’re being beheaded by MS-13, because that’s the only thing they can do. It’s just a stunt, and when people end up getting killed on live TV, well, isn’t that just so cool? It’s like Rachel Maddow’s narrating a war movie!
It’s going to be very, very bad y’all… and nobody can say we didn’t do everything we could not to see it, until it was far too late.
*For people who actually follow baseball, I’m using Adam Dunn in my examples because, in addition to getting those wild shifts put on for him, he was a total nonentity defensively, and on the base paths. The Moneyball A’s specifically ignored both baserunning and defense, and in the book, that’s a significant source of tension between GM Billy Beane and manager Art Howe — Howe wants to keep doing traditional baseball manager things like hit-and-runs, sac bunts, defensive substitutions, etc., because that pretty much IS managing. Beane doesn’t come right out and say so, but it’s obvious that he considers Howe completely superfluous, and that the game should run itself based on the algorithms in his laptop.