Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, has published an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on the future of sports—namely, the future of sports as determined by fast-moving scientific advances. This is news because, as detailed by Michael Lewis in Moneyball, Billy Beane is a forward-thinking guy.
It's also news because it's the least joyful, and most insane thing ever written about baseball. Beane does manage to at least confirm a few things for fans:
- He buys his own hype and is completely out of touch with reality: the GM is as guilty of GM-worship as the baseball writers who hold up executives as deities.
- If this is the class genius, baseball executives aren't as smart as they are made out to be.
- Front offices really don't see athletes as anything more than human-shaped vessels filled with statistics.
In the column, Beane lays out a techno-utopian blueprint for the future full of declarative statements that makes him sound a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger recounting the rise of Skynet in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
In doing so, he reduces the sport to a series of data points, while in the meantime missing the larger point completely: those who play and watch baseball are human beings. Beane envisions a future in which 12-year-old kids are being coached based on data from a system called Statcast that tracks player and ball movements on a baseball field in 3D and spits out detailed metrics about them.
"Eventually, such systems will proliferate not just through the ranks of all professional sports but to youth sports, affecting everything from how games are taught to the statistical nomenclature of the sport."
"The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes online August 4, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geomoetric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 AM eastern time, August 29…"
It's good business for major league front offices to seek an edge in statistical analysis, and in the way they predict a player's success. But sports aren't played by robots. When Beane writes, with the pompous confidence of L. Ron Hubbard, that "technology will transform the social fabric of sport," he misses the point completely. Before they are watched, analyzed, or coached, sports must first be played. The social fabric of sport is rooted in the visceral enjoyment people get from it.
Beane casts old baseball as a game of insiders vs. outsiders. Those who play and have played make up the rosters and coaching staffs plus a large portion of front offices. But his vision for new baseball is just as closed off, with teams competing Space Race-style for the proprietary data and algorithms that will allow them to construct the most powerful baseball machine.
Even Beane's single optimistic concession to the old school sounds completely lunatic and out of touch. "Technology-based roster-building and algorithm-driven decision-making thus will be the strongest propagators of the traditional virtues of teamwork and chemistry," he writes. Another point missed. Regardless of what you think about those virtues, statistical complements and flesh-and-blood chemistry are not the same thing.
But that's Beane in this column: totally oblivious to human frailty and to the mystery of talent. He writes that instead of only focusing on physical tools like foot speed, advanced metrics will allow players to be evaluated for their baseball-playing skills. This sounds like a good idea. It is a good idea. But then Beane says these skills "are accessible to any player willing to commit to the '10,000 hour rule.'
Here Beane is referring earnestly to the anecdotal pseudo-science of Malcolm Gladwell, whose work is the exact opposite of data-driven. It's hard to imagine this is the same person heralded as a genius. But more so, it's hard to imagine that this is the same person Michael Lewis described in Moneyball as a talented, hard-working outfielder who had the tools but couldn't cut it mentally in the big leagues. If only young Billy had practiced not striking out for 10,000 hours!
There is something disconcerting about the fact that Beane wrote this column without demonstrating even a slight awareness of human empathy. It's enough to make you consider the possibility that there is more than one way for a GM to be effective, and there is more than one kind of intelligence that can lead to a baseball team being successful. Maybe Brian Sabean is not as good at math as Billy Beane. But maybe Sabean also gets something intrinsic about humans that Beane doesn't.
Take the unabashedly scientific Astros under Jeff Luhnow, a Moneyball team if there ever was one. In a big Sports Illustrated cover story a few weeks ago, Ben Reiter detailed how the Astros are using probabilities in order to make the World Series as quickly as possible. Reiter uses the metaphor of Blackjack odds to demonstrate his point. This seems smart. A few historically bad seasons on the way to a championship, could, in theory, be worth it.
But baseball teams are not hands in a stacked-against-you card game, they don't exist in the vacuum of a playing deck, a few rubes, and a table. They are giant businesses; civic institutions who owe something to both their employers and their customers. When pages and pages of internal Astros trade discussions were leaked following the SI story, it was disconcerting to see primary documentation of just how casually executives ponder trading human lives.
That attitude—in which players are assets as opposed to people, and the real game is being played by front offices—is exactly what makes the Beane column so disturbing. Maybe stripping players—the insiders—of their agency is part of his mission. But if that's the case, Beane is just creating a new breed of insiders in people like himself and Luhnow.
Beane writes like an insecure grad student, cloistered off from reality for too long to even recognize it. Things the rest of the world see as normal and human, he views only as theoretical constructs. Chemistry can be calculated. Players are only as good as the tools used to evaluate them. Baseball is not a sport to be played but a system to be mastered through technology.
For instance, in the final section of the column, when Beane writes that technological advances will "dramatically change the competition and demographics of front offices which have historically drawn on former players," he's not thinking about real diversity in the form of people long underrepresented in baseball like, say, women. He's thinking about the next generation of Jeff Luhnows. He can't see beyond his own environment.
"In sum," Beane concludes, "sport will no longer be the exclusive domain of "insiders," and the business will be better for it."
But sport is more intrinsic than the business that surrounds it. Baseball has its own form: without the Oakland Athletics, without Moneyball, without Statcast. None of those things can exist without baseball. Beane misses the point. Most of us are okay with being outsiders. In fact most of us don't even see it that way.
Eric Nusbaum has written for Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, Deadspin, and other publications. He is an editor of The Classical. Reach him @ericnus.