Lasers, Ethics, And Baseball



Out of the ever-rich world of major league baseball comes another excellent example of how technology challenges, stretches and confounds traditional ethics.

Over the last decade or so,  it has become possible to track exactly where every ball put into play by every batter goes, and even how fast it gets there. As a result, computers can generate spray charts that will indicate the optimum defensive placements for the opposing team’s players, maximizing the chance that a batter will hit a ball within reach of a fielder. When Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau positioned four infielders on the right side of the field to foil Ted Williams, the “Williams shift” was considered radical and revolutionary. Today, there are shifts designed for a majority of players.

The problem is that with so many shifts, making sure each defensive player is in the right place becomes a challenge.  Now some teams are experimenting with using lasers to mark the grass, so a player will know exactly where to position himself.

Wait—can they do that? There’s no rule against it: Alexander Cartwright neglected to include lasers when he prepared the original baseball rules in the 19th Century. Since there is no rule against it—yet—there’s no reason for teams not to use it. It is literally neither ethical nor unethical, neither accepted practice nor cheating. It does not use outside means to interfere with the game. It isn’t a secret, and both teams can use it if they choose. Sure: shine the beams until you are told not to. The technology is there, use it.

But is this cheating? When the Giants used a telescope to steal signs in the Polo Grounds during the 1951 season, that was cheating: a non-player and non-coach hired by the home team was relaying information about the opposing catcher’s signs to the pitcher using a series of relayed signals. It was surreptitious, and the visiting team wasn’t able to do the same thing: it was dishonest and  unfair. The laser system can’t be hidden, and both visiting and home teams could employ it. Nor does it assist the players in catching, hitting or pitching. It just helps them stand in the right places.

Should it be legal under the game’s rules to do this? I don’t like it. Shifts are fine, but make them as subject to human error as everything else on the field. Using technology to improve performance during a game is a really bad slippery slope that risks baseball’s integrity. The same applies to allowing pitchers or catchers to have earphones so managers can dictate pitches and tactics from the dugout.

Nevertheless, kudos are due to the innovative managers, coaches or whoever it was who had the idea to use lasers to improve their defensive positioning. Technology often creates unexpected opportunities for improvement in surprising areas. I think baseball should swat this one like a bug, but nonetheless, keep thinking guys. Keep looking for that edge.


Pointer: Kel McClanahan 

Source: New York Daily News


10 thoughts on “Lasers, Ethics, And Baseball

  1. Actually, it was Cy Williams the shift was first used against.

    Let the coaches go traditional and move the players around like they always have – hand signals.

    The shift is now creating more intelligent hitters as they adjust to the various shifts. Xander Bogaerts – a RH hitter – just wears right and right center out. Ortiz is also utilizing LF to a greater extent. It may take several years, but expect the shift to diminish as the players go all Wee Willie Keeler (Hit ’em where they ain’t) on the shifts.

    Now if they want to use a strike zone that is computerized – go for it!

    • That’s juuuust a bit of sophistry.

      The only shift Lou Boudreau used was against Ted Williams, nobody had ever seen anything like it before, and it wasn’t called “The Williams Shift” because of Cy Williams. It is true that Cy Williams is the first batter who had any kind of shift, but it did not involve radical re-positioning.and was never called “the Williams Shift.” Cy-type shifts had already been used against Williams, Jummy Foxx and others.

      In the Bill James annual, “Ted Williams Shifts” is used to describe extreme shifts. They are not called “Cy Williams shifts.” The Cy shift is important in the evolution of defensive positioning, but we don’t even call that a shift today. We call it “positioning.”

      • The Cy Williams shift was the rudimentary beginnings of a shift defensive application. As you stated it was the first use although some would disagree and say they had seen it as far back as the famed Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s. The Cy Williams version was not very sophisticated and never really utilized to any extent until TSW came along and that was certainly more pronounced. No one did any spray charts to at least get a feel for advancing the idea. As you mentioned it had been employed with a few others and until advanced spray charts used in conjunction with FX/Pitch data has made the whole operation a baseball geek heaven.

        Today positioning takes place based on pitch type, speed, weather conditions, park, defensive skill set of players, and even the performance of the pitcher as he accumulates pitches and other variables are inputted into proprietary programs. I had a discussion at a SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) with some “Big Brains” at a March conference who do this stuff. What I have regurgitated is just what I remembered before my brain froze. There are two levels of metrics – one is the general public one and the second is what each team develops internally – that you Theo and “Carmen.”

        The strike zone issue is not firmly in the realm of inconsistent nightmare. There is enough data that shows what umpires have a hitters zone and pitcher’s zone. I don’t mind the occasional inconsistency, but I hate it when it is one sided.

    • I agree with you on the strike calls.
      We may be seeing a counter-adjustment to all the shifts, ironically coming out of Boston. Williams (Ted) refused to try to hit to defeat the shift, but it looks like hitters now are doing that.

  2. I absolutely think they need a computer system for the strike zones, and I’m amazed they haven’t yet – both because the solution is so simple, and because TV broadcasters have been doing it for years in real time. The latter is particularly important because it creates more pressure on the umpires from the fans, because we can see the human error and subconscious biases at play.

  3. I am assuming the lasers would be not be in use during the play itself. I had visions of some ones eyes getting in the way of the beam.

  4. I say ban the lasers. It’s analogous to touring pro golfers not being able to use lasers or GPS devices to determine distances during tournaments.It’s a game people play.

    Balls and strikes: Let a machine do it. There’s nothing wrong with increasing fairness through technology. As in tennis with computer line calls. The umps will still have plenty to do.

    • That does sound good. Machines to help judge fairness in results is good. To help decision and then replace the decision? Why not let the AI simulators play the game then the tech matures if this goes on. Seabrmetrics is cool, but shouldn’t replace the players and coach.

  5. “Should it be legal under the game’s rules to do this? I don’t like it. ”

    I’m probably too old school. Lasers used more or less indiscriminately scare me. Pennagain is dead right. What happens if one of the lasers is intercepted by a Mark I eyeball?

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