Jason Werth, The Shift, And How Baseball Imitates Life, Not In A Good Way

Today’s example from baseball of why the world will never get less stupid:  Jayson Werth, the former firebrand outfielder for the Phillies and Nationals who retired from  professional baseball in June (about a year too late, based on his miserable 2017 performance), blathered on in a podcast interview espousing ignorance over knowledge.

“They’ve got all these super nerds, as I call them, in the front office that know nothing about baseball but they like to project numbers and project players… I think it’s killing the game. It’s to the point where just put computers out there. Just put laptops and what have you, just put them out there and let them play. We don’t even need to go out there anymore. It’s a joke….When they come down, these kids from MIT or Stanford or Harvard, wherever they’re from, they’ve never played baseball in their life…When they come down to talk about stuff like [shifts] … should I just bunt it over there? They’re like, ‘No, don’t do that. We don’t want you to do that. We want you to hit a homer.’ It’s just not baseball to me. We’re creating something that’s not fun to watch. It’s boring. You’re turning players into robots. They’ve taken the human element out of the game.”

Back in the late 1970’s, a man named Bill James, blessed with an amazing ability to look at problems without the pollution of conventional wisdom began writing a little publication in his spare time down in his basement that examined how baseball was played, what practices statistics supported, and which they did not. He revealed, to take just one example, that managers were habitually batting as lead-off players who were speedy runners but who didn’t get on base very often because they never walked. This almost universal practice cost teams runs and victories. He showed that a player with a .300 average who seldom took a base on balls was a less effective offensive weapon than a player with a much  lower batting average but a higher on-base-percentage, the result of being more selective at the plate.  Somehow this obvious observation had never occurred to anyone whose actual profession was managing baseball teams.

Every year, and in articles in between for journals and statistical publications, James proved over and over again that baseball was being played astoundingly ignorantly. A “great” base stealer who only was successful 70% of the time was costing his team runs, because the statistics show that  the the risk of an out is usually a far greater cost than the extra base is a benefit. The sacrifice bunt is almost always a bad percentage play, increasing the odds of scoring one run slightly, but greatly reducing the chances of scoring more than one. A player’s statistics were vastly influenced by the quirks and dimensions of his home park, creating illusions of abilities and flaws that were mirages.Virtually all baseball players reach their peak value at the ages of 27-29, and decline rapidly thereafter: James wrote that paying big salaries for 30-years-old-plus stars was a losing gamble, comparing it to buying a watermelon at a premium price after the previous owner has eaten the fruit’s heart out and pronounced it delicious.

I began reading James books in the 80’s, and found him to be a truly original and courageous thinker. (The concept and term “signature significance,” an Ethics Alarms staple, comes from James.)  From the beginning, however, his research was ridiculed by front office executives, managers and player, many of whom were challenging his research on the basis of a limited intellect, a high school degree and statistical knowledge that consisted of reading box scores. They appealed to authority—their own—to refuse to acknowledge indisputable, mathematical, logical realities. Eventually one or two young turks did pay attention, like Oakland’s Billy Beane. He hired  his own numbers-cruncher and used the principles of the fledgling discipline James helped launch, sabermetrics, the statistical analysis of baseball, to win championships with a minimal budget. It also got him a book written about his success, “Moneyball,” and a movie based on the book where Beane was played by Brad Pitt.


Though today every team now employs James’ developments—the Boston Red Sox employs James himself—Werth’s comments show that the spirit of proud ignorance persists. “Shifts” are a direct result of James’ work–for one thing, he was the catalyst for people starting to track and keep records of where each player tended to hit the ball. If a spray chart shows that a player hits the majority of balls to certain places on the field, all a shift does is make sure that as many fielders as possible are  standing in those places. Before the data was available, managers only used radical shifts on a few superstars, notably Ted Williams, who frequently faced some version of this fielding alignment, the brainchild of a creative manager and former shortstop named Lou Boudreau:


Now there are so many specialized defensive alignments that the fielders have to keep cheat sheets in their hats. Werth’s complaint amounts to “don’t confuse me with facts, my mind’s made up,” the unmistakable call of the opinionated idiot in the wild.

His malady is not restricted to baseball, of course, and this is not a baseball post. I often see basic impediments to an ethical society revealed in the microcosm of sports, and so do you. The human tendency to resist change and the evolution of culture and systems that change necessarily triggers is one of the most common, and one of the most destructive.

12 thoughts on “Jason Werth, The Shift, And How Baseball Imitates Life, Not In A Good Way

  1. Jack, let me offer an alternative interpretation.

    How exciting would gambling be if one could predict the probabilty of a slot machine payoff, or if the Fisher Spasky chess matches relied on computer strategies for each move. Not very.

    From the excerpt I read Werth seems to be lamenting the time when baseball was played for the joy of it where strategy was developed by savvy managers Today, it is about gaining every edge to get to the big money playoffs. One could equate computer algorythm use as an equivalent to steroid use. Nothing stops managers from usin’ their noggin to bring in the righty to face the powerful lefty or move players around the field. Computers augment human capacity to process data just as steroids augment the human ability to build muscle

    Yes, it appears he appeals to authority by talking of people that never played ball but what if he meant that these”nerds” are only interested in gaming the outcome and have no idea why so many love the game.

    I offer this not to refute your analysis but to evaluate the remarks he made from a different perspective.

    • I appreciate that perspective, but baseball ain’t gambling. Like any human enterprise, more knowledge is good. Baseball remains the most unpredictable team sport in existence. Admittedly, Red Sox games have been a lot of fun this season, but I have watched about 145 games, this on top of thousands of others over my lifetime, and very few have been boring. I still see something new almost every game. Baseball writers are doing most of the complaining, as they always have, because THEY get sick of watching so much baseball. (Film critics complain that movies are boring.) Games are too long, and knocking 20 minutes off the average game can be accomplished if the game is willing to pay the price (shorten those TV ads.)

      James’ recommendation about deadening the bats is retro and not one of his best thoughts. The game evolves (also more than any other sport.) Batter will adapt to the shift in different ways…right now they are trying to hit the ball OVER the shifts, leading to more homeruns and strikeouts and fewer ground balls. The best hitter in baseball right now, J.D. Martinez, hits to all fields, and is essentially unshiftable. Players learn.

      Ty Cobb complained that Babe Ruth made baseball boring. This is an old, old lament, and is still essentially backlash against change.

      • You are far more an expert on the game than I so I understand your points.

        Personally, I miss play by play anouncers like Chuck Thompson that called the Oriole games on radio. His commentary painted a vivid picture of that going on in the field. Today, we have constant banter by ex players who routinely fail to let people know the score, the count or other relevant information. They spend too much time telling me who did what wrong.

        • Well, Chuck certainly never did that, being one of the most incurable homers this side of Hawk Harrelson. The Orioles and Red Sox have opposite broadcasting cultures: the O’s announcers always are pumping up the team and cheer-leading. Drives me nuts, though Thompson was infinitely more professional than the current O’s hacks. Boston fans are used to critical, mostly non-partisan play-by-play.

  2. I think there’s a significant sentiment among analytical sorts that the influence of data has tended to make the game less interesting. A big offensive binge in July has just nudged the number of hits above the number of strikeouts for the season. James himself has recommended that the construction of bats be regulated to push hitters in the direction of contact, and thus baserunning and stealing bases, as opposed to swinging for sheer power. He also advocated years ago that computers should be banned from the dugout.

    Billy Beane’s teams haven’t won a World Series, or played in one. His two best position players, Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi, have both been very credibly linked to the use of performance enhancing drugs.

    • Really good column, Jack. I don’t often think that because you often let your own political biases creep in (or sometimes trample in) with rants about specific politicians who have gotten under your skin.
      But this column is a real teaching tool. Readers can apply the lessons of baseball, to which a lot of your readers can relate, to other things such as the changing landscape of political rhetoric within the GOP and Democratic parties.
      So I have this question for which it may be too early to have a definitive answer, but how would you apply SABRmetrics analysis and The Williams Shift to the evolving Trumpism in the GOP or “Democratic socialism” on the other side? Have those people correctly predicted the future or have they over-shifted their players?

      • Neither has correctly predicted the future, as history has shown pretty emphatically. (Nobody predicted Trump, for example, especially me.)
        Over-shifting? Definitely. On all sides. And games are being lost, and fans alienated as a result. And like baseball, the American system and political institutions are more resilient than the doomsayers think. I’d compare the current environment to the steroid era, with everyone using rationalizations to justify unethical behavior, corrupting everyone and everything.

    • Passan’s an ass. Black tycoons have as much opportunity to buy and own a baseball team as white tycoons. Baseball would love to have black owners. Passan’s an ass, and he doesn’t make a case. Baseball has Hispanic owners—does the NBA?—and a disproportionate number of Hispanic fans and players. Hispanics are white when a writer wants them to be, “of color” when its convenient. Indeed, MLB’s demographics are much closer to that of the public than the NFL, NHL or NBA.

      The question about Sotto’s age is well-grounded in history: many, many star players from the Caribbean, South America and Mexico were discovered to be a year or many years older than their records claimed. Then there was Jose Abreu…

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