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.