Back in the prehistoric days of 2020 spring training, when few suspected that the pandemic would soon shutter the game and send fans into a tailspin, Major League Baseball was set to begin the season under a very different cloud. A few months earlier, not long after the 2019 World Series came to its exciting conclusion, the website The Athletic revealed that the Houston Astros had placed video cameras in their stadium to record, decipher, and track the hand signs by which opposing catchers would indicate upcoming pitches, and had then employed audible relays from the dugout to alert their batters as to what pitch to expect. Amateur fan videos from the 2017 and 2018 seasons confirmed, in vaudevillian strokes, the final workings of this bold semiotic heist, which involved the banging of metal trash cans in the Astros’ clubhouse. A league investigation resulted in team penalties, the suspension of managerial personnel, and the derailing of several coaching careers. More ominously, the sign-stealing scandal precipitated angry tirades and threats from rival players, especially members of teams the Astros had defeated in 2017 en route to a World Series victory that now seemed shrouded in disrepute, branded in the popular imagination—if not the official record books—with a scarlet asterisk.
For those outside the sport, the episode must have seemed confusing. Apparently it was kosher for catchers to send secret signals to pitchers, and standard practice (though subject to informal grievances among players) for opponents to try to intercept these signals, but scandalous for the Astros to devise their own signal system to communicate the results of their espionage. The sign-stealing scandal, in other words, raised interesting questions about rule keeping, technology, and what counts in the symbolically fraught game of baseball.
Beyond the many performers, employees, shareholders, and bettors who have material stakes in the stability of the nation’s most venerable spectator sport, intellectuals continue to be drawn to baseball as a terrain for working out the kinds of philosophical problems that the Astros’ misdeeds brought to the surface. And all current writing about baseball, academic and popular, unfurls against the backdrop of the so-called sabermetric revolution, brought to lay attention through Michael Lewis’s blockbuster book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003) and its subsequent film adaptation (2011). Under the broad influence and banner of the Moneyball book and movie—twin odes to the ability of the Oakland Athletics to compete against wealthier teams by paying low salaries to undervalued players—fans and readers imagine that the 21st-century game has become a completely new enterprise, either because subjective and romantic assessments of baseball prowess have been supplanted by quantifiable evidence, or because crude and noisy statistics have been replaced by meaningful data.
But has baseball changed, really? And do those changes have moral implications? Such questions about the character of the game were probed recently—just prior to the eruption of the Astros scandal—by three new books. Alva Noë’s Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark conceives of baseball as a “forensic” sport and, in so doing, sanctions a wide range of otherwise taboo activities (doping included). Christopher Phillips’s Scouting and Scoring: How We Know What We Know about Baseball presents a provocative argument for the game’s consistency despite technological advances, and Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik’s The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, while celebrating the brave new world of gadgetry and modeling, concedes that subjective, human judgment stubbornly persists. Read together, the books challenge both avid fans and cultural critics to reconsider what they think they know about baseball.
The Astros’ video-assisted sign stealing offers provocative fodder for debate and speculation about how the game should fairly be played. On one level, the explanation was simple: the Astros had violated league rules. Major League Baseball does not prohibit hand signs or their deciphering, but it does prohibit the use of electronic equipment during a game to do either of these things. Critics of the Astros legitimately argued that other teams, in obeying those rules, were at an unfair disadvantage when playing a team that disregarded them. But is the distinction between manual and electronic contrivance sufficiently coherent to make what the Astros did somehow beyond the pale of proper play? And were those rules of the kind that warranted simply some sort of off-the-field penalty (which is what the league levied), or did the violations require some revision of the game’s core historical narrative?
Berkeley professor Alva Noë, one of many philosophers to take on America’s pastime in print, gets at this moral dimension of baseball in Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark. The book offers a range of personal reflections, autobiographical recollections, and contrarian takes. But his two most persistent themes acquire new relevance with the recent scandal. First, he insists that baseball is at its core “a forensic sport,” by which he means a game that is fundamentally concerned with assigning credit and blame for what happens on the field. It is therefore, he argues, a practice of moral storytelling—contrary to the conventional insistence that it is best understood as a practice of quantitative analysis. The second refrain is that the taboo against performance-enhancing drugs in baseball is arbitrary and misguided. In a sport obsessed with figuring out who deserves credit for their accomplishments, Noë maintains, the doping slugger should be credited and not blamed for using the latest technological aids in order to win.
The reputation of baseball as a game of assigning moral responsibility for one’s actions is an old one. The pioneering middle-class reformer, statistician, and sportswriter Henry Chadwick (half-brother of Sir Edwin Chadwick, reformer of the British Poor Law) introduced box scores, batting averages, and earned-run averages in the Civil War era with an eye precisely toward the forensic project Noë values. Chadwick’s moral and aesthetic agenda extended to particular ideals of bourgeois self-control and manly conduct, which were reflected in his choice of statistical measures and accomplishments (he preferred singles to home runs). Presumably Noë shares few of Chadwick’s ideals and preferences. But Chadwick’s foundational role in baseball history exemplifies Noë’s point that the game has always used statistics in service of a kind of moral narrative: “Numbers are important precisely because we use them to think about and tell the story of the game.”
Armed with this insight, Noë rhapsodizes about every practice in and around the game that renders and registers judgment. But lumping together the umpire who calls a runner safe or out, the official scorer who decides whether the runner’s being safe resulted from a hit or an error, and the fan who records those decisions in a scorecard creates some confusion. All organized sports with high financial stakes depend on independent arbiters to monitor play, enforce rules, and determine outcomes. Major League Baseball has also long employed an additional set of arbiters—official scorers who do not appear on the field of play and have no real counterpart in other team sports—to assign credit and blame (in ways that do not affect game outcomes but might determine the story that gets told about a game) according to specific standards, and the league authenticates the statistics they generate. And finally, baseball fans record those statistics but also generate a host of other ones. In other sports, the on-field decisions of referees typically dominate the statistical record, but in baseball they represent just the beginning. The decisions of umpires, official scorers, and fans are nested: the umpire rules that a batter is safe, which binds the official scorer, who then must assign credit for that event, which in turn compels the fan to faithfully record the event in a particular manner. But umpires, scorers, and fans are different kinds of recordkeepers.
Baseball stats are enlisted in all manner of forensic projects, and those projects represent distinct attitudes toward what counts, and why we count. Most statistical tools are used to refine our judgments about who deserves credit for what has happened on the field, but it makes a difference whether that refinement is intended to bestow retroactive honor (postseason awards or membership in the Hall of Fame), to arbitrate salary disputes for future pay, to determine present strategy (such as defensive positioning or pitching matchups), to allocate resources, to set betting odds, or to simulate the game in the alternate universe of a fantasy league.
Credit and blame work differently when you are focused on narrating the past (as Noë’s reflections assume) than they do when the point is to predict the future. This is something that is often misunderstood about the recent trend in baseball statistics, which focuses less on giving due credit to past performance than on seeing how such credit misleads us about what might happen next. Rather than simply figuring out what happened under a pitcher’s watch, for example, and determining whether any damage took the form of “earned runs” (a telling Chadwickian term), baseball analysts now favor measures such as “fielding independent pitching” to isolate the events over which a pitcher has sole control.
Similarly, whereas informed fans used to value a high batting average, they might now discount that achievement if it includes a high BABIP (batting average on balls in play), on the assumption that such a hitter would not have similar success next year when hitting balls that might be turned into outs. Savvy analysts favor these new statistics, not primarily because they provide a fuller moral reckoning of what actually happened (though in some sense they do), but precisely because they erase things from the record in order to provide a more reliable guide to how a player might perform in a hypothetical future situation. Noë is right that numbers are still being used to tell stories, but that similarity might still mask an interesting shift from bestowing honor to optimizing assets.
Has baseball changed, really? And do those changes have moral implications?
Christopher Phillips’s Scouting and Scoring: How We Know What We Know about Baseball offers a useful corrective to the Moneyball perspective, which claimed that quantifiable evidence—stats, math, and risk calculations—have rendered romantic notions of athleticism and talent obsolete. In an effort to blur the distinction between the two kinds of assessment named in his title, Phillips emphasizes both the long history of data analysis (as old as the sport itself), which he reconstructs in extraordinary detail, and the persistence of subjective evaluations in the 21st-century game. The second point is perhaps the less striking. After all, projecting the future performance of talented teenagers who have never competed against real peers requires more than just statistical accounts of their play; it relies on judgments about their bodies, their psychological makeup, and their likelihood of signing for a certain amount of money. And though such judgments have long been quantified and aggregated, as Phillips shows, quantification obviously doesn’t reduce the role of human judgment. Given the way Moneyball—and rejoinders like The Trouble with the Curve, the 2012 movie starring Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams—have framed the opposition between old and new forms of baseball knowledge, Phillips’s reminder that “numbers never replaced or stood in for scouts but rather became part of their practice” hits its target.
But it is the first half of the book—which documents the complex production of even the simplest historical facts about what happened in a particular baseball game and the immense and evolving infrastructure that has enabled this production—that will enlighten and challenge fans, historians of technology, and bleacher epistemologists alike. This part of Phillips’s history deals not with scouting for future prospects but with Chadwick’s (and Noë’s) big question about who deserves credit and blame for past actions. Answering this question about professional baseball games requires not only the subjective verdicts of official scorers, but also the constitution of their authority, the validation of their paperwork, the creation of archives, and the laborious efforts of a host of historical actors, both within and beyond the league, using an array of technologies.
Whether the technologies involved are pencils and scorecards or mainframes and software matters less to this history than one might expect. The challenges of observation, collection, and authentication remain the same. Even the technologies of visual data capture, from the old radar guns that clock the velocity of a fastball to the newer Statcast camera-based tools that measure launch angles of line drives and spin rates of sliders, Phillips argues, are an “outgrowth of efforts to translate a complex game into a series of discrete events.”
Historical perspectives such as this are unlikely to shake the conviction of most fans and observers that they are watching a very different game from the one they followed a generation ago, and that the difference is rooted in new technologies. That conviction is bolstered not only by new statistical terminology but also by palpable differences in the game itself, from defensive shifts to the frequency of strikeouts. But no specific technological advance accounts for what is new about the new game. Instead, commentators point to a host of developments in optical tracking equipment, telecommunications, data processing, or data science itself that seem somehow to combine to enable a kind of baseball progress.
In one of the latest versions of the progress narrative, journalists Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik describe how the smart people in the game are improving not only talent valuation and resource deployment but also the athletic performance itself. Their collaboration, The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, presents itself as an updated Moneyball. At the frontiers of advanced player development, the crucial technological innovations are as much optical as analytical. Cameras with higher speeds and greater resolution enhance our ability to observe and visualize every detail of a pitcher’s motion, a batter’s swing, or a ball’s spin. This produces yet new metrics for apportioning credit for outcomes on the diamond. But it also introduces new possibilities of redemption. Armed with new visual data, biomechanical feedback, and a host of other information, the athletes in this book get better at playing baseball.
In critical ways, The MVP Machine deviates from the Moneyball paradigm. For one, coaches, trainers, and especially players themselves (rather than data analysts and other front-office personnel) produce much of the new baseball knowledge that fuels progress. Players conduct the experiments, analyze the data, and hail the value of the new metrics for assessing their own performance. Second, while Moneyball posited that data revealed stable but hidden truths about player value, the new science of player development, which the authors inelegantly call “Betterball,” takes that value to be malleable.
Because of those two differences, Lindbergh and Sawchik’s story slips easily into much older traditions of self-help psychology and self-making ideology. The protagonists of this story (nearly all white American men) overcome natural limitations and periods of failure or mediocrity to become better baseball players than the algorithms would have predicted. And for all their emphasis on the use of digital cameras, cloud storage accounts, and wearable gyroscopes embedded in compression sleeves, the authors are equally sold on such variables as “growth mindsets,” “grit,” and “a player’s approach to practice,” which they see as cutting-edge optimization strategies rather than old-fashioned pieties.
The MVP Machine shows, in lively and well-researched examples, that the various features of this push toward player development, from high-tech gadgets to data-driven strategy to mindsets and mantras, pervade the entire sport. However, it turns out that one team in particular epitomizes the new regime. “We’re All Astronauts,” proclaims the book’s middle chapter. Houston’s rapid emergence in 2015 as an elite team, and its league dominance ever since, could easily be explained by the team’s strategy of being very bad for a few years, racking up top draft picks, and skillfully selecting players who became all-stars. But the authors attribute the Astros’ success to adopting new methods of player development, jettisoning traditional scouting, embracing “information,” availing themselves of the latest technological aids, and enlisting the players themselves in the project of seeking new avenues for improvement.
Lindbergh and Sawchik went to print before the sign-stealing scandal broke, but of course the Astros’ actions seemed to confirm every part of the authors’ celebration of the team as the paragons of Betterball. They optimized their strengths and improved their performance through assiduous research and digital-video technology. Perhaps the authors might say that Houston pushed the system too far, something they seem on the verge of implying in other contexts. From the perspective of Noë, however, the off-season brouhaha underscored the arbitrariness of the line they are presumed to have transgressed. Much as Noë asks why baseball bans steroids but not ulnar collateral ligament reconstructions—“Why do we salute the surgeons and vilify the pharmacists?” he asks—we might wonder why using cameras to study opponents’ signs is categorically worse than using them to study opposing pitchers’ deliveries or to improve batting swings. Any explanation that invokes theft or invasion of privacy would not withstand scrutiny.
Perhaps for practitioners and fans of an enterprise where credit for meritorious action is endlessly contested, and in a culture that is deeply ambivalent about whether merit lies in innate qualities or assiduous self-making, the stories that get told about the game require such moments of excess, transgression, and punishment. But the game goes on, the Astros get to keep playing, and their World Series victory still, in at least some senses, counts.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
Featured image: Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros (2017). Photograph by CMy23 / Flickr