Baseball. Disruption. And the Social Order.
Inertia is a choice.
We’re going to take a journey today, so stay with me. This isn’t just sportsball talk.
But before we start a reminder: Tomorrow is Thursday Night Bulwark, at 8:00 p.m. and it’s only for Bulwark+ members. If you’re reading us for the first time, I hope you’ll come along.
1. Software Is Eating Baseball
Since 1900, the most no-hitters thrown in a single season has been 7. Throwing a no-hitter is hard. Really hard.
We are currently a third of the way through the 2021 season and we’ve already had 6 no-hitters. Look up and down the stats and you’ll see that pitching (and defense) is dominating hitting. What’s up with that?
There are a bunch of answers, one of which is: cheating. The majority of pitchers are using foreign substances, which stinks. MLB ought to start enforcing its rules about gunk. But let’s put that to the side, because the rest of the answers are all some variation of: Big Data has transformed baseball and disrupted the game’s equilibrium.
If you know a lot about baseball, then this is all familiar to you. But if you don’t follow baseball, here’s a brief explainer.
Baseball has always been a data-driven sport, but for the first 100 years, the data was outcome oriented: batting average; slugging average; ERA.
About 25 years ago, people started getting more sophisticated in their use of outcome data and started paying attention to OPS and WAR and other statistical constructs. That was the Moneyball era, and while it was interesting, it wasn’t fundamentally disruptive to how the game was played.
But in the last decade or so, baseball has unleashed technology and software on the game to create an entire universe of process data. And this shift has been the biggest disruption since the end of the dead ball era.
Cameras and software combine to track the launch angle and outgoing velocity of batted balls. This has changed how hitters swing the bat and put them in search of launch angles optimized for home runs.
In response, the new launch angle swings have created gaping holes in hitters’ strike zones and big data allows pitchers to pinpoint them.
A mountain of data on where players tend to hit the ball against different kinds of pitching has created customized defensive shifts which make it much harder for hitters to get balls through the infield.
High-speed cameras and video software allow pitchers to design pitches in specific ways having to do with maintaining identical arm-slots, tweaking the vertical release angle to within a hundredth of a degree, and amping up the ball’s spin rate.
We could go on and on, but I think you get the point: Technology and Big Data changed everything about how pitchers and players can measure and analyze the discrete parts of their jobs, which changes the outcomes on the field, which has disrupted the equilibrium of a game that’s been played for professionally for coming on 125 years.
Baseball isn’t just a game, it’s a robust culture with norms, mores, and history. And this culture is being disrupted by a technological revolution. Some of the effects of this disruption are good. Some are bad. And the people who make up the culture are now faced with three choices:
(1) Baseball can sit back and accept the consequences of disruption, hoping that the good outweighs the bad, and that the game continues to evolve in a positive direction as the disruption is incorporated into the culture.
(2) Baseball can lean into the disruption, encouraging even more uses of technology to quantify more discrete aspects of the game.
(3) Baseball can push back against the disruption. One way to do that would be to literally exile some of the technology—for instance, the camera arrays—from stadiums. Another would be to tinker with some of the game’s rules in an effort to bend outcomes back toward the old equilibrium. For example: This season baseball has flirted with the idea of moving the pitcher’s mound back in order to give batters an advantage.
There is no right or wrong answer here. (Not true: Rule changes are an abomination.) The point is that each pathway—even doing nothing—is a choice. This decision will be arrived at in a nebulous manner that is a combination of various stakeholders and power structures.
But the big takeaway is this: The culture decides what to do with the technological disruption. The technological disruption is at the mercy of the culture.
2. Baseball Is Life
When you get down to it, almost everything is a culture.
Retail is a culture. Education is a culture. Politics is a culture. Media is a culture. And over the last 25 years or so, technology has disrupted all of these cultures, in some ways that were predictable and some that were not.
For instance: At the dawn of the internet revolution, people assumed technology would make it impossible for autocracies to maintain control over their people. The opposite has proved true: Tech has made autocracies stronger, not weaker.
Another example: People assumed that by reducing marginal costs to zero, the internet would knock down media gatekeepers, resulting in a boon for popular information. The opposite has proven true: The net effect of tech has been to increase the spread of disinformation which drowns out genuine information.
I don’t know that this is true, but I assume that if you go back to what the techno-futurists were writing in 1995, a lot of them probably said that internet disruption would make American politics more technocratic and less polarized, as citizens became better informed, more involved, and less subject to base manipulation.
Technological disruption can be beneficial in many ways. We used to call this stuff “progress.” But not every disruption is beneficial. To go back to baseball: In the 1990s, there was a disruption as players learned how to harness the power of steroids and other PEDs. The culture of baseball observed this disruption and decided it did not like it. So it pushed back, and steroids are now a much smaller part of the game.
Not every genie can be put back into its bottle. But some of them can.
The bigger the culture, the harder it is to make a decision. That’s why a small culture, like baseball, can figure out what to do with steroids while a big culture, like America, is frozen in place when it comes to deciding what to do with Facebook.
And this is why people often believe that technological disruption is irresistible. Since bigger cultures can’t make decisions, they wind up being driven by inertia. It looks like the culture isn’t making a choice—except that, just like baseball and Big Data, not making a choice is itself a choice.
One more complication: It’s not actually the size of the culture that matters. It’s the liberality of the culture.
China is a very large culture. It has had little difficulty making decisions about how to push back against technological disruption. Because China is illiberal.
Baseball is less illiberal than communist China, but not by a lot. There is a politburo of owners who will take the temperature of lesser stakeholders but then rule by decree. The power structure is not immune to feedback, but it is largely centralized.
Get to a more liberal culture—let’s just take “the media”—where the power structures are diffuse and weak—and the ability to make decisions breaks down. Meaning that the ability to push back against disruption breaks down, too.
The big question of our day is what happens to a very specific culture called democracy. It, too, is currently subject to a number of disruptions. And we’re going to have to make some choices as to how we handle them.
The Republican party clearly wants to lean into the disruption, hoping that more of it will help it leverage minoritarian power.
Meanwhile, the Democratic party looks as though it’s sitting back and letting the chips fall where they may. Hoping that the good outweighs the bad and counting on the culture of democracy continuing to evolve and reach a new equilibrium.
In other words: Doing nothing.
Which is a choice.
3. Johnny Knoxville Is Old
MTV Old People are the saddest Old People:
The other day, Johnny Knoxville came across a relic from his past buried in a drawer at home. “I found a packet of those things at the house,” he said. “What do you call it? I can't remember what they were called.” He paused, searching for the word.
Eventually, he found it. “Yeah, the catheter,” he said. “They're pretty sizable—about the width of a No. 2 pencil.” . . .
The catheters are remnants of the time, back in 2007, that he tore his urethra in a motorcycle stunt gone wrong. A friend was filming an MTV tribute to Evel Knievel, one of Knoxville's heroes, so he visited the set. “I wasn't even supposed to do anything,” he explained. “I think I just showed up that day and someone kind of threw out that I should try and backflip a motorcycle. I'm like, ‘Oh, yeah, I got that.’” Knoxville couldn't really ride a motorcycle. But he hadn't become famous by saying no to things, so he hopped on the bike without a second thought. “It sounded like it could possibly be some fun—and some footage,” he said. “ ‘Let's give it a whirl. What's the worst that can happen? It's not like I'm going to break my dick or something.’ ”