U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Towards An Intellectual History of Baseball: The 538 Mind

The notion of “an intellectual history of baseball” sounds a bit like an oxymoron, right? This is a game filled with cliches. And Bull Durham got everyone up to speed on those back in 1988—more than quarter-century ago:

Perhaps you’re thinking that a more subdued and less ambitious “history of thought” framework would be more appropriate than ‘intellectual history’. Again, this is just baseball—the history of sport. The closest we’ve come, here at the blog, to relating baseball and intellectual history was when Andy Seal acquainted us with Derek Jeter’s plans, as a retiree, to become a public intellectual. Even though Ray Haberski probably perked up at Jeter getting play here at the blog, I know my reaction was a yawn and a smirk.

But more-than-casual fans know that the game is a “thinking man’s” endeavor and can involve, for the professionals, some high-end analytical work. For instance, the idea of “Moneyball” (the title of Michael Lewis’ bestselling book) has been a nexus point for the worlds of baseball, analytics, and capitalism. Both Moneyball and Michael Lewis have appeared, as topics, multiple times here. And then there are the serious/humorous reflections of George Will (reproduced from the Epplin article linked above):

Baseball is as much a mental contest as a physical one. The pace of action is relentless: There is barely enough time between pitches for all the thinking that is required, and that the best players do, in processing the changing information about the crucial variables.[1]

Of course there is debate about whether baseball is any more a “thinking person’s game” than soccer, hockey, football, basketball, or even NASCAR. As one columnist put it a few years ago:

In reality, if a fan looks hard enough, there are strategic choices that need to be made in every competition, including tiddlywinks and competitive eating because strategy is such a broad term. The word is basically defined as a plan or series of choices made to win a competition or battle. Oftentimes, baseball strategy boils down to just hit the ball, get on base and we can figure it out from there.[2]

I’m guessing that Andrew Hartman agrees with that. But I also know that this blog has a big baseball fan contingent (LD Burnett, Ben Alpers, Ray Haberski, myself, and perhaps even Andy Seal). So I’m going to go with the idea that baseball has some superior (hah!) appeal to higher minds.

Here is Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, but posing like a college football coach. - TL

Here is Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, but posing like a college football coach. – TL

Returning to Moneyball, analytics, and capitalism, today I learned that the Los Angeles Dodgers (a baseball team) have hired a Moneyball guy, Farhan Zaidi, to be their next General Manager.[3] And Zaidi literally is a Moneyball character, having formerly worked for the Oakland Athletics under their now famous General Manager, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt in the movie of the same name, picture to the right).

I’ve been watching, and reading about, the game of baseball for about 35 of my 43 years. I feel qualified enough to say that no team has ever been run by a person like Farhan Zaidi. I say that in reference to his total person: ethnic background, mind, education, etc. And this is a good thing. Here’s how ESPN writer Mark Saxon introduced Zaidi in the story I linked above:

Ten years ago, people would have wondered how someone like Farhan Zaidi could become a general manager of one of baseball’s most storied franchises. It might be more relevant now to wonder how baseball could lure someone like Zaidi.

Born in Canada to Pakistani parents and raised in the Philippines, Zaidi admits he came into the game with more to learn about it than the average baseball man. The old model for a general manager was someone who played at the college level or in the low minor leagues and often spent years as a scout, traveling the country and breaking down players.

He was one semester shy of completing his doctorate in economics at the University of California at Berkeley in 2005 when he answered a job listing at Baseball Prospectus to work for the Oakland A’s. The A’s had sorted through hundreds of résumé for the job, but words like, “Ph.D.” and “Berkeley” have a way of standing out, particularly to a forward-thinking group, one that, a few years earlier — via the Michael Lewis best-seller “Moneyball” — helped launch the revolution that has reshaped almost every front office in baseball.

Born in Canada. Pakistani parents. Raised in the Philippines. Berkeley. Economics. And there’s more:

It might have been easier…than it was for Zaidi, who had to break the news to his parents, who had paid a lot of money to send him to MIT for his undergraduate studies. He also had to break the news to his doctoral adviser, behavioral economist Matthew Rabin, considered by some to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize in economics. He waited two days before calling his parents.

They knew he loved baseball, because he played first base in high school at an international school in the Philippines and was an avid baseball card collector. Before embarking on the Ph.D. program, he had worked for a fantasy sports company. Still, he imagined, they expected him to finish his studies and emerge as an academic economist or to begin a Wall Street career.

“I was like, ‘How am I going to tell them I’m taking this, like, entry-level, $30,000-a-year job in baseball?’ ” Zaidi said. “When I got the job, I knew I was going to take it, but I was just dreading telling them, but they were so thrilled and happy for me. I probably didn’t give them enough credit for knowing it was a dream of mine.”

Farhan Zaidi looking decidedly un-GM like.

Farhan Zaidi looking decidedly un-GM like.

MIT. Behavioral economics. Nobel-prize-candidate graduate advisor (now at Harvard, we learn later in the story). Wall Street possibilities. Worked for fantasy sports company.* Dream of working in baseball. [*Honestly, this might get me as much as anything. Those fantasy-camp folks are, well, super nerds. They are the AD&D folks of baseball fans. Crazy fun.]

You’re getting the picture. To help you along, to the right is an actual picture of Farhan Zaidi. Not only is his ethnic, educational, and intellectual profile different, but he also doesn’t look like your typical baseball executive, does he? Maybe the other picture, below and to the right, will place him a “baseball frame” for you.

This is all interesting and Zaidi looks like a nice guy with whom to have a beer, but, for intellectual historians, so what? What does the Dodgers new Moneyball GM have to do with the history of thought?

Zaidi looking decidedly "baseball coach-ish."

Zaidi looking decidedly “baseball coach-ish.”

Without getting too deep into the relevance of cultural history to intellectual history, I think that Zaidi’s ascendance to such a prominent position is a cultural marker for the broader acceptance of what I’ll call “538 thinking” in the American middle and upper classes.

“The 538 Mind” derives from the work and subsequent celebrity of Nate Silver. Silver came to prominence in the 2000s for his analytical work and projections related to politics. But before that Silver had worked on baseball. Around 2002 he created a numerical system called PECOTA, described in Wikipedia as follows: “an acronym for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, is a sabermetric system for forecasting Major League Baseball player performance.” Silver then sold PECOTA, in 2003, to an organization called Baseball Prospectus (mentioned above in the first block quote about Zaidi). Silver then worked for Baseball Prospectus, and likely worked alongside Zaidi when the latter was hired in 2005 (though Silver’s name is not mentioned in Saxon’s story).

In 2007, Silver began applying his statistical forecasting work to politics. The next year Silver created a website, FiveThirtyEight, which functioned as a publishing machine for that work. His analysis gained wide appeal, and then Silver hit the proverbial jackpot when he correctly forecast the results of the presidential election in 49 of 50 states. He also correctly predicted all 35 winners of that year’s Senate races. In 2009, Time Magazine named Silver one of the world’s “100 Most Influential People.”

538 publishes analyses of things beyond baseball and politics. The current opening page of the website features stories on common names in America, other sports (basketball and football), birth control, neuroscience, etc. The only thing I didn’t see was education, which surprised me given the prominence these days of “metrics” in that field (i.e. “edumetrics”). Indeed, it’s the bread and creative application of metrics to other fields that constitutes what I’m calling “The 538 Mind.” To people with that mindset, everything has the potential to become an empirical question. In this way, developments in baseball have been at the leading edge of changes we’re seeing in other fields.

Even if Zaidi’s own statistical mind for baseball wasn’t fully influenced by Silver, Zaidi is a representative sample of that new breed staffer (and of fans). The 538 Mind sees baseball as a science—an endeavor that can, at least partially, be scientifically managed. I haven’t yet heard any players complain about Taylorism, but that might be coming—in a future intellectual history of baseball. Sabermetrics is just another way to measure labor productivity and improve player efficiency. Perhaps the next baseball players strike will center around perceived mismanagement based on faulty measures? Or will sabermetrics drive away fans due to a perceived lack of romance in the game? I have no answers to these questions. But perhaps I’m indicating, by citing historical examples, that some future problems in baseball may be related to past problems that have arisen as reactions to scientific management.

But whatever intellectual history of baseball is produced down the road, it will likely contain numerous references to Nate Silver, Farhan Zaidi, Bill James, PECOTA, WAR, UZR, and many other people and products associated with sabermetrics. The “538 Mind,” or mindset, will surely be an essential part of that work. And baseball will be connected to present cultural and intellectual trends. It’s an interesting part of the story now, so it’ll surely have some appeal to later readers about baseball as a “thinking man’s game.” – TL

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[1] Luke Epplin, “Christy Mathewson and the Thinking Man’s Game,” The New Yorker, October 25, 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/christy-mathewson-and-the-thinking-mans-game.

[2] Evans Kistler, “Which Sport Is Truly the ‘thinking Man’s Game?’,” Carteret County News-Times (Morehead City, NC). July 11, 2008. http://www.carolinacoastonline.com/news_times/sports/article_7a3c8d65-f2c9-539a-953d-57e8b28b199a.html.

[3] Mark Saxon, “Dodgers’ GM Zaidi Uniquely Qualified,” Dodgers Report (an ESPN Blog), November 18, 2014. http://espn.go.com/blog/los-angeles/dodger-report/post/_/id/12898/dodgers-gm-zaidi-uniquely-qualified.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a fascinating post. Not just because I also enjoy baseball–but because I think you make a good point about the intellectual moment that we live in. Anyone, it seems, who has a strong grasp of statistics and metrics can make something of themselves. It’s almost the millennial version of Horatio Alger stories.

    And it also fits into something bigger–debates about what these metrics mean for baseball, and for society in general. For any Sabermatrician you get someone who says, “Yeah, but do they KNOW the game?” Something about the intrinsic value of watching and “understanding baseball” as opposed to the numbers. For whatever reason, Leon Wieseltier’s Commencement Speech defending the humanities versus the ascendancy of technology and the sciences in the academy–and in modern life in general–came to mind.

    http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113299/leon-wieseltier-commencement-speech-brandeis-university-2013

    Perhaps, for me, it’s all tied up in this idea of society being all about numbers–a fear that something “human” is being lost by depending too much on the numbers.

    • Thanks Robert. I love your line about today’s Horatio Alger stories involving some knowledge of statistics, along with a little HTML code, I’d guess.

      This may map onto the old debates about two cultures (science v. humanities)—and about how this binary probably doesn’t do much to solve problems about the game. – TL

  2. I’ve been a Red Sox fan for almost thirty years (the last ten more rewarding than the earlier twenty) and have had a slightly more than casual interest in sabrmetrics for a good dozen years, tho I’ll readily admit to not having a craftsperson’s understanding of the more involved formulae. That baseball can be broken down into such discreet actions and reactions in a way where other sports are too fluid to meaningfully dissect has long fascinated, and perhaps it’s why it has a cerebral appeal. I recommend Alan Schwarz’ “The Numbers Game” for a history of baseball statistics. For all the complaints about sabrmetrics assaulting traditional baseball, Schwarz makes a compelling case that arguing over which numbers count has been a steady quality of the game since the nineteenth century.

    • Neil: Thanks for the comment. Like you, I have only a rudimentary understanding of the more complicated formulas. I agree with the assertion from Schwarz you passed along—baseball fans have been arguing about which “numbers”/qualities count forever. In some ways, however, the numbers will always be subjective. Not just because they are extrapolated from changing notions of what’s valuable or productive in the game, but also because looking at stats/numbers—in their endless permutations—are part of the fun. Different eras measure productivity different, so the numbers help fans make comparisons across game’s history. But I do think that today you see more *creativity* with regard to statistics—and that creativity as floated upwards, from people like Bill James and others, to the front offices. Silver was a necessary part of that change. – TL

  3. Tim,
    This post is exciting because it leads in so many directions–one thing it got me thinking is that there must be a longer history here of economic minds with a passion for baseball in the US. Maybe some reader more familiar with specific biographies can fill in some details, but it wouldn’t surprise me if many US economists first fell in love with numbers by keeping score at baseball games and memorizing the backs of baseball cards.

    But I’m also wondering if we can think about your “538 mind” alongside some other popular economic writers who have found considerable success by applying sometimes arcane techniques or theories to everyday life: I’m thinking, particularly, of the “Freakonomics” writers.

    Any way, just two stray thoughts inspired by this great post!

    • Andy,

      You wrote: “…leads in so many directions.” …I know a prompt to get more focused when I see one! 😉 …Otherwise, I think you’re absolutely right in placing the “538 Mind” alongside of Freakonomics folks.

      – TL

      • Oh no! If there’s some centrifugal force here pulling the discussion to scattered points, I’m afraid it was my own jumbled thoughts that provided it–I really enjoyed the way you centered this post on Zaidi and how he embodies so well the recent transformations in baseball.

  4. For players concerned with ‘Taylorism’ in baseball, see Bud Norris’s comments on the Houston Astros front office, in particular the idea that “they just take out the human element of baseball. It’s hard to play for a GM that just sees you as a number instead of a person. Jeff [the Astros’ GM] is experimenting with us.” (http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2014/05/24/bud-norris-on-the-astros-they-are-definitely-the-outcast-of-major-league-baseball-right-now/)

    I think what makes baseball so fascinating is less in-game strategy than the dramatic divergences between what numbers and our eyes tell us. The most famous recent example of this is Derek Jeter’s defense, which developed a reputation good enough among players and coaches (who vote on gold gloves) to award him with 5 for best defensive play at shortstop, while every advanced metric rates him somewhere from bad (fangraphs UZR) to historically terrible (Dewan’s +/-) to literally the worst defensive player in the history of baseball (at least one iteration of Baseball Prospectus’s FRAA). I’m not sure that any other sport provides for such polarizing performance valuations. See this article by Ben Lindbergh for more: http://grantland.com/features/the-tragedy-derek-jeter-defense/

    Having said that, it should be noted that among front offices, and in fact among almost all sabermetric-types, there is no longer a conflict between ‘stats’ and ‘scouts.’ The idea of a continuing rigid dichotomy between stats and scouts is a narrative largely furthered by national baseball announcers and aging sportswriters, and may apply to casual fans, but not really to people making decisions within baseball. The exception to this rule are the predictably behind-the-times Philadelphia Phillies, who were also the third to last team to integrate, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson’s first game (only the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox waited longer to field an African-American player).

    Baseball was my first intellectual love, long before I cared about American history. Reading Bill James, and then the second generation of sabermetricians—Rob Neyer and the first core group at Baseball Prospectus—was my first exposure to the excitement of ‘denaturalizing’ accepted truths, like: pitching is 80 percent of baseball, RBI are a sign of clutch hitting, or the free market reflects human nature. For current work being done with a saber-bent that is not too esoteric, I would look at Baseball Prospectus’s “Baseball Between the Numbers,” or read Jay Jaffe at Sports Illustrated, Ben Lindbergh at Grantland, Keith Law at ESPN, or Joe Sheehan’s newsletter.

    • Ben: I had not seen that report on the Astros (re)organization. Wow. I had tossed out labor revolt as merely a possibility, extrapolating from history. This is the first story I’ve seen with actual players dissatisfied and grumbling about scientific management stealing their joy as players. That’s something. And for everyone, here’s the more substantial piece behind the post Ben relayed:

      Drellich, Evan. “Radical Methods Paint Astros as ‘Outcast.’” Houston Chronicle, May 23, 2014. http://www.houstonchronicle.com/sports/astros/article/Radical-ways-paint-Astros-as-outcast-5501982.php (that’s the short link that puts the story behind a paywall, but here’s a “Twitter premium” link that gets you the whole story–http://www.houstonchronicle.com/sports/astros/article/Radical-ways-paint-Astros-as-outcast-5501982.php?cmpid=twitter-premium&t=307e02ca9ccba496f0&cmpid=twitter-premium&t=307e02ca9cd87bd7f9).

      This leads to a question: How have the A’s avoided labor unrest? Or maybe they haven’t? If they have, that would add to Beane’s positive legacy. And it explains why the Saxon story on Farhan Zaidi emphasizes why he’s such a nice, approachable guy.

      And of course this goes to the point that big ideas have to be adequately humanized, in any era, for them to take real and lasting root in any institution or period. Otherwise those ideas become mere fads. And I think it’s clear that “sabermetrics” is more than a fad. That’s part of the point of my underlining the Zaidi story. – TL

  5. Beane did play baseball at the highest level (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/beanebi01.shtml), so while he is management, he can’t really be accused of not understanding the players.

    Astros GM Jeff Lunhow had a background in business, not in baseball. Although interestingly, he made his reputation by scouting and player development with the St. Louis Cardinals. I think it’s probably a combination of the non-baseball background, clumsy PR and poor communication with players (though I cannot confirm that last one).

  6. Sabermetrics seems just an aspect of the increased individualism of American sports and society. I remember the days before Curt Flood and free agents, when prospects were developed in the minors and spent their careers in the same system, being bound by contract, just as movie stars were under contract to a studio. In my memory, which may not be accurate, there were few trades, except for the Yankees robbing the Kansas City Athletics regularly. Now there seems to be more free lancers, whether in sports, computers (see the New Yorker article this week on computer programmers getting agents), or taxicabs (Uber versus cab companies).

    • The explosion in the number of trades seems to be a trend that began before free agency (1975). Consistently in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s trades held steady at roughly 1 per team per year. In the 1960s this number shot up to 3.5 per team per year. In the 1970s, it goes up to 4.77 ptpy (still the highest it has ever been), which probably has some correlation to free agency, but is considerably less of an expansion than the period 1930-1960 vs. 1960-1969. Trades actually decreased in the 1980s (I imagine in part due to collusion on the part of the owners) and 1990s, to a low of 1.62 in the 1990s, before heading back up to 4.18 in the 2000s. (all data from http://www.mlbtradetracker.com)

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