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.
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.
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.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. 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:
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.]
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.”
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?
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
 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.
 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.
 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.