Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Numerati Baseball = Rope-a-dope

September 2, 2011General

I love baseball, and I defend it stoutly against all those who complain that it's boring. But anyone who can sit through a Yankees-Red Sox game without a fast-forward button deserves some kind of medal. I sat down last night and watched the first inning and a half, which lasted about an hour. Then I turned away from it for a couple of hours and came back to watch on TiVo. The batters took pitches, fouled them off by the dozen. New pitchers trudged in. For someone who is not passionate about the Yankees or the Red Sox, it was torturous. The game dragged on for 4 hours and 21 minutes.

You can blame this on the Numerati. As Michael Lewis wrote in Moneyball (and a new Brad Pitt movie will show), Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane analyzed the statistics of the game and came up with a new formula for winning. One aspect of it is getting a lot of walks. This not only puts runners on base, but it exhausts the opposing pitchers, running up their pitch counts.

The other Numerati aspect to the game is micro-targeting. Players are no longer seen as batches, or even lefties and righties, but as individuals. So the teams can match up the right pitcher for each batter. An added economic benefit of all these substitutions: More time for commercials.

So baseball's powerhouses are optimized to win and make money. It reminds me a bit of Mohammed Ali's rope-a-dope strategy. He found out that the best way to win, as he neared the end of his career, was to endure an incredibly painful and (for us) tedious beating, and then to charge back in the late rounds. Again, a strategy optimized for winning, not entertaining.

Of course the best way to deal with this is through technology. As I say, I waited a couple of hours, which gave me plenty of TiVo time to race through commercials and even dull and endless at-bats. (I'd fast forward 30 seconds or a minute and see that the count was still 2-2 on Andruw Jones.) But the joke was on me. I had programmed only four hours for the game (silly me), so by the time Mariano Rivera loaded the bases in the 9th and it got exciting, the machine had stopped recording.

I can watch the highlights on MLB.com, a medium much more attuned to the modern attention span.



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