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What Moneyball-for-Everything Has Done to American Culture

digitalfrost

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What Moneyball-for-Everything Has Done to American Culture​

You can make a thing so perfect that it’s ruined.
By Derek Thompson
Photo illustration of a baseball player surrounded by mathematical graphs

Getty; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic
OCTOBER 30, 2022
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This is Work in Progress, a newsletter by Derek Thompson about work, technology, and how to solve some of America’s biggest problems. Forwarded this newsletter? Sign up here to get it every week.

The return of the World Series this weekend offers an opportunity to engage in America’s real national pastime: wondering loudly why people don’t like baseball as much as they used to.

Speaking personally, my relationship to the game these days is one of nostalgic befuddlement. The nostalgia part comes from spotless memories of watching Sunday Night Baseball on my parents’ couch, nestled between my dad and my dog: the chintzy ESPN graphics, the theme song that sounded straight out of a video game, the dulcet baritones of the announcers Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. The befuddlement part comes from the fact that, like a lot of people of my generation, I spend a weird amount of time wondering why I don’t spend any amount of time watching baseball anymore.

Possible reasons abound. After the steroid scandals of the 2000s, the stars of my childhood got dragged onto C-SPAN, ceremonially berated for cheating by grumpy old dudes, and blacklisted from the Hall of Fame. Kind of a bummer, to be honest. But on a deeper level, I think what happened is that baseball was colonized by math and got solved like an equation.

The analytics revolution, which began with the movement known as Moneyball, led to a series of offensive and defensive adjustments that were, let’s say, catastrophically successful. Seeking strikeouts, managers increased the number of pitchers per game and pushed up the average velocity and spin rate per pitcher. Hitters responded by increasing the launch angles of their swings, raising the odds of a home run, but making strikeouts more likely as well. These decisions were all legal, and more important, they were all correct from an analytical and strategic standpoint.

Smarties approached baseball like an equation, optimized for Y, solved for X, and proved in the process that a solved sport is a worse one. The sport that I fell in love with doesn’t really exist anymore. In the 1990s, there were typically 50 percent more hits than strikeouts in each game. Today, there are consistently more strikeouts than hits. Singles have swooned to record lows, and hits per game have plunged to 1910s levels. In the century and a half of MLB history covered by the database Baseball Reference, the 10 years with the most strikeouts per game are the past 10.

The religion scholar James P. Carse wrote that there are two kinds of games in life: finite and infinite. A finite game is played to win; there are clear victors and losers. An infinite game is played to keep playing; the goal is to maximize winning across all participants. Debate is a finite game. Marriage is an infinite game. The midterm elections are finite games. American democracy is an infinite game. A great deal of unnecessary suffering in the world comes from not knowing the difference. A bad fight can destroy a marriage. A challenged election can destabilize a democracy. In baseball, winning the World Series is a finite game, while growing the popularity of Major League Baseball is an infinite game. What happened, I think, is that baseball’s finite game was solved so completely in such a way that the infinite game was lost.

When universal smarts lead to universal strategies, it can lead to a more homogenous product. Take the NBA. When every basketball team wakes up to the calculation that three points is 50 percent more than two points, you get a league-wide blitz of three-point shooting to take advantage of the discrepancy. Before the 2011–12 season, the league as a whole had never averaged more than 20 three-point-shot attempts per game. This year, no team is attempting fewer than 25 threes per game; four teams are attempting more than 40.

As I’ve written before, the quantitative revolution in culture is a living creature that consumes data and spits out homogeneity. Take the music industry. Before the ’90s, music labels routinely lied to Billboard about their sales figures to boost their preferred artists. In 1991, Billboard switched methodologies to use more objective data, including point-of-sale information and radio surveys that didn’t rely on input from the labels. The charts changed overnight. Rock-and-roll bands were toppled, and hip-hop and country surged. When the charts became more honest, they also became more static. Popular songs stick around longer than they used to. One analysis of the history of pop-music styles found that rap and hip-hop have dominated American pop music longer than any other musical genre. As the analytics revolution in music grew, radio playlists became more repetitive, and by some measures, the most popular songs became more similar to one another.

Or take film. As with music, you could certainly make the case that the communications revolution has created an abundance of video content that, in the aggregate, is fantastically diverse. But although the rules for making a viral video, or a critically acclaimed film, are deeply complex, blockbuster movies look a lot like a solved equation. In 2019, the 10 biggest films by domestic box office included two Marvel sequels, two animated-film sequels, a reboot of a ’90s blockbuster, and a Batman spin-off. In 2022, the 10 biggest films by domestic box office included two Marvel sequels, one animated-film sequel, a reboot of a ’90s blockbuster, and a Batman spin-off. Correctly observing that audiences responded predictably to familiar intellectual property, studios invested in a strategy that has squeezed original IP from the top-10 charts. Blockbusters are kinda boring now, not because Hollywood is stupid, but because it got so smart.

Is what I’m complaining about really a problem? Does it actually matter that people watch a lot of Marvel sequels, or that baseball no longer bestrides the national discourse? These issues don’t belong alongside wealth inequality, democratic continuity, or malaria on the spectrum of material problems. But I don’t want to hold cultural analysis ransom to the malaria test. The fact that movies and music aren’t as weighty as mortality is a part of why they are so important. As Larry Kramer wrote of sugar, culture might be the most important thing in life precisely because it’s about living, not just staying alive.

So yes, I care about the dark side of Moneyball. The Nobel laureate particle physicist Frank Wilczek once said that beauty exists as a dance between opposite forces. First, he said, beauty benefits from symmetry, which he defined as “change without change.” If you rotate a circle, it remains a circle, just as reversing the sides of an equation still reveals a truth (2+2=4, and 4=2+2). But beauty also draws from what Wilczek calls “exuberance,” or emergent complexity. Looking up at the interior of a mosque or a cathedral, or gazing at a classic Picasso or Pollock painting, you are seeing neither utter chaos nor a simple symmetry, but rather a kind of synthesis; an artistic dizziness bounded within a sense of order, which gives the whole work an appealing comprehensibility.

Cultural Moneyballism, in this light, sacrifices exuberance for the sake of formulaic symmetry. It sacrifices diversity for the sake of familiarity. It solves finite games at the expense of infinite games. Its genius dulls the rough edges of entertainment. I think that’s worth caring about. It is definitely worth asking the question: In a world that will only become more influenced by mathematical intelligence, can we ruin culture through our attempts to perfect it?
 

Blumlein 88

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I read this a couple days ago, and completely agree. Most especially in baseball. One thing not quite featured in the article is how money dominates everything. So analytics, with money, and how that shapes the experience of a baseball game have ruined it. I'll refrain from a complete rant on going to a modern park to see a game. You are forced to pay for parking which is still far away. In order to have to walk thru an entertainment district which helps you spend money in and around the stadium. Then once there you will not experience a moment, not even one moment that isn't advertising something or another. Scoreboards are sponsored, the 1st pitch, each inning, a separate stat board with a separate sponsor and various events all also sponsored. Not one minute of a 3 hour plus game is unsponsored. Not one moment. Because with accurate analytics everything comes down to who has the most money. So the real competition in the MLB is milking your fanbase more effectively and completely than the other guys. One of those ironies that this became the norm because Oakland was trying to figure out a smart way to compete with teams that had money they didn't have. The end result making money even more important than ever.

The game itself I have a fix for. They had the 2nd World Series no hitter and the first by multiple pitchers this week. There were at least a couple other collective no hitters in the regular season. They will eventually have a different pitcher for every inning I believe. I would have a rule that you only get 2 pitchers per game. 1 pitcher per 4 innnings if you go to extra innings. I would also change it so you get a walk for 3 balls instead of 4. Speed up the game, take away some of the edge pitching has, and make for more base runners.

Also the expansion of the playoffs resulted in a terrible World Series in the very first year. In baseball, win 3 and lose 2 all year and you'll win the division. Win 2 and lose 3 and you'll finish last. In baseball in a short series the finest team in the league can lose to the worst team. Having a good record the whole season should count for more. The Phillies were 24 games behind the Dodgers. 20 games behind the Astros. The Phillies have no business being in the playoff. Does baseball care? Nope. They can get more TV money for more playoff games so the effect on crowning champions is just part of a sideshow.

This same thing happens in other areas than baseball. Too much money, too near perfection and you can ruin it. Everything can be better and the sum is less than the parts. Some things are better imperfect.
 
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digitalfrost

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This same thing happens in other areas than baseball. Too much money, too near perfection and you can ruin it. Everything can be better and the sum is less than the parts. Some things are better imperfect.
I'm german and I couldn't care less about baseball. I don't even know the rules. So your first three paragraphs just go to right over my head. But I fully agree with your conclusion. I mostly posted this for the music and movie industry references, but if I had to do a comparison it would be an Audi car. They are very nice, very good. Nice interior, it all feels very solid. But the emotional reaction I get is just "meh". They are lifeless. If you just need a car to get from A to B, it's great. But for entertainment, I'd rather have a shitbox that's trying to kill me.


Another fitting example is this section from the Sound City movie. I heard this as a teenager and I thought, why are they slowing down?


It would've been much better for the song if they sped up. I think it's important to know what perfection is to be able to make a good product. To have a reference of what to strive for. But you also have to know when to not care about "perfection".
 
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Sal1950

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I mostly posted this for the music and movie industry references, but if I had to do a comparison it would be an Audi car. They are very nice, very good. Nice interior, it all feels very solid. But the emotional reaction I get is just "meh". They are lifeless. If you just need a car to get from A to B, it's great. But for entertainment, I'd rather have a shitbox that's trying to kill me
Now you hit the nail on the head.
They've totally ruined the excitement of getting a new car since you can't tell one from the other coming at you from 50'.
Until around 1980 I could ID most in a second or two. Then styling went out the window replaced by convenience..
Don't believe me, try and buy a 1940-1980 classic car in a 2 vs 4 door verity?
2 doors are twice as much money as 4 doors or more, very few want a 4 door 57 Chevy or 66 Ford, forgetabotit, they're fugly.
My dad loved his cars, we didn't have much money but he would buy a new Ford around every 3-4 years. Being a considerate father he would occasionally ask me if this next one should be a 4 door so it was easier for the family to get in/out of. I'd only have to look at him with a ich face and he'd laugh and say "yea your right, no way". LOL
 

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Are more people watching MLB now than 10 years ago?

If so, (and I am prepared to take on trust that the game itself has become less entertaining for the purposes of pondering) why might that be?
 

USER

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Another fitting example is this section from the Sound City movie. I heard this as a teenager and I thought, why are they slowing down?


It would've been much better for the song if they sped up. I think it's important to know what perfection is to be able to make a good product. To have a reference of what to strive for. But you also have to know when to not care about "perfection".

I don't know, man. For a song called lithium, often prescribed for manic depression, a click track is perfect. It keeps the song in line almost forcefully. It's the tension that you describe that is everything and it's fine that it's outside the song. There's something trying to escape. The click track is the (musical) lithium. Form and content work beautifully together like in all good art. Butch Vig is a genius.
 

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/rant on
As I have aged, I notice an interesting phenomena. Life, for the increasingly aged, is a dogged pursuit of things to complain about. It's as if the underlying depression of growing old. colors our perception to the point we seek to drain the color from everything. I remember my father, when he was my age, complained incessantly, about politics, music, food, baseball and other things that I remember him enjoying. My grandfather, in the 50's would sit and grouse about the weather, the Orioles, my grandmother, things I thought he loved.

I started noticing this 20 years ago, when my contemporaries started dominating conversations with complaints. I vowed to resist this myself. Recognizing the changing nature of the would around me, I strive to embrace the changes that make my life better. I have loved baseball since attending games in Baltimore, in the 50's. I have lived in SF for 50 years. Oracle Park is a perfect jewel of a park. I can walk there in 45 minutes. The Giants can, on regular occasions, play as if they are infused with other-worldly talent. I refuse to allow the inevitable alterations of time and philosophies deprive me of opportunities of joy. Life is too short to dwell on things that can make you miserable.
/rant off
 

phoenixdogfan

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IDK. From my perspective I enjoyed baseball more this year than I have in a very long while. Why? The Cleveland Guardians, my home team, were an utterly unexpected joy. Having the youngest team in MLB, and having the fewest home runs, the Guardians found a way to win the division, and take the Yankee monolith to 5 games in the ALDS. They did it by executing all the fundamentals properly. They ran the bases better than anyone, they have five gold glove nominees and four winners, they had very good starting pitching, and the best relief pitching in baseball, and they flat out hustled every play, and never gave up on a game. They also had the lowest payroll in the majors and were expected to do absolutely nothing. They now rate as one of the five or six best teams on post season power ratings with one of the three best farm systems in MLB. Won both Manager of the Year, and GM of the Year as well. "The future's so bright I gotta wear shades."

 

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mhardy6647

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Is Audio Science Review the Moneyball of Audiophilia?
Heh, heh, heh...I asked myself the same question whilst reading the first post. :cool:
I started to think that the purpose of the thread was deeply and deliberately ironic... but I actually don't think it is.
And I don't think that ASR is moneyball (in that metaphorical sense of "to be")... but... I do think that much of modern electronica (so to speak -- i.e., the consumer electronics industry) may be. A bland, numbing sameness.
I've completely lost interest in "TV" (or whatever home video is) and I was never interested in x.y.z.Atmos multichannel.
Hifi has drifted towards numbing sameness, but it ain't quite there yet.

Famously, every Navajo rug was (is, I suppose) woven with a deliberate flaw... to emphasize the faultiness of humanity against the perfection of Nature. Or something like that https://www.amusingplanet.com/2017/08/the-art-of-deliberate-imperfection.html
 

dartinbout

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Heh, heh, heh...I asked myself the same question whilst reading the first post. :cool:
I started to think that the purpose of the thread was deeply and deliberately ironic... but I actually don't think it is.
And I don't think that ASR is moneyball (in that metaphorical sense of "to be")... but... I do think that much of modern electronica (so to speak -- i.e., the consumer electronics industry) may be. A bland, numbing sameness.
I've completely lost interest in "TV" (or whatever home video is) and I was never interested in x.y.z.Atmos multichannel.
Hifi has drifted towards numbing sameness, but it ain't quite there yet.

Famously, every Navajo rug was (is, I suppose) woven with a deliberate flaw... to emphasize the faultiness of humanity against the perfection of Nature. Or something like that https://www.amusingplanet.com/2017/08/the-art-of-deliberate-imperfection.html
I couldn't disagree more. Technology is the gift that keeps on giving. I just watched the last 2 episodes of "Warrior Nun" on my 14" Samsung galaxy tab S8 Ultra while dining on fish and chips, at a local fishmonger (6 channels with my wireless corsair Pro). No Wifi needed but I could have tethered my new (to me) LG V60. I just took delivery of a X570S (S being operative part) fanless MB to build a new completely silent HTPC. I am a Topping junkie. The HTPC will connect to 4 DACs through an A90D and a EXT90. Into a Nord Stereo and 10 channels of 200W amp (My Carver Cinema Grande to handle the surrounds). I could go on and on with the amount of toys I've acquired over the last few years. I did not have to spend McIntosh level money to create a tasty multimedia bachelor pad.

MHardy6647 what makes you so sad?
 

mhardy6647

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I couldn't disagree more. Technology is the gift that keeps on giving. I just watched the last 2 episodes of "Warrior Nun" on my 14" Samsung galaxy tab S8 Ultra while dining on fish and chips, at a local fishmonger (6 channels with my wireless corsair Pro). No Wifi needed but I could have tethered my new (to me) LG V60. I just took delivery of a X570S (S being operative part) fanless MB to build a new completely silent HTPC. I am a Topping junkie. The HTPC will connect to 4 DACs through an A90D and a EXT90. Into a Nord Stereo and 10 channels of 200W amp (My Carver Cinema Grande to handle the surrounds). I could go on and on with the amount of toys I've acquired over the last few years. I did not have to spend McIntosh level money to create a tasty multimedia bachelor pad.

MHardy6647 what makes you so sad?
I don't understand a word you said between the first sentence and the last!
I'm not sad, just disappointed in the role technology's taken in the human experience.
 

dartinbout

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Probably the reason you don't understand any of the concepts is that you aren't have any fun with technological advances. The human experience has, for as many millennia, records display, has an unending tale of toil, starvation, depravation, disease, and miniscule life span. In 2022, I have a likely chance of living until I'm 90, listening and viewing art, in it's many recorded forms, traveling the world in comfort, dining on cuisine from around the world. All of these things, and many more, were completely unimaginable, for 99.999999 percent of recorded history. If you don't recognize the gifts that abound around you, life can descend into depression, bitterness and colorless march to the grave. Just imagine what your life would be like if you were born in 18th century or even earlier,.Human history, for most of its, participants was a fucking horrible nightmare.
 
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lashto

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What Moneyball-for-Everything Has Done to American Culture​

You can make a thing so perfect that it’s ruined.
ut. It is definitely worth asking the question: In a world that will only become more influenced by mathematical intelligence, can we ruin culture through our attempts to perfect it?
All that can also be applied EU football. Almost word by word.
I for one do not like those trends at all
 
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