Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Alva Noé's Infinite Baseball

Alva Noe's Infinite Baseball: Notes From a Philosopher at the Ballpark sounds so intriguing. What you get, though, is a hodgepodge of previously published pieces with a tacked on introduction. By the time I got through the introduction, I was already getting disappointed. One theme he comes back to is that baseball is a game of responsibility--we're always trying to assign credit or blame for what happens. Such credit or blame ultimately takes the form of numbers, but baseball is in his eyes not a numbers game. It is this last argument that he has the most difficulty explaining and defending. In the intro, I kept stopping and thinking, "This isn't accurate." Some of the assertions in the intro:

--Baseball is an infinite game. Finite games, like chess, "can be simulated with computers" (6). This would come as some surprise to the many enthusiasts of Out of the Park Baseball, a hugely popular baseball simulation.

--Baseball is considered slow because "only explosive hits and big plays count as action" (22). No, baseball is considered slow because the length of time it takes to do the same things has risen quite a lot over time, 40 or so minutes on average during my lifetime.

--he argues that data should not be used to think about medical issues, such as breastfeeding, and so should also not be used to judge baseball. My own opinion is that this is terrible advice. He caps it off with the factually incorrect statement that with a pitcher, "the manager's decision to leave him in, or call on a relief pitcher, is not one that can be decided with the numbers" (25). Yes, human judgment is in there, but those decisions are fundamentally based on numbers.

--Baseball is different because kids model the stances of their favorite hitters (he puts pose in italics (27). Youth games are "rituals." How is this different from other sports? You know kids try to shoot like Steph Curry or do touchdown dances like their favorite receiver.

The intro lays out no framework, philosophical or otherwise, so my advice is to read the chapters, or better yet find the chapters in their original form online. He has some interesting insights into why steroids shouldn't be considered a problem for the Hall of Fame  Well, actually, that's the main interesting thing. He asks whether any variety of medical assistance (even Tommy John surgery) should be considered unfair advantage. Fair questions, and worth asking. That would actually be a better basis for a philosophical discussion.

But for me, this book boiled down to a lot of unhappiness about sabermetrics. He mentions and criticizes Keith Law's book Smart Baseball but really just reinforces Law's main argument. I agree that Law's own take is too intentionally insulting, but his arguments are solid. Numbers don't tell us everything, but they are being used in creative and productive ways to understand current and future performance. Noé says you cannot use numbers to determine value, period (67). He ends with his own shot that underlines his lack of sabermetric understanding: "Want to know what happened on the field? You'd better take a look, and give it some thought" (67). Guess what: Law and everyone else who judges baseball players go to endless minor league games to scout, while using the numbers. If you ignore the data, you will lose.

My advice to Noé is to accept the fact that numbers are more important than he wants to believe, but that they do not mess with the beauty of baseball. And a 2.5 hour game is no less enjoyable and fulfilling than a 3.5 hour one. As someone who lives on the east coast and follows a west cost team, infinite baseball with games that start at 10:10 pm are awful.


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