Intangiball: The Subtle Things That Win Baseball Games
Simon & Schuster
Baseball was conquered by Big Data long ago—even before Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager portrayed by Brad Pitt in Moneyball, employed statistical analysis to cobble together a winning team on a small payroll. As such, the sport is a useful study of how statistics can be used and abused, and how the critics of statistics decry their limitations.
There has always been a segment of baseball fans and players who insist that there’s “more to the game than numbers.” Sportswriter Lonnie Wheeler is one such believer. In Intangiball: The Subtle Things That Win Baseball Games, he says he wishes to complement rather than critique Moneyball and its ilk, and to offer a sometimes not-so-gentle reminder that there’s no equation for moxie or statistic for grit. Instead, there are “intangibles,” mysterious qualities that make some players occasionally become something more than what’s on their fangraphs.com stat page.
Most fans can probably relate. We’ve all had brief illusions in which it seemed that a player or team was destined to succeed and could somehow control the fate of the game. (And remember how unpredictable it can be: The act of using a round bat to hit a three-inch ball moving 90 miles per hour into a specific place is ludicrously difficult, so much so that the greatest players who ever lived fail a great majority of the time.) Intangibles-believers describe some players as having a dazzling inner strength, hidden somewhere no statistical model can ever reach, that allows them to bend the game to their will in a way others can’t. They label these players with vague, virtuous-sounding terms like clutch and gamer, meaning these are the guys you want on your team when the stakes are highest.
Fans like Wheeler, who fret about the creeping mathematization of their lives and hobbies, are about 300 years late. When John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations Mentioned in the Following Index, and Made Upon the Bills of Mortality analyzed causes of death in 17th-century London, the suggestion that discernible regularities underlie seemingly random phenomena rocked the early modern worldview. Wheeler is among those certain their instincts are sound enough to remain unrocked, and he identifies two families of intangibles that he believes statistics alone fail to capture.
The first are situational intangibles, meaning the consistent execution of the right in-game decisions, like throwing a fastball to a hitter who is expecting a curve, or somehow knowing where to be in position to back up an errant relay. This category seems remarkably tangible, really. One could easily imagine testing the value of most decisions, say, by aggregating results over many similar situations. If the decisions aren’t captured by current statistics (e.g., choices about where to position fielders), it’s a problem with the measurement apparatus, not with the idea of measuring things. Moreover, statistics cautions us to guard against being misled by small sample sizes. Without considering successes and failures over many repeated situations, it’s easy to fall into the trap of justifying any single decision based solely on its result, like deciding in hindsight that betting our life savings on red at the roulette table was a good idea simply because we won. Next time we might not be so lucky. Separating the process of a decision (What information did we base our decision on? Was our strategy optimal given what we knew?) from the results (Were we skillful or just fortunate?) is the kind of task statistical analysis excels at.
The problem with relying on gut feelings and anecdotal evidence, by contrast, is that we’re notoriously bad at gauging retrospectively what factors determined our successes. We seek out examples that confirm our hunches and find them because we want to find them. Or we ignore the role of chance (remember that roulette wheel) and tell ourselves our win was pure skill. Wheeler jumps heedlessly into this trap over and over again as he delivers a master class in circular logic, confirmation bias, and post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. He claims each intangibly inspired strategic decision was correct based only on what actually happened, not what reasonably could have happened, and players are praised for producing optimal results without considering whether those results were under their control.
Wheeler’s other family is environmental intangibles. These are the contagious character traits that influence others to excel—a kind of charismatic glow that make one’s teammates play better, through inspiration or something else. Even the most hardline statistician would agree that personalities matter in a game played by people. But what traits are actually correlated with winning? Exemplary players like Derek Jeter, we are told, are the ones who “play the game the right way” and “do whatever it takes” to win. A menagerie of conflicting behaviors can fit under the heading of “whatever it takes,” though, and the right mix of intangibles required to win is only discernible in hindsight. So winners do whatever it takes, and whatever winners do must be what it takes.
Wheeler’s anecdotes include times when doing what it took meant enforcing strict clubhouse discipline, gritting through injuries, being a lovable clubhouse prankster, pulling oneself out of the line-up when hurt, offering veteran gravitas or youthful energy, playing with integrity, breaking the rules to gain an advantage, and fighting. His most significant finding is, unintentionally, a disproof of his own thesis that commonalities exist between winning teams.
All this talk of evaluating personalities based on intuition may sound like harmless but misguided nostalgia. Often it is worse. As comedian and baseball fan Chris Rock recently observed, playing the game “the right way” historically has meant “the white way,” and clubhouse cohesion and having the “right” attitude masks institutional discrimination. It’s been documented that baseball broadcasters preferentially ascribe qualities like intelligence, professionalism, and leadership to white and U.S. or Canadian-born players, whereas foreign-born and Latino players are comparatively more likely to be described as impatient or over-aggressive. Numbers, by contrast, are considerably more blind to race, age, sexual orientation, and nationality.
Statistical thinking is certainly not immune to these biases, but it may offer a modest weapon against them. A disadvantage of treating a person as a collection of stats is that we ignore important aspects of their humanity, but an advantage is that we may keep our own humanity from interfering. What Wheeler and others call the limitations of statistics are in fact safeguards against our innate tendency to draw unwarranted conclusions (which has potentially disastrous consequences when more than a baseball game is on the line). The ultimate promise of statistics is that, by measuring performance honestly, defining terms precisely, and disregarding others too vague to quantify (“clutch”), we can break the cycle of seeing only what we expect to see—and perhaps catch a glimpse of what is actually there.
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