Baseball losing its humanity with Moneyball taking hold of the Orioles - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Baseball losing its humanity with Moneyball taking hold of the Orioles

BALTIMORE – There’s a great scene in the movie “Moneyball” where a bunch of grizzled old baseball scouts are brainstorming about prospects. This kid’s got a great swing, another kid can’t hit a curve. It’s the kind of talk that goes back to the sport’s caveman days. And then comes an added element.

“This kid’s got an ugly girlfriend,” one of the scouts says.

“What’s that mean?”

“Ugly girlfriend means no confidence,” the first scout says. “I’m just saying, his girlfriend is a 6, at best.”

The scene’s funny, but it’s more than comic. It represents a turning point in the game – because comedy included, it’s about the diminishing human element.

“You guys are just talking like this is business as usual,” says Brad Pitt, playing Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who led the revolution in new math that’s changing the sport.

Last week the Baltimore Orioles signed a new general manager, Mike Elias, and an assistant GM, Sig Mejdal, whose credentials declare a belated new day for the ballclub, which has fallen so far behind other teams that they lost 115 games last summer.

From the moment he arrived, Elias has talked about the club’s failure to embrace the technological additions changing the game in the 15 years or so since Michael Lewis wrote “Moneyball,” and then the movie followed, and baseball decided to go technical in ways previously unimagined.

In one of the Baltimore papers over the weekend, we had two big stories on the front of the Sports Section about changes in the Orioles’ approach, each written by Jon Meoli, a smart, insightful beat reporter and a student of the game.

Meoli used phrasess like this:

Motion capture technology.

Data management.

Wearable health tracking.

Analytics infrastructure.

For dinosaurs like me, such language seems closer in spirit to computerized video games than it does to the physical acts of hitting and pitching. But, as Meoli (and Elias and Mejdal) make clear, it’s the future of the game – and the future has now arrived in Baltimore.

There’s a vanishing generation – mine – that still remembers summers where America argued over who was the greatest lord of the flies – Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider, each of whom patrolled center field in the three major league ballparks of New York back in the ‘50s.

We didn’t have analytics back then, only our eyes and some traditional stats (homers, batting average) – and our imaginations. That’s what made the arguments so much fun, and so impossible for anyone to win definitively. You went with your passion, not with logarithms.

But the game’s becoming even less attached to its humanity. The numbers are so nuanced now that teams can predict what kind of pitch to expect from individual pitchers, in specific situations, against specific hitters.

Baseball used to be about emotional human confrontation – about which players had the heart and soul to come through when it mattered. It was Eddie Murray advancing to the plate late in a tight game with men on base, and the entire ballpark knew – we knew! – that he’d come through, not because Earl Weaver fed him data from a computer, but because Murray was tougher, smarter, and more skilled than that shivering guy out on the mound.

Ultimately, we’ll stop believing in the skills and the physical and emotional strength of players, and simply look at the numbers and say, “Well, of course. Any fool could have seen that pop-up coming. It’s right there in the data.”

Michael Lewis wrote “Moneyball” in 2003. A few years later, I spent an evening at an Orioles game with Mike Flanagan, who’d retired as a pitcher and become vice president of baseball operations for the O’s.

“Have you read ‘Moneyball?’” I asked.

Flanagan’s face turned sour. He wasn’t buying into the new analytics. He was a young exec, but he was a baseball old-timer. He examined a hitter’s swing, or a pitcher’s curve. Maybe he even checked out a prospect’s girlfriend’s looks. Computerized baseball wasn’t for him.

For a long time, it wasn’t for the Orioles, either. They’ll get better now. They’ll be like every other team. The only thing baseball’s losing is its humanity.





About the author

Michael Olesker

Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker's Baltimore: If You Live Here, You're Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts' Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins. Contact the author.
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