The culture of the spreadsheet

Up until I was about 12, 14, I was going to be a major league baseball player.

After that silly notion found itself smoldering in my burning heap of discarded dreams, I still remained interested in the sport. albeit from the dreaded “aficionado” perspective.

Baseball was beautiful. It was peaceful and thoughtful and chill. It moved slow and deliberately. I saw it as a major sport which required more finesse and specialized skill than other major sports. And it was all about statistics.

Stats, man. Baseball’s wonderful contribution to the world of sportsdom. Ages-old statistics, the basics which had existed from the beginning of the game, when Abner Doubleday breathed life into the sport. Classic baseball statistics like batting average, fielding percentage, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, earned run average…the list goes on.

Earned run average was my favorite for it bucked the usual “average” computations found in most sports which involve dividing a smaller number of “successful” events by the large number, the total number of “attempts.” Basic statistical equations which slapped you in the face with all the subtlety of a Louisville slugger. Nope, ERA was different. ERA was advanced math, by sporting standards. ERA takes into account that a standard baseball game is nine innings and thus standardizes the comparative factor to nine in order so we may conclusively compare how many runs a pitcher gives up over a span of 9 innings. Regardless of whether the pitcher is short- or long relief, a starter…it doesn’t matter. The ERA tells us how many runs the pitcher relinquishes based on the standard time clock of nine.


Baseball, a game of numbers, always was.
I marveled at baseball statistics.

Then it slowly started to unravel. Or maybe that’s the wrong word.
The statistics intensified.
When Bill James published his Baseball Abstract, I was in baseball heaven. James was a numbers guy and he brought a new level of intricate statistics to baseball, a manner of examining and distilling the most obscure data, he mined the craziest of stats, compiled them to bleed out the cleverest measurements of a baseball player’s efficacy on the field from a perspective way beyond simple batting average.

This was great, for it was geared toward the aficionado.
The armchair baseball guru who loved this stuff.

Then business got involved. Lost was the love of the game for its own sake. The game and its infinite columns and rows of figures and numerical representations of on-field happenings.

Business got involved.

I was reminded of this while reading an article on MSNBC today called Modern Baseball Has Become A Numbers Game. The article briefly details a new revolution in baseball statistics-keeping spearheaded by many front offices which placing greater emphasis and reliance on obscure statistics in lieu of the trusty opinion of the baseball scout of yore. The traditional baseball scout tracked statistics, but he relied on much more when it came to deciphering a young player’s potential. It was instinctual, intuitive; conclusions and opinions derived from watching the player and bringing all the extraneous, non-numerical data into a cohesive dossier which would rival most of what many of baseball’s neo-statisticians can squeeze from an endless series of numbers they’ve run through their personal pencil-necked sieve.

The article proceeds to explain just a few of these statistical hieroglyphics

PECOTA: Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. A system that projects a player’s future performance based on trends in his historical record. (And yes, it’s named for the former Royals utilityman, Bill Pecota).

VORP: Value Over Replacement Player. In essence, a statistical measure of how much better a player is than the big-league average at his position.

BABIP: Batting Average on Balls In Play: It can be a red flag in evaluating pitchers, as a high or low BABIP is hard to maintain year-to-year. So a pitcher with a high BABIP could have been the victim of bad luck — balls falling in, etc. And vice versa.

Secondary average: A player will have a high secondary average if he hits for power, takes walks and steals bases.

Zone ratings: Measurements of the proportion of ‘fieldable’ balls a player handles cleanly.

Zone ratings?

The quants have taken over.
How much longer before they fuck over baseball just like they fucked over our economy.
Numbers, numbers. We squeeze them, we tease them, we distill them and steam them and cook them and trim them until we delude ourselves into thinking we can explain every little hiccup in life with a cute equation.

Where is the mystery?
Where is the reliance on intuition. On perception?

Our reliance on numbers astounds me. It confuses me.

Because all I can ask is why?
Why must we expect that everything in the world can be reduced to a formula? That all events and happenings and minute instances are the direct result of a fixed set of laws, rules?

Are we so afraid of our hunches?
Do we fear our intuitions?
Why do we not trust our knowledge and deductive process? Judging by the earnestness with which people rely on charts and graphs and statistical minutiae in today’s world, I’m starting to think people have reached the point where they have lost such touch with their natural perceptions that they now need an Excel sheet to plot and chart and plan every decision around some illusory pivot table.

Even in my work place, overrun now with robotic MBA’s, numbers and analysis are expounded with fetishistic ferocity. Numbers squeezed and shaped to explain each every occurrence (or non-occurrence), sales anticipated, non sales anticipated, non-expected sales, explained or even struggled to be explained by numbers and spreadsheets…the shit gives me a headache. We throw so many numbers at the most basic items, it’s like trying to lift a boulder with an eyebrow tweezer. The obvious becomes the obscure. Numbers mystify, create enigma out of the mundane. That is the greatest and only skill taught in business school. That’s it…and maybe how to tie a full-windsor knot. Do they teach that at Pepperdine?

In the article, Mike Paul, a scout for the Colorado Rockies, says, “”I’ve been around long enough to know what it takes to win between the lines. Give me a guy with (guts) and who knows how to pitch. I’ll take him over the guy with more talent who may quit on you.”

All the numbers, and the crunching, in the world will never compute guts. Or lack of gumption.

Some boxers, while appearing less than fearsome on the surface, nevertheless possess that intense level of “heart” as trainers call it. That magical and invisible quality which drives one to supersede the equations.

The “outlier” as they are called by the numbers gurus. That damnable specimen who can’t be explained by equations.

Fuck it, spit out a chart, we’ll get to the bottom of this. In color, please.