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MLB Statcast and decision making

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Bob Bowman, president of MLB Business and Media, explains new baseball statistics and how they might be displayed during a broadcast at a news conference in New York, Monday, April 20, 2015 (Credit: AP/Seth Wenig)

Watching sports has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Pull up your favorite sports memory on youtube and you’ll instantly see how much graphics and overall presentation have changed. Sports used to be more of a hobby for the American public, but it has become a full-on obsession. This obsession has brought with it a greater desire to know the deeper parts of all sports. Coaches and front office people want to find competitive advantages that will help them win. Fans want more insight and access into the game they love.  

In baseball, the American sports obsession has manifested itself mainly through the rise of statistics. Known as “sabermetrics”, this burgeoning area of interest seeks to quantify as much of the game of baseball as is possible. From statistics about batting, to pitching and fielding, sabermetrics seeks to go further in understanding the game we all love.

No other sport has seen as dramatic a revolution in popular level discourse about stats. Go back in time and watch, say, the average ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game from the early 1990s up to the early 2000s, and then turn on any game now, and you’ll quickly notice the difference. Commentators are usually old ballplayers who like to reminisce about the finer points of the game, waxing eloquently on the intangibles of good baseball, like hard work, hustle, and whatnot. They used to bring up the classic baseball statistics, batting average for hitters and earned-run average for pitchers, along with listing home runs and runs batted-in for hitters, and wins and losses for pitchers, and that was about all the statistical analysis you’d get from your favorite commentators.

Nowadays, there is a whole new vocabulary needed for following baseball. Sites like Fangraphs (www.fangraphs.com), Baseball Prospectus (www.baseballprospectus.com), and Baseball Reference (www.baseball-reference.com) have helped fans connect and interpret all these new statistics. Every MLB stadium is equipped with multiple cameras that track every play and every player. This translates to hundreds of new ways to measure how good or bad a particular player is playing.

Corresponding to this rise in sabermetric analytics has been the overall growth and development of sports broadcasting. As sports has exploded in popularity, television producers rely on its live games to keep the fledgling cable industry afloat. Commentators spew endless numbers of statistics at fans throughout each game, almost drowning out the action at times with their newest statistic. It’s become much more difficult to simply watch a game and not be bombarded by the modern sports announcers dangerous concoction of misplaced hype, unnecessary drama, and too-serious self-importance. If you want to enjoy the game itself rather than the drama and spectacle of the game, there are fewer and fewer announcers who let you do so (thank goodness for Vin Scully and Eric Nadel).

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So it should come as no surprise that the two worlds of television and statistical sabermetric analysis have collided in MLB Network’s new invention: Statcast. Statcast made its national debut on April 21st, and it provided an entirely new way to watch a baseball game. Overlayed on top of traditional camera angles is an array of new graphics highlighting real-time stats. For instance, when a ball is hit to the outfield, Statcast shows a little line following the outfielder that goes from green to red as the defender speeds up to get to the ball, and once the play is over and the replay is shown, a player’s initial speed, top speed, and distance traveled is shown. And that’s just for one type of play. There were all sorts of new, rather confounding statistics displayed during the course of the game between the Cardinals and Nationals, like the number of rotations (in the thousands) for a pitcher’s curve ball. All of this is incredibly new, and is changing the way we watch baseball.  

One of the problems with all this new information, though, is that teams are still figuring out how to accurately process all this new data that they are receiving about their players. It’s non uncommon now to see a coach in a dugout shot during a game broadcast poring over a large binder with reams of papers filled with charts and information. The coach is trying to figure out how to approach a certain batter or pitcher based on tendencies and accumulated stats.

All this brings me to my larger point: information overload and how to develop the wisdom of making God-honoring decisions. Just like baseball players and coaches are struggling under the weight of increased data about their performance, you and I increasingly find ourselves in an information-age that encourages us to document every facet of our lives and endlessly pour over the lives of others. Because of globalization and the internet, we now have access to a myriad of choices we never had before, and all of this can lead to paralysis when it comes time to make an important decision.

I’ve worked in college ministry for the last 5 years, and one of the things I’ve noticed when I’ve talked to students is how incredibly anxious they are when it comes to making a big decision in their lives. There are so many options for them, and on social media they see all their friends making decisions that it just further clouds and confuses their decision-making process. But it’s not just college students who struggle to make decisions; we all have this paralysis of analysis problem in the contemporary information age.

Proverbs discusses the finer points of a wise life, and one of the basic principles is that you need wise people around you to help you make wise decisions (Proverbs 15:22)1. In baseball, teams are realizing that they need to hire teams of people who can, together, help to analyze and interpret all the data that they are receiving in order to help the coach figure out how to use all the data for the betterment of the team. They realize that they need to surround themselves with the right people if they are going to grow.

Similarly, you and I must remember that the more we isolate ourselves from others, the more susceptible we become to distorting truth and skewing reality towards our own selfishness, pride, and fears. We need to surround ourselves with godly, wise people to help us make sense of our lives, to get a broader perspective. That is one of the beautiful functions of the church, the body of Christ. By coming together and unifying around our Lord Jesus Christ, we provide each other with context that helps us know how we should better live. In the church, it’s not about learning better techniques for decision-making, it’s about immersing yourself in the community of others so that their wisdom helps you grow. As we help each other, we learn and grow in wisdom and can better learn how to make decisions that are honoring to God.

We all need to grow in wisdom, and we need to surround ourselves with wise counselors to help us grow. But there’s one final point I’d like to make. Don’t forget that God wants to use you to help sharpen other people as well. As you humble yourself to the wisdom of others, God will use your heart and disposition in others’ lives in profound ways. It’s important to not only seek out wisdom from others, but to seek to be wisdom to others as well.