Revenge of the Baseball Nerds

America has numerous problems in education, crime, and housing that might be helped by applying lessons that could be learned from big data analytics. Unfortunately, each of these topics threatens to get an audacious statistical researcher fired because they all involve race.

Similarly, Gallup polls have found that 150 million foreigners would like to migrate to the U.S. You might think that with that many to choose from, we could build statistical models to select the new Enrico Fermis and turn away the next Sirhan Sirhans.

But the inevitable disparate impact would make the Statue of Liberty cry, so few volunteer to figure out how to do it, fun as it would be.

In an era obsessed with how white guys down through the centuries have hurt the feelings of nonwhite guys by inventing so much, male creativity increasingly shrinks back to obscure bailiwicks that nobody else cares much about, such as baseball. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $10.00 (as of 07:50 EST - Details)

Since the 1970s, smart whites and Asians who like working with data have increasingly turned to their safe space: baseball. So far, at least, you can recognize all the patterns you want in baseball statistics without a Twitter mob canceling your career.

A new bookThe MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, is an important contribution to the debate over nature vs. nurture that has been carried on in Frequent Flyer best-sellers by Michael Lewis (Moneyball), Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), and David Epstein (The Sports Gene).

The MVP Machine comes down on the Gladwell side of optimism about nurture by arguing that when an organization maxes out its ability to select more naturally talented performers, it makes sense to get serious about developing the talent you already have.

The authors celebrate the new breeds of nerdish jocks like pitcher Trevor Bauer and jockish nerds like Kyle Boddy, the founder of the high-tech Driveline training center, who are studying how to play baseball better with the high-speed cameras that have previously revolutionized the golf swing.

In Lindbergh and Sawchik’s telling, the Sabermetrics era kicked off by Bill James in the 1970s favored nature over nurture via the better selection of prospects. In James’ view, some hitters are innately better than others at not swinging at pitches outside the strike zone and thus more likely to wheedle walks from the umpire. This gives them a higher on-base percentage, a statistic that correlates more with scoring runs and winning ballgames than the more famous batting average.

Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $15.00 (as of 03:05 EST - Details) According to James, you generally can’t teach strike zone management to a professional baseball player. For example, James’ most influential convert, Oakland general manager Billy Beane, the hero of Moneyball, was a five-tool athlete. But he earned only eleven walks in 148 big league games across six seasons. Beane, however, later found success as an executive by cheaply acquiring less impressive-looking players with an eye for the strike zone that he lacked.

But as other front offices began to fill up with MIT grads, the opportunities to find undervalued hitters dropped off. So the new cutting edge has recently shifted to nurture: Why not apply big data to improving players’ skills?

For example, the publication of launch angle statistics for batters decisively proved that orthodox coaching about trying to swing level to hit line drives to center field was self-defeating. The most damage is done by big fly balls, typically pulled to left field by right-handers or to right field by left-handers. It’s usually about 400 feet to the center field fence versus about 330 feet down the foul lines, so it’s easier to homer by hitting the ball out in front of home plate.

Thus, once-mediocre hitters like J.D. Martinez of the Boston Red Sox and Justin Turner of the Los Angeles Dodgers have turned themselves into stars by retooling their swings to pull the ball in the air.

And yet, this new breakthrough in slugging technique shouldn’t have come as a big surprise because the secret got out exactly 100 years ago in 1919 when a pitcher-outfielder named Babe Ruth hit a record 29 homers, followed by 54 in 1920, by pulling the ball with an upper cut.

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