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technology meets the new paradigm

Every major-league baseball team relies on sabermetric analysis these days. The Giants may be less interested than most teams, although a World Series championship will calm a lot of fears. But even the Giants have the information. Their general manager, Brian Sabean, is an old-school guy, once a scout, who relies strongly on the scouts he has in his system, and someone, Sabes or someone he hired, gets credit for the fine job the team has done with pitching.

But progress doesn’t stop just because a new paradigm emerges. A general manager can make good use of the data now available, and I imagine at this point every franchise has a few statheads offering advice. But this is on the level of creating a roster. Things are happening elsewhere that are creating new situations once again.

Jayson Stark writes about this on the ESPN website today, and the subheading neatly encapsulates the story: “Technology -- namely the iPad -- is changing the way the game is played”.

This isn’t about someone crunching numbers and announcing that Player X would be a worthy signing. This is the players themselves using technology to improve their performance on the field. And, as the headline notes, the iPad is at the center of this.

Video analysis has long been available to players, but for many years, it was a clunky system (remember VHS?). Then, Stark points out, the iPod made it easier to carry information in your pocket for anytime-anyplace analysis. But the iPod screen was tiny, and the storage capabilities were not strong enough. Enter the iPad.

And now, most players carry their iPads with them wherever they go. “[T]he technological revolution has brought us apps and innovations that make it possible to load astounding amounts of video onto one iPad, link it to massive quantities of useful data, sort it a trillion different ways and allow these guys to find just about anything they need -- with one tap of their iPad screen.”

I’d foreground two points here. One way a new paradigm arrives is that the old school dies off. Most baseball players now have spent their entire lives with the kind of technology an iPad represents. They aren’t afraid of it; they embrace it. Which means they use it.

The second point grows out of the general direction of Stark’s article. Most of the examples he gives are of pitchers using data to refine how they will pitch to batters, and of managers using data to maximize the efforts of their defense. In all of this, the intended result is to prevent the batter from succeeding. As Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, an ardent proponent of the use of technology, puts it, “if there's any kind of football tenet that I want to draw, I want us to be aggressive on defense”.

Batters are frustrated by all of these combined attempts to make the batter’s job more difficult. And offense is down this season. Which leads to my second point.

I have long maintained that it is easier for coaches to impose themselves on a game through defense than through offense. You can’t coach the greatness of a Lionel Messi or LeBron James. What a coach can do, though, is try to build defenses that stymie the magical offensive talents of the Messis and LeBrons. Over the course of time, coaches will prove their usefulness by concocting brilliant defensive schemes, because they can’t really take credit for telling Leo Messi score a goal.

The result is that basketball and soccer are more low-scoring than they used to be. It’s not that the players of today are worse … it’s not that they lack fundamentals or are undisciplined … it’s that the other team has refined their ability to stop the players of today from scoring. Defense is what coaching is all about, at this point.

And now we have innovative baseball managers like Joe Maddon, who works with his iPad every morning as he enjoys his tea at Starbuck’s, trying to figure out how to prevent the other team from scoring.

I don’t know enough about the technology, or about the skills involved in hitting a baseball, to know how a batter could use the technology to counter the effects of the opposing pitcher, fielders, and manager. Stark states, “There are always going to be athletes so talented that there's no safe way to pitch them or defend them.” But for the rest? Perhaps the Giants, with their endless run of 2-1 and 1-0 games, are welcoming us to the new world of baseball. As Stark says, “It's incredible anybody ever gets a hit.”


Phil Dellio

On a related note, I saw the trailer for Moneyball last night. I'm still amazed that someone took the imaginative leap to make this into a movie in the first place--when I was obsessively reading and rereading all the old Abstracts through the '80s, I don't remember having a Hollywood movie with Brad Pitt somewhere in the back of my mind. ("Cut to low-angle shot of Runs Created per 27 Outs formula, stolen base version.") Give or take a heartwarming subplot involving kids, the trailer looked really good.

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