Category Archives: Sports

Sources of Offensive Optimism for the 2013 A’s

Jason Wojciechowski has a look at why A’s fans may be overoptimistic about the A’s this year. His analysis is reasonable. But I, too, find myself slightly more optimistic than the projections. I want to explore why I feel this way.

The A’s ended the season with five rookies in their starting rotation. Except for Travis Blackley, those rookies all return, joined by Brett Anderson and Bartolo Colon. The bullpen will basically be the same. I have some concerns about the starting pitcher depth — the 7th-9th pitchers in Sacramento are all big question marks — but that’s true for a lot of teams.

I expect the pitching to be roughly the same as last year. The big changes are on offense.

Despite winning their division, the A’s got below-average OBP in 2012 from six of the nine positions on the team, and were the worst in the league in three of them:

C: .262 (30th of 30)
1B: .340 (12th)
2B: .303 (24th)
SS: .272 (30th)
3B: .280 (30th)
LF: .370 (4th)
CF: .324 (20th)
RF: .298 (27th)
DH: .345 (4th of 15)

With slugging percentage, it was a similar story:
C: .325 (28th of 30)
1B: .461 (10th)
2B: .316 (28th)
SS: .313 (26th)
3B: .391 (23rd)
LF: .502 (3rd)
CF: .453 (8th)
RF: .437 (16th)
DH: .437 (7th of 15)

The A’s offense last year depended heavily on Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss and the Smith/Gomes platoon at DH. You look at that list and think, well maybe they’ll regress at three spots in the lineup, but there’s lots of room for improvement at six!

And the A’s did make moves to improve the worst of these positions. Jemile Weeks held down second base for most of the year, and was awful, both offensively and defensively. A platoon of Sizemore and Sogard should be able to best Weeks’ numbers. John Jaso at catchers should easily surpass the pitiful numbers Kurt Suzuki put up before he was traded. And Jed Lowrie will surely outhit Cliff Pennington, although he may not be quite as good defensively.

For the players who were not replaced, I expect improvement from several of them. Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson were both a bit overwhelmed early in the year, but improved dramatically as the year went on. I’ve never seen a player learn to adjust so visibly and impressively as Cespedes. He tends to get fooled with off-speed pitches the first time he sees a pitcher, but the next time, he either lays off the pitch that fooled him, or he crushes it. I can’t wait to see what he does his second time through the league. Donaldson was learning to play third base at the beginning of the year, and seemed to take his defensive struggles to the plate with him. But his defense went from being awful in April to fantastic in September, and as his defense came around, he began to hit about what you’d expect from his minor league numbers in the past.

So that leaves basically Moss, Reddick and the DH platoon as sources for regression. Gomes has basically been replaced by Chris Young. Young, like Gomes, has strong platoon splits, and if Melvin can use Young like he used Gomes, I think the DH platoon can hold up. Young’s strong defense may tempt Melvin to play him more against right-handed pitchers than he played Gomes, with someone like Cespedes moving to DH. That would improve the defense, but hurt the offense. A wash? Maybe.

We might not expect Reddick to hit 32 homers next year, but he was awful for long stretches last year, particularly with men on base. He hit .283/.332/.540 with bases empty, but only .191/.273/.368 with men on base. If both of those splits regress revert to his personal mean, he’ll have more impact in 2013, because so much of his 2012 output was empty.

That leaves Brandon Moss, who to me is the key to the A’s season. If he produces anything like he did last year, the A’s make the playoffs. He out-OPSed (1.123) both Mike Trout (.900) and Miguel Cabrera (1.071) in September/October last year. But he’s a career .251/.317/.442 hitter. If he hits like his career numbers in 2013, the A’s may disappoint. The projection systems mostly regard his 2012 as a mirage, and expect numbers closer to his mediocre past.

Moss also has a big platoon split. Part of his 2012 success was being platooned with Chris Carter, who hit .241/.404/.494 in his half of the platoon. Carter was traded away to get Lowrie. Replacing Carter as a right-handed first baseman is Nate Freiman, a rule-5 player who has to stay on the roster all year, or be returned to the Padres. Freiman has power, but he can hardly be expected to put up an OBP over .400, even if strictly platooned against LHPs.

Billy Beane built a roster with a lot of depth and versatility, and if any hitters get hurt or underproduce, there are other players at the same positions who can step in and produce — except at first base. There really isn’t a good replacement for Moss if he gets hurt or reverts to pre-2012 form. But what I’ve seen in the five spring training games I watched, his swing looks good. I feel optimistic about Moss, which makes me optimistic about the A’s as a whole.

Openings

A completely predictable future is already the past.

Alan Watts

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day fell this year on Easter Sunday. It is probably no coincidence that both Easter and Opening Day arrive in spring, as both are meant to signal as spring does a rebirth, a new beginning, a fresh start.

Starting fresh is not as easy as it sounds. We humans are very good at pattern recognition. We see a new thing, and recognize in its shape some other shape we’ve seen in the past. The older we get, the more we do this; the more patterns we can bring to mind, the less we see some new thing as it is today, and the more we see that thing as something that came before.

Look, here comes young Oakland A’s baseball pitcher A.J. Griffin, throwing a curveball. It looks familiar, that curveball. Does he throw that curveball Zitoesquely? Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he throws it Duchschereresquely?

Today is Opening Day for Griffin’s A’s 2013 team. Will it be as magical as 2012 was? Or as disappointing as 2007? Or perhaps glorious, like 1972, 1973 and 1974?

We can take all the statistics from all the players from all the history of Major League Baseball, sum them all up in clever and scientifically sound ways, and make predictions. 82.2 wins! 86 wins! 93 wins!

Those predictions, they aren’t the future, or even the present. They are merely shadows of the past. To truly start fresh, we must try to look on things as a child does, like someone who has no past, who has no library of previous patterns in our heads.

This is, of course, impossible. These thoughts come to our minds automatically, whether we want them to or not.

And so today will happen, and tomorrow, and the days will add up through October to a number that is greater than or equal to or less than some number we expect in our heads, and we will be delighted or bored or disappointed accordingly. And only then, when it is too late to enjoy the year in and of and by itself, can the 2013 season drop the baggage of its past, and be free to be itself.

For what is truly born on Opening Day is not the current year, but the previous year. Congratulations on your newfound freedom, 2012. You were amazing.

Cheating a Little vs. Cheating a Lot

Nobody was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame today, and Rob Neyer has an interesting post exploring why some writers seem to consider steroid cheating in baseball as being worse than other forms of cheating. I want to address his article, because at one point he says something that is flat out wrong:

Why does the impact matter? I’m trying to imagine a player’s thoughts here … “Gosh, those amphetamines seemed to help a little, so even though it’s cheating I think they’re okay to use. But golly, these steroids everybody’s talking about … I’d better not mess with those, because they seem to help a LOT.”

That just defies everything we know about human nature and, specifically, the nature of world-class athletes. If there’s a small advantage to be taken, big-time athletes will take it. If there’s a larger advantage to be taken, they’ll take that.

Neyer is wrong about that defying what we know about human nature. Just the opposite, it actually conforms to it perfectly. Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke, has made a science out of studying cheating, and he has found that nearly everyone does make a distinction between cheating a little versus cheating a lot. Watch this animated video of an Areily speech, and keep the steroid issue in mind as you listen to it:

Most people cheat, as Ariely says, “just a little bit”. Only a very very few cheat a lot. You see it every day: if you’re on the freeway, and the speed limit is 55mph, do you stay under 55mph? No, most people drive about 58-63mph–cheating just a little bit. A few will drive 70, 80, 90mph — but they’re a small minority.

If you cheat just a little bit, it’s easy to rationalize it, and still feel good about yourself. It is much harder to rationalize cheating a lot: in that case, you have crossed over into Ariely’s “What the Hell” effect.

I doubt that athlete’s psychology is very different from other humans in this manner. People don’t seem to mind people who cheat just a little bit — scuffing a baseball here, or stealing a sign there, or drinking some extra caffeine to stay alert. But there is a point where you flip over into the “What the Hell” effect — where you’re cheating so much that it has a noticeable effect, and you keep doing it, because what the hell, why not?

Where is the line in baseball between cheating a little and cheating a lot? I don’t know, and neither it seems, do the baseball writers. But this is not an black-and-white issue, where in order to be consistent, you either you have to let all cheaters in, or you have to kick all cheaters out, as I’ve seen some people (including, I think, Neyer) arguing. The science says there are levels of cheating wired into human nature. To Neyer’s credit, however much he may not want to draw a line between cheating a little and cheating a lot, he recognizes that writers are doing it, and he hypothesizes that they’re drawing the line at the statistical records being broken:

I continue to believe that a lot of the hand-wringing over steroids — which, by the way, I really wish hadn’t happened — is due to just two players: Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. I believe that if McGwire and Bonds hadn’t so utterly destroyed the home-run records, leaving first Roger Maris and then Hank Aaron in the dust, we might not be having this discussion at all.

On this point, I think Neyer is right. Many people are outraged by steroids because breaking those cherished records makes it clear that Bonds and McGwire were cheating more than “just a little”. And because that line that is built into human psychology, people react emotionally to want to punish that behavior. The fact that baseball writers are taking some time to figure out what and where that line is, to me seems quite a reasonable thing to do.

Brian Wilson: Born in the Wrong Generation

Try taking the long view. What will we think about Brian Wilson’s lycra tux in 2037?

–Ian Miller

Ian Miller’s essay on Brian Wilson’s antics and how we react to them (subscription required) got me thinking about this speech by Malcolm Gladwell:

I’ll summarize, for those who don’t want to watch the whole thing. Gladwell contends that this past century, we’ve gone through three large generational shifts in how people approach human social organization.

In the WWII-generation, the prevailing paradigm was a hierarchical organization. People just assumed that social organizations should be hierarchical, that’s how things work. When Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement, he did it with a hierarchical organization. There’s a boss at the top, and everyone below the boss follows orders.

But when the Baby Boomers came of age, they broke that paradigm. Somewhere around 1975, people started insisting on being treated as individuals. They didn’t just accept the orders coming from above. In Silicon Valley and other places, a new more egalitarian model of corporate governance began — driven as much by engineers as executives. Consumers started to demand choices. “Boomers want to surround themselves with the totems of their individuality,” said Gladwell. They didn’t want chocolate or vanilla ice cream. They wanted a choice of 31 flavors.

In baseball, this era is where free agency started–players no longer accepted that the owners were the bosses, and they had to follow their orders. Players began to assert their individuality, and suddenly there was a wealth of unique characters like Bill Lee, Al Hrabosky, Doc Ellis, and Mark Fidrych.

This paradigm prevailed until the last half decade or so. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in the 1990s, he was still selling to Baby Boomers. The first thing he did was create a series of products in many bright colors, to appeal to that generation that wanted products as an expression of their individuality. He told them that Apple would “think different”.

Now, however, times have changed. The Baby Boomers have now begun to yield to the next generation, which has its own paradigm. This Millenial generation is networked.

As Gladwell says, “That notion of being treated and seen as an individual is not a preoccupation of the current generation.” Millenials don’t care about tokens of individuality. They want to be surrounded by things that signal that they are connected, that they are participating in a community. You’ll notice that Apple doesn’t bother giving people these colorful choices anymore. They don’t say “think different” anymore. People in the Millenial generation go around with identical Apple laptops and iPhones, and are fine with that.

When Millenials start a movement, such as the Occupy movement, there are no leaders. Their work spreads virally across their global networks, effortlessly, but without conscious design or planning or goals. A meme can be born and become a global phenomenon in an instant. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to plan and control these phenomena.

As an aside, this is partly what makes the current NHL lockout so insanely stupid: the owners are waging a battle based on a paradigm that’s two generations out of date. Wake up, knuckleheads! You’re living in the 21st century.

So in 2037, when Millenials look back at which characters of the current generation they admire most, it probably won’t be the ones like Brian Wilson who flaunt their individuality by going to an award banquet in a lycra tux. That was the modus operandi of the previous generation. Instead, they’ll probably most fondly remember the ones who best participated in social networks: Brandon Phillips, Logan Morrison, and Brandon McCarthy. The ones who were most in tune with their generation.

Women’s Pro Sports: A Hypothesis

Actually, this isn’t really a hypothesis about women’s sports per se. It just manifests itself more obviously in women’s sports. It can apply equally to something like, say, men’s lacrosse. But it came up in discussion about women’s sports, so here goes.

If you look at a sport like women’s soccer in the US, you’ll see a gap:

Youth league soccer: very stable
High school soccer: very stable
College soccer: very stable
Pro league soccer: one miserable failure after another
International soccer: very stable

Women’s World Cup and Olympic soccer get very good ratings. College, high school, and youth league soccer are all quite stable entities. But multiple attempts to create a women’s pro league in the US that sits in-between college and international soccer have been unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, you don’t really see that gap. Each level is just about as stable as any other. So what we see when these pro leagues fail in the US is that American players who have reached that level go over to Europe to play.

How do we explain this? Here’s my hypothesis:

A sports league must reach a certain tipping point of popularity to survive independently in the long term. Below this level, a league requires deep local community support for stability.

In America, youth leagues are primarily supported by a large network of parents. Then at the high-school and college levels, the school community (alumni, teachers, students, parents, school district) provides the support structure. But the pro teams don’t typically have a very deep or tight network of local community support. If they need something done, independent pro teams can’t easily reach out into their community and find people willing and able to chip in — they are expected to pay people to do things. And in the long run, it’s hard to make that math work, and that’s where things fall apart. It’s was hard even to make this work for men’s soccer — America saw several different league iterations before soccer finally became popular enough for MLS to get the kind of attendance and TV ratings for the league to stabilize and succeed.

In Europe, it’s quite different. You don’t have different kinds of league structures at different ages. In each community, a single organization typically manages everything from youth teams up to the pro level. The pro level functions under a national organization, where clubs move up and down with a relegation system.

I played basketball in Sweden for two years in one such organization. Our top men’s basketball team played in Division One, and the year after I left, they managed to advance into the top Swedish league for a year. The organizations made some money from ticket sales, some from sponsorships from local businesses, some from player fees, and some from fundraisers. The top players got some money, but typically it wasn’t enough to live off of, so local businesses and organizations often gave them day jobs and hired them as employees. (Sorta like alumni hiring college athletes, only it’s not against the rules.) In return, the players were also expected to act as coaches in the organization, and indeed, I had several of these players as coaches. As a younger player in the organization, I would also volunteer support, by selling lottery tickets, or helping set up the arena before the men’s games, which were typically attended by 500-1000 people. A lot of that attendance came from younger players and their families.

Now, I was involved in a men’s structure, but the women’s structure was nearly identical. Of course, in Sweden as in America, the men’s teams were more popular than the women’s teams, so there was more money available to them. But European women’s teams can still function in this same kind of structure, because the structure embeds the pro-level team into a larger soccer community which can help support it. The nature of these communities makes it less likely for such a structure to fall apart. There are always plenty of people to figure out a way to pick up the slack if any part of the structure runs into trouble.

So if I were to design a women’s pro soccer league, I’d experiment by trying to model it after the European system. Pick a few large cities in one narrow region of the country, and partner/merge with the local youth soccer organizations. Grow the players within those organizations from age 5 up to the pro-level teams. Build a support structure in the community that can ensure the team survives, even if the league doesn’t get a national TV contract. Create a relegation system to encourage/reward those organizations that do the best job of this. If it works, expand to other regions, and then nationally.

Quantum Moneyball

Just before the beginning of this sentence, this essay could go in an infinite number of directions. But now that the first sentence has been written, the number the infinite directions it could possibly go has been reduced into a much smaller infinity. Who knows what I’ll write next?

It could be anything! Gratitude to their emotions in the water! Or maybe with Zito is blind to park your dastardly actions.

I recently watched a TED Talk by Emily Levine which is like that. It rambles off in a gazillion directions, with little coherency. You could go off now in the direction of watching it. I’m not sure I’d recommend that for you, but I’m glad I did it myself, because it contained one nugget near the end which sent me off in another, more interesting direction.

She rambles this way and that on purpose, not completely polished and slightly unprepared, because she says she likes her talks to remain in a “probability wave” as long as possible. If you’re polished and prepared, you’ve already collapsed your probability wave into single point, and you’ve closed yourself off to new possibilities. She wants to keep open the possibility of “getting on the same wavelength” as her audience.

It’s that idea of “probability waves” that got me intrigued. She’s using ideas from quantum physics to help her understand her art. Using quantum physics as a metaphor sounded interesting, so it sent me scrambling to update myself on quantum physics and probability waves again. And now there’s a very high probability that this essay will devolve into a physics lesson.

* * *

To understand Levine’s metaphor, you need to know about the double slit experiment. This cartoon is the best introduction to it I’ve seen:

That’s kind of freaky. If you’re like me, you still don’t quite get it. I’ll add Professor Brian Greene’s explanation of the double slit experiment on Nova:

* * *

In short:

  • Before observation, a subatomic particle is anywhere in the whole universe.
  • Upon observation, a subatomic particle can no longer be anywhere. It must “collapse” to somewhere specific.
  • Where an “anywhere” ends up collapsing into a “somewhere” is based on probabilities. Some places it can end up turn out to be more likely than others. And these probabilities can interfere with each other, or amplify each other, in the way that one wave can either interfere with another wave, or amplify it.

Ok, if you’re like me, you’re still having trouble understanding the concept of “probability waves.” And when I’m confused, I turn to baseball metaphors.

* * *

Imagine that a baseball player is a subatomic particle. We’re going to pass the player through two slits, and we’ll call these slits “On-base Plus Slugging” and “Plate Appearances”.

Suppose we have a player/subatomic particle named “Kila Ka’aihue”. Let’s say Ka’aihue is projected to hit something like this in 2012:

4% chance his OPS is around .913
8% chance his OPS is around .869
12% chance his OPS is around .837
16% chance his OPS is around .811.
20% chance his OPS is around .786.
16% chance his OPS is around .762
12% chance his OPS is around .738
8% chance his OPS is around .705
4% chance his OPS is around .663

and let’s say he’s projected to get playing time like this:

4% chance he gets around 500 Plate Appearances
8% chance he gets around 450 PA
12% chance he gets around 400 PA
16% chance he gets around 350 PA
20% chance he gets around 300 PA
16% chance he gets around 250 PA
12% chance he gets around 200 PA
8% chance he gets around 150 PA
4% chance he gets around 100 PA

Before the season starts, any combination of these stats are possible. He could hit a .913 OPS and get around 200 PA. Or he could hit .738 and get around 400 PAs. Or any other combination — some are more likely than others, but they can all happen.

Some of these probabilities, however, interfere with each other. If Ka’aihue hits .663, it reduces his odds getting 500 PA, because the A’s will likely give his PAs to somebody else instead. If he hits .913, it reduces his odds of taking a path with only 100 PA, because if he’s playing that well, the A’s will want to give him a lot more than 100 PAs.

Other probabilities amplify each other. If Ka’aihue ends up with a .663 OPS, it increases his odds of ending up with only around 100 PA. If he ends up with a .913 OPS, it increases his odds of ending up with over 500 PA.

* * *

So now, let’s play the 2012 season a million times.

Each time we play, we shoot the Ka’aihue subatomic particle through these two slits, and some particular combination of OPS and PAs ends up on the back wall.

Now, if we chart the one million Ka’aihue outcomes, all the OPSes and PAs, we’ll see something similar to the double slit experiment. We’ll see some areas of high density, and other areas of low density. We’ll get lots of marks where the OPS and PAs are both high, or both low, because that’s where the odds get amplified. We’ll get gaps where one is high and the other is low, because that’s where the odds cancel each other out.

* * *

Now of course, we didn’t play the 2012 season a million times. We only played it once. And in that one, single time, Ka’aihue ended up with .693 OPS in 139 plate appearances — both low. And because of that low outcome, the A’s tried Brandon Moss and Chris Carter at first base, instead.

* * *

You can think of the whole 2012 Oakland A’s season in this way. If Ka’aihue has a low OPS, it amplifies the odds that he’ll also have fewer PAs. If Ka’aihue has fewer PAs, it amplifies the odds of Chris Carter or Brandon Moss or Daric Barton getting more PAs, until one of them starts hitting well. Which is what happened: Moss and Carter ended up in a platoon and hit well.

But if Ka’aihue has a high OPS instead, it amplifies the odds that he’ll get more PAs, and cancels out the odds of Carter and Moss getting a lot of PAs. The whole season takes a completely different path, and probably ends up “collapsing” into a completely different place.

* * *

Baseball is more complicated than just OPS and plate appearances, of course. And in the end, the stat we baseball fans are really interested in measuring on that back wall is team wins.

As the season starts out, there are an infinite number of possible ways the season can play out. Some things are more likely than others, but once we observe the season, all those possibilities collapse into one, single outcome. The 2012 A’s could have ended up with 0 wins or 162, but those are extremely unlikely paths. That would be like a diamond spontaneously jumping out of a locked safety deposit box and into a thief’s pocket. Most likely, the diamond stays in the box. Most likely, the team stays within a “box” between 40 and 120 wins.

Atomic-era general managers will understand all these possible amplifications and cancellations, and construct their teams to maximize the odds that the path their team takes collapses into a championship. The most likely outcome for the A’s was figured by pundits to be around 75 wins. And maybe if you replayed 2012 a million times, it will average to 75 wins. Or maybe, Billy Beane understood how all those waves of statistics amplified and canceled each other out better than anyone else. Maybe, the A’s season collapsing into a single, specific result of 93 wins and an AL West Division title was not quite the miracle we thought it was.

And with that, this essay shall hereby collapse into itself.

* * *

Disclaimer: this metaphor was presented for informational and entertainment purposes only. Baseball players are not actually subatomic particles. Quantum physics are not the most accurate way to describe the behavior of baseball players. Nor are the behavior of baseball players the most accurate way to describe quantum physics. The reader assumes all risk for all unintended uses of this metaphor, including–but not limited to–using Feynman path integral formulations to project future baseball outcomes.

A Translation Guide to Science, Religion, and Sports

I used to write some really weird stuff, man.

Kira, at Bashi.

* * *

So when R. Kelly tells me there’s someone hiding under my kitchen sink, and insists on exposing who he is, I will tell him it is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

I have faith in both faith and science, and I believe, that in the end, the truth and the truthiness will join together at last.

Ken Arneson, April 10, 2006

Where did that Ken Arneson go? It’s been over a month now since I returned to blogging, but I still can’t find him. I’m lost, alone, adrift.

Darmok, on the ocean.

* * *

I was discussing with Stacey Gotsulias on Twitter the other day this feeling of having lost your writing chops. Stacey said one thing in particular that stuck with me:

Hmm. Fear? Maybe. Something is holding me back, inhibiting my creativity right now. When I’m in my zone, the right words, the right crazy metaphor, the right structure — it all pours out of me as easily a river flows from a mountain to the sea. But right now, it doesn’t flow. I know it’s inside me, but it won’t come out. It’s a grind.

What is blocking that flow? Is it fear? For me, I’m not sure. If it’s fear, fear of what? Failure? Criticism? Being horrible? Being unextraordinary?

The beast, at Tanagra.

* * *

Have you ever seen the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok“? In this episode, Captain Picard is stranded on a planet with an alien named Dathon. Dathon speaks a language that consists almost entirely of metaphor. Dathon says things like, “Temba, his arms wide” “Chenza at court, the court of silence” and “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“. The words sound like English to Picard, but the statements are utterly meaningless to him because he doesn’t have any understanding at all of what those words symbolize. Here’s a key scene:

I have begun to feel that so many modern human conflicts, ranging from science to religion to sports, are like this. At their core, they are talking about the exact same thing, because there is only one human nature. But they have such completely different ways of expressing these things that the other side just discounts it as unintelligible jibberish.

Kadir, beneath Mo Moteh.

* * *

I was baptized and confirmed in the Swedish Lutheran Church when I was 14. In my confirmation proceedings, I acted as best I could to convey that I really understood what Christianity was about. But to be honest, there was one very key aspect of it that I didn’t get, that I’ve felt had a kind of “underpants gnome” quality to it.

Underpants gnomes are cartoon characters from an episode of South Park. These gnomes go around stealing underpants, because they have some sort of assumption that doing so leads to profits. But there’s a missing step in their business plan:

1. Steal underpants
2. ???
3. Profit!

Here’s the thing about Christianity that I kinda felt worked like the underpants gnome business model:

1. Jesus dies on the cross.
2. ???
3. Believers get eternal life.

For years, I just happily accepted this conclusion, like the underpants gnomes happily accepted their business model. I enjoyed the idea of eternal life, just like the gnomes enjoyed the idea of profits. So why question a good thing?

Of course, as I grew older I did come to question it. Why should Jesus need to die on the cross for believers to get eternal life? God is all-powerful. Why couldn’t He just give believers eternal life without Jesus having to die on the cross? It made no sense to me. I didn’t understand the metaphor. To me, it was jibberish.

Chenza at court, the court of silence.

* * *

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

David Foster Wallace

It’s interesting to juxtapose that David Foster Wallace speech with Clayton Christensen’s concept of the Job To Be Done. The Job-To-Be-Done model says that we don’t necessarily rationally think through what is the best product, and buy that. What happens is, we go along in our lives, and at certain times we come across a job that we need to get done. We tend to hire the product or service which (a) does the job, and (b) most easily comes to mind or is most readily at hand.

To borrow Christensen’s milkshake example, we may want to hire a milkshake to keep us busy on a long, boring morning commute. But we probably won’t hire that milkshake if it only comes packaged together with a hamburger. We’ll hire a banana or a bagel instead. We don’t want a hamburger in the morning.

By Wallace’s account, we humans have a psychological need to worship something. But when exisiting religions take sides in politics, or reject science, conflict with other values like equality for gays or women, they make it more complicated for us to pull them in to solve our Job-To-Be-Done. We want to hire something to worship, but we don’t necessarily want it packaged together with a rejection of science or equality.

And so what do we do? We may not outright reject religion, but we don’t explicitly buy it, either. We put the decision off. And then we find ourselves as Wallace describes, drifting unconsciously towards other things that can fill that Worship-Job-To-Be-Done. Money. Sex. Intellect. Art. Power. Reason. Fame.

Or sports.

Zinda, his face black, his eyes red.

* * *

Many religious institutions tend to think of science as their biggest competition. But if you ask me, sports is by far a bigger competitor. It’s global. It’s ubiquitous. There’s no religion that has 3.2 billion adherents. There’s no science book that has 3.2 billion readers. But the 2010 World Cup had 3.2 billion people watching it.

3.2 billion people hired the World Cup to do a job for them. But what job, exactly, is it filling?

Uzani, his army with fists open.

* * *

The other day I was watching a 2010 Ted Talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston. Brown spent the first six years of her career studying a single human emotion: shame.

The data she collected led her to expand into exploring other aspects of human nature: courage, worthiness, and vulnerability. And she concluded that the fulcrum around which all of the other aspects pivoted was vulnerability. I recommend watching this talk, it’s both interesting and entertaining:

Rai and Jiri, at Lungha..

* * *

If you don’t have the time to watch the whole of Brown’s talk, here’s a money quote:

One of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability… We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history. The problem is — and I learned this from the research — you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say “Here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to want to feel these. I’m gonna have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.”

You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, or emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness.

And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable, and then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

Kiazi’s children, their faces wet.

* * *

This resonated with me regarding my writer’s block. One cannot create something for public consumption without passing through vulnerability. Writing is a risky act. When we write, we risk being wrong, we risk being ridiculed, we risk being rejected, we risk being dismissed, we risk being ignored, we risk being horrible, we risk being mediocre, we risk being unspectacular.

It’s natural to feel the desire to numb ourselves to those consequences. There are many ways to do so. We can use external sources to numb our feelings, with drugs or comfort foods. But can also do it with internal, psychological sources. Denial. Delusion. Cognitive dissonance. Confirmation bias. Self-censorship.

The latter, I think, is the source of my inhibitions. I am subconsciously self-censoring myself, to avoid that vulnerability, to prevent myself from saying something wrong. But in numbing myself from those negative consequences, I am also numbing my creativity.

I need to let go of that fear of failure. I need to embrace my vulnerability, to risk being wrong to let the creativity flow out of me again. I need to do what Brown says healthy people do: practice gratitude, seek out joy, accept my limitations.

Kailash, when it rises.

* * *

It also seems plausible to me that this vulnerability is why we hire sports into our lives. When you commit to a team, when you say “I am a diehard Oakland A’s fan”, you are exposing yourself to vulnerability. You are vulnerable to the pain of Kirk Gibson homering off Dennis Eckersley, of Jeremy Giambi failing to slide, of Eric Byrnes forgetting to step on home plate, or of Coco Crisp dropping a fly ball in center field. But unless you expose yourself to that vulnerability, you also won’t experience the joy of Scott Hatteberg’s home run, of Ramon Hernandez’ walkoff bunt, of Marco Scutaro’s foul pole doink against Mariano Rivera, or of that crazy comeback in Game 4 of the 2012 ALDS. Vulnerability is the intersection where all the pain and the joy meet. If we humans crave that intersection, sports is a product that provides it.

Uzani, his army with fists closed.

* * *

Brown believes that our modern culture has an unhealthy attitude towards vulnerability. We perceive it as synonymous with weakness. We treat it like a disease to be avoided instead of as the source of everything beneficial in our lives. This has consequences for us not just individually, but as a society as a whole:

The other thing we do is make everything that is uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up. … That’s what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame.

This unhealthy attitude towards vulnerability also applies to sports. When Derek Jeter broke his ankle the other day, Nick Swisher was blamed for it, even though he wasn’t involved at all in the play where Jeter got injured. He misplayed a ball on the previous play, extending the inning where Jeter got hurt. When your attitude towards vulnerability in sports is unhealthy, you treat victory as required, and failure as unacceptable. Talk radio and internet discussions are full of this sort of attitude: our team must win, or else scapegoats must be found and heads must roll.

Kiteo, his eyes closed.

* * *

If I have drifted away from religion in my life, it is because of this: the versions of Christianity that I was exposed to in my formative years, with all its certainties of how everything worked, became at odds with how I came to understand the world. I wasn’t certain God exists, at least not as a man with a white beard in the sky looking down on us. I wasn’t certain evolution is wrong, or that homosexuality was evil, or that if you’re a socialist, you’ll go to Hell. How could I be certain of any of those things if I didn’t even understand how the crucifixion worked?

The job I personally needed my Christianity to do was to be comfortable with uncertainty. To embrace my doubts instead of rejecting them. To be able to say, “I don’t know or I don’t understand–and that’s OK.” But that version of Christianity was not a product visible to any shelf I could see or reach. And so off I drifted, unconsciously and unintentionally, into the open fists of sports.

Shaka, when the walls fell.

* * *

After watching Brown’s Ted Talk, I went back and read the accounts of the Crucifixion. I found it interesting that Jesus only says two things while on the cross: the first line of Psalm 22, and part of the last.

The Old Testament’s Psalm 22 is subtitled “A Cry of Anguish and Song of Praise”. It could just as easily be subtitled “A Cry of Vulnerability, and a Song of Gratitude.” It is a poem that begins as an expression of our vulnerability. Sometimes we suffer, and in those moments, it feels as if God is not there.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not;
and in the night season, and am not silent.

But this poem does not reject that suffering, nor does it reject God for allowing it. Instead, it praises God, and thanks him.

A seed shall serve him;
it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness
unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.

This is why Jesus needs to die on the cross to deliver eternal life. This is the missing stage 2. Because the path to everything that is divine (a/k/a eternal a/k/a good) in life passes through vulnerability. If Jesus is to be the example for the whole world to follow, to show us mere mortals the way to experience divinity, He must lead us to and through vulnerability. He must experience the ultimate vulnerability — death itself. So Jesus suffers. He suffers not just physically by being nailed to that cross, but also suffers spiritually.

Jesus saying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” confuses a lot of people. If Jesus is the son of God, why would God forsake him? But of course, God isn’t forsaking Jesus. But if Jesus is to be truly, genuinely vulnerable in this moment, He must feel vulnerable to being rejected by the one thing He loves the most, God the Father. That one moment, of God Himself feeling vulnerable, is the greatest gift God ever gave mankind. It creates the perfect example for mankind to follow, that single seed that shall serve him.

And that is how, if we believe in the story of Jesus–or, in the language of science, if we embrace our vulnerability instead of numbing it away–we can have access to all the blessings and joys that life offers.

Sokath, his eyes uncovered!

* * *

Does this mean I am now rejecting sports in favor of Christianity? Not at all. I don’t need to reject anything. There is only one human nature. We can express that single human nature through the language of Christianity, the language of science, the language of science fiction, the language of art, or the language of sports. We can make the mistake of numbing our vulnerability through each kind of language and suffer the consequences (hello, sports talk radio!). But we can also be uplifted in each of these languages by the beauty of human nature when it is done right.

Ubaya of crossroads, at Lungha.

* * *

“All that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.2

On October 3, 2012, after beginning the season being expected to finish in last place, after trailing in the standings by five games just nine days earlier, an improbable Oakland A’s team completed an amazing comeback to win the American League West. The team and their fans went wild, celebrating the culmination of a miracle season.

A’s reliever Pat Neshek wasn’t there. He had flown to Florida two days earlier to witness the birth of his first child. He went to his hotel room to watch the last game. In the fifth inning of the game, he got a phone call. His wife told him, “The baby stopped breathing.”

If Pat Neshek had an unhealthy attitude towards life, he’d be angry. Angry at his team for distracting him away from being with his child. Angry at God for taking his baby away from him just as the promise of a new life together began to feel real. He’d be looking for someone to blame, wanting to sue the hospital for its negligence.

Instead, Neshek returned to the team two days later. And this is what he said:

It was probably the best day I ever had, the one day. I’d go through it all again just for that one day. It was pretty awesome.

Neshek went out the next day and threw a perfect inning in the first game of the playoffs.

Darmok and Jalad, on the ocean.

* * *

The A’s lost those playoffs, in a fifth and deciding game to the Detroit Tigers. But the fans were so overjoyed by this unlikely story, by this unlikely team, that even though they lost and their season was now over, they gave their team a five-minute standing ovation after the final out was recorded. Watch this, all of it:

This is Psalm 22, translated into sports. This Brené Brown’s scientific research, translated into sports. It starts out with an expression of vulnerability, of suffering. When the Tigers start rushing out onto the field to celebrate, the A’s fans boo. But very quickly, that cry of anguish transforms into a song of praise from 36,000 people for what their team had accomplished. There is no demand for certain victory, no bitterness at an entitlement taken from them, no blame for whoever caused the loss, no numbing or turning away from the vulnerability sports fans expose themselves to by choosing to root for a team. It’s just five minutes of pure gratefulness and joy.

Mirab, with sails unfurled, sing thee to thy rest. It is done. The rest is the river Temarc, in winter.

Remembering ALDS Game 4 and The Fosse Scream

The Oakland A’s lost ALDS Game 5 last night to the Detroit Tigers, and their 2012 season is now over. That’s kinda sad, so let’s step back a day and remember Game 4, where the A’s made a miraculous comeback in the bottom of the ninth to extend their season one more day.

Here’s some video I took at the game. Unfortunately, my camera failed me (or I failed my camera) at the climactic moment, so I had to get a little creative to make the piece hold together.

A’s broadcaster Ray Fosse’s reaction to the win was priceless. And it’s especially noteworthy to me because I had a brief conversation with him before the game, after which I videobombed him on the pregame show.

It was a great day, the climax of an amazing year for the Oakland A’s. The year was so unexpected and remarkable that I wasn’t even depressed in the slightest when they lost Game 5. And neither were my fellow A’s fans, who stayed and cheered their team after Game 5 ended, even as the Tigers celebrated on the field. There was no anger from the crowd, no bitterness, just joy and appreciation for a remarkable run. It’s how sports ought to be, human nature at its best.

I Wanted To Say

I wanted to say something about yesterday…about how the Oakland A’s joyously won the AL West, only to find out a few hours later that the newborn son of A’s reliever Pat Neshek had suddenly died:

I wanted to say something about how cruel this world we live in is, when joy can be transformed into horror in just a matter of hours. About the pain of a present destroyed, and the emptiness of a future that will never come to be. About how I want to cry at the injustice of it, like Job did after God let Satan test his faith by destroying his wealth, killing his children, and taking his health.

“I cry to you, O God, but you don’t answer.
I stand before you, but you don’t even look.
You have become cruel toward me.
You use your power to persecute me.
You throw me into the whirlwind
and destroy me in the storm.
And I know you are sending me to my death—
the destination of all who live.”

I wanted to say something like what Ray Ratto said about the news. About how awful it is, and how any good news about the A’s going forward will now be tempered by this unbearable sadness the Neshek family must face.

But I also wanted to say how we … and baseball … together … and life … but, no.

My natural reaction, the desire to try to find something redemptive in this, to find something that can explain why and how such suffering can exist–that reaction doesn’t seem quite right. The loss of a child is not something the human mind is designed to comprehend. There is no lesson to be learned here, no perspective to be gained.

Then the LORD said to Job,

“Do you still want to argue with the Almighty?
You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?”

Then Job replied to the LORD,
“I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers?
I will cover my mouth with my hand.
I have said too much already.
I have nothing more to say.”

Sometimes, horrible things are just horrible things. And I have said too much already.

More Moneyball than Moneyball Itself

As the A’s try to win the AL West today, I thought I’d post a little thing I wrote on a friend’s Facebook feed. My friend was making the old complaint about how Moneyball ignored Hudson, Mulder, Zito; that the real reason for the A’s success is not the Scott Hattebergs and their on-base percentage, but pitching.

* * *

Yes, the A’s have consistently developed good pitching — but really only since Billy Beane took over as GM in 1997. BUT: the A’s had the third best ERA+ (ERA adjusted by ballpark) in the AL this year. The A’s had the third best ERA+ in the AL last year, too. If it was the pitching that gave the A’s their success, they would have won 93 games last year, too.

The point of Moneyball isn’t that Hatteberg was the REASON for winning. It’s that everything adds up: pitching, defense, hitting, baserunning. The big things (Hudson, Mulder, Zito, Tejada, Chavez) — those reasons for winning are easy to see. The point of Moneyball is to find those small little advantages beyond the obvious. Add a run from hitting here, a run on baserunning there, save a run on pitching here, a run on fielding there — it all adds up. That’s the story, that’s what makes the A’s different.

So in the book/movie, the A’s took a catcher from another team (Hatteberg) and turned him into a first baseman, and that helped them _partly_ to overcome the loss of Giambi’s numbers, at a very low cost. They also saved some other runs on the pitching side by acquiring Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon.

This year’s team has THREE Hattebergs: Brandon Moss started the year as an outfielder, and ended up as a first baseman. Josh Donaldson started the year as a catcher, and ended up as a third baseman. And a year ago, Sean Doolittle was a first baseman, now he’s a left-handed relief pitcher.

This year, the A’s have also added up all those little runs by platooning all over the place: at catcher, first base, second base and DH. These sorts of thing won’t always work. But when you’re a poor team, that’s what you have to try sometimes. And sometimes, you get lucky and all those risks actually all work at the same time. That makes this year’s team probably a better example of Moneyball than Moneyball itself.

Baseball Awards and the Job To Be Done

The thing I love about reading Clayton Christensen is that he provides new ways of looking at common problems, which open up a whole different set of solutions for you.

For instance, watch this video as he explains his concept of “Jobs to be Done”:

“If you understand the job, how to improve the product becomes just obvious.”

I love that phrase: “hiring a milkshake”. When you think of a milkshake as a product, then you analyze it the way you analyze products: it’s properties (thickness, taste, size, price, etc.), and the demographics of the purchasers of that product (rich, poor, male, female, young, old, etc.)

But if you look at it in terms of a “job to be done”, that one product may actually turn out to be two or more separate products. There’s the milkshake job for the morning commuter, and there’s also the milkshake job for the parent buying it for their kid. These separate products may have separate sets of properties and demographics.

* * *

Last month, I wrote about the MVP Award, in a post called Awards are Celebrations, Not Measurements. And Vice Versa. I think I had a good point there, but perhaps applying Christensen’s “Jobs to be Done” frame would make that argument clearer. So let’s do that:

What is the job that we hire the Most Valuable Player Award to do?

I suspect that the reason there seems to be such vehement disagreement about the AL MVP this year is that it’s actually like the milkshake: we think of it as one single product, but in fact it’s actually two. The morning commuters need the MVP to function like a measurement: that’s what they want to hire the job to do. The evening parents want to hire the MVP award to tell the best story, to celebrate the player who best matches our platonic or cultural ideal of what the best player should accomplish.

Sometimes a single item on the menu can successfully accomplish two jobs. But sometimes they can’t. If we’re smart at marketing, we’ll figure out how to get each set of customers the product that they actually want.

They Haven’t Run Out Of Miracles Yet

This week I’ve been reading my favorite childhood book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to my 5-year-old daughter. It’s a bit of an odd book in a way, because the real climax of the book comes in the middle, when the Golden Tickets are found. It has a happy ending, too, but it doesn’t quite bring that sense of elation that you get when poor Charlie Bucket finally has his first stroke of good luck. That wide-eyed giggling happiness that you share with your kid when reading a chapter like ‘The Miracle’ together — it’s absolutely one of the best things in life, ever.

* * *

I thought about taking her and my wife to the A’s game on Saturday, but Friday night I tweaked my back a bit playing soccer, so I decided it would be wisest to stay home and rest my back. I missed attending probably one of the top 10 most exciting games in Oakland history. The A’s fell behind 4-0, and were trailing 4-2 in the ninth inning. Their lead in the race for a playoff spot was about to shrink down to one game. Here is what happened next:

Josh Donaldson’s 2-run home run tied the game 4-4 in the ninth inning, and then in the extra 10th frame, Brandon Moss homered to give the A’s the win.

I love A’s radio announcer Ken Korach’s call. “The A’s — they haven’t run out of miracles yet!”

* * *

The rest of the story this season may turn out to be pretty good. Or not–the A’s may not even be Charlie Bucket in this story. Maybe their young enthusiasm leads them to make a quick, sudden exit like Violet Beauregarde, instead. Who knows. But this miracle today, the giggling, bubbly happiness I feel inside — this is undoubtedly the best part of the book.

We We We All The Way Home

Yesterday, I mentioned in passing how I enjoy baseball on two levels: one level in rooting for my team, and another in the aesthetic quality of the game. The day before, I defended the idea of cross-pollinating new scientific ideas with older fields of human endeavor, to see what comes out of the mix. So today, let’s make a new hybrid.

How can we explain the psychological attraction in rooting for a team? Why, when we’re watching two teams that we have no previous attachment to, do we often find ourselves rooting for one team or another anyway? And how is this different or separate from the aesthetic joy of watching a game?

* * *

As I write this, I am watching Ian Kinsler bat against my favorite baseball team, the Oakland A’s. On the rooting level, I want him to fail and flail badly. But on an aesthetic level, I admire Kinsler. His at-bats, the way he takes bad pitches and fouls off good pitches until he can get a good pitch to hit, are probably the most consistently good at-bats I’ve seen from any player since Rickey Henderson. If our enjoyment of sports were only about rooting interest, I should be incapable of appreciating Kinsler at all. If our enjoyment of sports were only aesthetic, I wouldn’t have a reason to want to see him fail.

Can baseball fandom be fully expressed in a mere two-dimensional chart, with rooting on the x-axis, and aesthetics on the y-axis? No, of course not. For instance, suppose the A’s pitcher were Bartolo Colon. Colon was suspended in August for performance enhancing drugs, but let’s say he’s served his suspension and now he’s pitching. Do I still root for him to succeed? Yes, he’s on my favorite team. But now there’s a moral dimension on the z-axis added to the mix, too. We can go on. Fandom is complex.

* * *

But still, we want to talk about it, so we need to model it. Do we need modern science to do so? Not really. For example, Aristotle, addressed such issues over two millenia ago. Here’s a paragraph on Aristotle’s aesthetics, from a 1902 version of Encyclopedia Britannica:

Elsewhere he (Aristotle) distinctly teaches that the Good and the Beautiful are different (heteron), although the Good, under certain conditions, can be called beautiful. He thus looked on the two spheres as co-ordinate species, having a certain area in common. It should be noticed that the habit of the Greek mind, in estimating the value of moral nobleness and elevation of character by their power of gratifying and impressing a spectator, gave rise to a certain ambiguity in the meaning of to kalon, which accounts for the prominence the Greek thinkers gave to the connection between the Beautiful and the Good or morally Worthy.

Not sure if Aristotle meant Good and Morally Worthy were separate things or the same, but I’ll assume they’re separate. So applying Aristotle to my example above, the A’s are Good, Ian Kinsler is Beautiful, but Bartolo Colon is Morally Unworthy.

* * *

Aristotle’s three dimensions are a kind of model of this aspect of human nature. And since this model is still being discussed 2,000 years later, we can certainly say that this model has a certain level of usefulness. But does this model accurately map to the actual structure and organization of the human brain? Can we explain this structure in terms of evolution, that there were some sort of selective pressures which led to this behavior?

Aesthetics and morality are huge subjects, so I’ll pass on those in this blog entry, and just focus on the rooting aspect.

Group behavior has always been a bit of a tricky subject for evolutionist to explain. It’s easy to explain selfish individual behavior: it’s behavior that’s directed towards passing your genes on to the next generation over the genes of your rivals. The prevailing explanation for most of the last 40 years or so has been kin selection: unselfish behavior towards your kin helps pass more of your genes along to the next generation. Any sort of unselfish behavior toward people who are not your kin is just sort of a side effect of unselfish behavior towards your kin.

But that’s an unsatisfying explanation, particularly if you apply it to team sports. Why do I go to the Coliseum, dress up in green and gold with thousands of other A’s fans, 99.999% of who are not my kin, and cheer the team together with them? It’s really hard to make a convincing argument that I’m doing it to pass my genes on.

The alternative explanation is group selection. Group selection is a theory that fell out of favor in the 1960s, but in recent years has been making a comeback. In his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson argues strongly in favor of group selection as an explanation for human social behavior.

Under group selection theory, human evolution happens in two dimensions. There’s a selfish dimension that pushes individuals to promote their genes over others within their group. But there’s also a dimension that pushes us to behave in ways to promote the genes of the group over the genes of rival groups. In times of war or drought or famine, those groups who behave in ways that encourage cooperation instead of selfishness survive to pass their genes on more than the groups whose individuals behave more selfishly.

Under group selection theory, the behavior we see in team sports makes much more sense. We naturally form emotional attachments to our groups, because we were evolved to do just that. As E.O. Wilson points out, every single animal that exhibits social behavior (including the one Wilson is expert in, ants) evolved its social behavior to protect and defend a nest. So we root, root, root for the home team, and find it extremely irritating when invading Yankee fans come into our home nest and chant for their team, instead. The joy we feel when our group wins, the pain we feel when our group loses — those are emotions that evolved in our brains to promote the genetic survival of our groups.

* * *

Note I said “our groups.” Jason Wojciechowski has an article today (Baseball Prospectus, $ required) on the use of the word ‘we’ in reference to team sports. Is it appropriate for fans to use the word “we”, or should that be limited only to the players on the team? Jason tries to define that line somewhere in along the lower level employees of the team. I don’t think that works (which Jason ultimately acknowledges).

Former Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein used to rail against fans using ‘we’ on Twitter all the time. At one point (which I can’t find now — Twitter search sucks) — he argued that you don’t say ‘we’ to refer to your favorite band, so why should you do so for your favorite team?

I strongly disagree with Kevin here. A band is different from a team. You like the band primarily because of the aesthetic experience it provides you. But as we’ve seen here, the aesthetic experience is only a small part of the experience of watching baseball. Sports are the most popular activity on earth right now not because they provides an aesthetic experience alone — but because they have gone beyond that and tapped into the a primal root of human evolution: the network of emotions that group selection has hardwired into us.

The reason professional sports is a profession at all is because it creates the feeling of ‘we’. That feeling is the main point of team sports. We-ness is the product.

To have a business that sells a product, we, and then to deny those customers the use of the very word that best describes the product–that’s madness.

Wednesday Linkblogging 2012-09-26

Jason Wojciechowski is finding it difficult to watch A’s games in this pennant race, because any failures by his favorite team are too painful. He wonders:

Given my strong suspicion that we only get one shot at life, is it better that I spend my remaining years experiencing as broad a range of emotions as I can reasonably give myself? Do the lows make the highs sweeter such that they’re worth it as a simple matter of arithmetic?

I have been similarly tempted to look away. I’ve found over the years that I’m actually a happier person when the A’s are not competitive. Winning breeds expectations, and the more your team wins, the more you expect them to win. But happiness research seems to suggest that the key to happiness is low expectations. I suspect, therefore, that unless the A’s actually win the World Series, our happiness as A’s fans actually peaked around early August, when we started to realize the A’s were a good team capable of winning, but before that winning had become so commonplace that we began to expect it.

However, I enjoy baseball on more dimensions than just winning. The game the A’s lost on Friday against the Yankees was a beautiful ballgame aesthetically: it was a dramatic game where both teams played crisp, solid baseball with good pitching. I enjoyed it immensely. Saturday’s game, however, was awful: the A’s lost, but both teams played terribly, the pitching was horrible, the defense was shaky and even the umpires got into the act with several mistakes. And that was just in the first inning before I turned it off, and went out to do something else with my Saturday. The game kept on like that, and ended up lasting almost six hours, without me. I’m glad I (mostly) missed that one.

The next three games have been equally dramatic, but somewhat in-between aesthetically. Last night’s game, for example, featured a horrible error by Brandon Moss that cost the A’s two runs, followed later in the game by a fantastic catch by Moss that saved the A’s three. For me, the drama would be much easier to watch if the A’s were not playing so sloppily.

I don’t always watch pennant race baseball, but when I do, I prefer errorlessness. Play crisply, my friends.

* * *

If you want to innoculate yourself from the pain of your favorite team losing, you can consume your sports like Will Leitch recently did, by entering the RedZone. Leitch describes his first experience watching NFL RedZone on the NFL Network:

RedZone is a commercial-free, seven-hour block of every exciting play in every NFL game all day. You see every scoring opportunity, you see every two-minute drill, you see every moment of fantasy relevance. The general consensus: You’ll never watch football the same way again.

On RedZone, events happen and are then forgotten in the chaos. Something that happened three minutes ago is distant history.

That, I suppose, is both the blessing and the curse of living in this information age. You can’t tell a teardrop from a raindrop in a hurricane.

* * *

Felix Salmon has an article about journalism in the midst of such massive amounts of instant information. Being able to find that teardrop in the hurricane in basically the job of the modern journalist.

But if I were hiring, the first thing I’d look at would be the prospective employee’s Twitter feed. What are they linking to? What are they reading? If they’re linking to great stuff from a disparate range of sources, if they’re following smart people on Twitter, if they’re engaged in the conversation — that’s hugely valuable. More valuable, in fact, than being able to put together an artfully-constructed lede.

The tricky balance there is to be able to both swim in the flood of information to gather the data, but to step out of it long enough to gather your thoughts.

* * *

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Jetsons, the Paleofuture has started a series to look at all 24 episodes of The Jetsons one-season run.

Thanks in large part to the Jetsons, there’s a sense of betrayal that is pervasive in American culture today about the future that never arrived. We’re all familiar with the rallying cries of the angry retrofuturist: Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!? “The Jetsons” and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.

The deluge of information we now experience in the real future thanks to the Internet and television is vastly different from the one we imagined when we grew up watching the Jetsons. The Jetsons’ future seems so much simpler than ours. So when we feel overwhelmed, our fight-or-flight response kicks in and we want to reject it all and run away.

As Jason says in his post above about turning off the A’s in this tense pennant race: “My gut the last few weeks appears to have made the latter choice for me, leaving me a little more time to spend with my cats, my wife, my books, and my thoughts.” Sometimes, you have to connect to the basic human needs that persist no matter what century you live in. And therein lies the dilemma of the real 21st century George Jetson: to know how to both live in the 21st century, and how to step away from it. It’s not easy.

A Baseball Learning Matrix

Russell Carleton has an interesting article today on Baseball Prospectus today about the “Search for an 80 Brain“. He explores whether the difference between prospects who make it and those who fail lies in their ability to learn, and wonders if there’s a way to test those learning skills.

For one thing, it’s hard to observe a player’s learning skills, even with a really fancy stopwatch. But if the ability to learn is key to turning raw talent into actual performance, why not spend some time figuring out if the player has a 20 learning tool or an 80? Many players are drafted based on their physical tools, but what about the guy who doesn’t have blow-you-away stuff now, but can develop quickly because he can learn? In general, the closest thing that I hear to this is when scouts talk about “makeup.”

Can this learning ability be measured? My answer is “Yes… I think…”

I think so, too. But off the top of my head, I’d think there wouldn’t be one measure of learning ability, but four.

Here’s why: in order to explore how to measure learning, we need to be clear exactly what kind of learning we are talking about. Learning is about creating memories in the brain, and making those memories accessible when needed. It would be useful here to point out the two main types of memory: declarative and nondeclarative. I’ll quote from a book by Larry Squire and Eric Kandel called “Memory: From Mind to Molecules”:

Declarative memory is memory for facts, ideas, and events — for information that can be brought to conscious recollection as a verbal proposition or visual image. This is the kind of memory one ordinarily means when using the term “memory”: it is conscious memory for the name of a friend, last summer’s vacation, this morning’s conversation. Declarative memory can be studied in humans as well as other animals.

Nondeclarative memory also results from experience, but is expressed as a change in behavior, not as a recollection. Unlike declarative memory, nondeclarative memory is unconscious. Often, some recollective ability can accompany nondeclarative learning. We might learn a motor skill and then be able to remember some things about it. We might be able to picture ourselves performing it, for example. However, the ability to perform the skill itself seems to be independent of any conscious recollection. That ability is nondeclarative.

In other words, declarative memory holds conscious thought, while nondeclarative memory holds motor skills.

So let’s say we have a hitter, like Carleton’s example of Wil Myers, who is a bit too passive, and doesn’t quite swing at enough pitches. We want to make him a somewhat more aggressive hitter. How do we do that?

So it’s not a matter of merely telling Myers to “be more aggressive”. The idea of being more aggressive is a declarative memory, a conscious thought. And that declarative memory, that idea, is independent of the skill itself, of the nondeclarative memory, the motor skill required to output the desired behavior. That conscious thought needs to be translated into a motor skill. A declarative memory needs to be translated into a nondeclarative memory.

As Carleton points out in his article, this much easier said than done. The reason is that while declarative memories are under our conscious control, nondeclarative memories are not. They are created subconsciously, involuntarily and automatically. These memories are often context and emotion dependent. If you want to manipulate the nondeclarative memory system into creating the muscle memory you want, you basically have to trick it. You can trick it by repetition and practice, and/or by manipulating whatever emotions are needed, whether anger or calmness or excitement or determination.

* * *

So a scouting report for learning might look something like this:

Joe Prospect, Learning Scout Report

declarative input nondeclarative input
declarative output 30 40
nondeclarative output 50 80

Upper Left: declarative input, declarative output.
This would represent the player’s ability to repeat an instruction in his own words.

Coach: “When I say, ‘cut down on your swing’, what does that mean?”
Player at level 20: “I dunno.”
Player at level 80: “It means I shorten my stride, and bring my bat to this position here…”

This square really measures a player’s ability to coach more than it measures his ability to play. Perhaps it might also measure a player’s ability to be a catcher who can take a game plan and execute it, and to handle and communicate with a pitching staff. It can also help pitchers, not so much in the physical act of throwing a ball, but with setting up hitters and sequencing.

In general, though, this is the least important square in the matrix. Because what we’re aiming at in regards to players is the nondeclarative output, the muscle memory needed to perform at a high level. And nondeclarative input — the sensory and pattern-recognition feedback the brain gets from actually playing — is more important than the theoretical, declarative input in this square.

 

Upper Right: nondeclarative input, declarative output.
This would represent the player’s ability to articulate his own experiences.

Coach: “Why didn’t you swing at that pitch?”
Player at level 20: “I just froze.”
Player at level 80; “I was expecting a breaking ball away, and instead he threw me a fastball on the inside corner, and because my body was leaning out, I couldn’t adjust my balance quick enough to pull my hands in and start the swing.”

An 80-level player in this square of the matrix would be a reporter’s best friend. High skill in this area can also help a player to understand what he needs to work on, and create systematic workout procedures for improving those self-understood weaknesses. But being able to articulate what you physically experienced won’t really help you unless you also possess a high score in the lower left square.

 

Lower Left: declarative input, nondeclarative output.
This represents coachability: a player’s ability to take verbal or conscious ideas, and translate them into muscle memory.

A player at level 20 probably can’t even do this at all. If he learns anything, it’s only “the hard way”– by failing or succeeding himself in real situations.
A player at level 50 is someone who may need to be told something over and over until it finally sinks in. Or needs to be told something in 1,000 different ways until he finds that one mental cue which triggers the correct behavior.
A player at level 80 probably only needs to be told something once, and can immediately make the physical adjustment.

 

Lower Right: nondeclarative input, nondeclarative output.
This represents a player’s ability to learn from his own senses and body, from the immediate success or failure of his efforts.

A player at level 20 probably isn’t affected much by his own failures and successes. He probably repeats the same mistakes over and over again, and can’t adjust.
A player at level 50 can learn from his own failures and successes, but it takes a long time and many repetitions for those adjustments manifest themselves.
A player at level 80 probably never seems to make the same mistake or get fooled by the same pitch twice.

* * *

A single, Wonderlic-like test wouldn’t work to fill out such a matrix. You’d probably need to develop separate tests for each of the squares in the matrix. And then you’d need to collect that data for a number of years to figure out whether there is actually any sort of correlation between any of that data and the eventual success and/or failure of prospects. Sounds like a lot of work for an uncertain payoff, but it would certainly be interesting to see if there’s something there of value. The sad part is, since baseball teams keep information like this proprietary, we baseball fans will probably never know.

Awards Are Celebrations, Not Measurements. And Vice Versa.

At the risk of committing the journalistic sin of plagiarizing myself, the time has come for me to repeat an old argument I’ve made about baseball awards.

I am repeating myself this year because of the American League Most Valuable Player race. The player who has provided the most value to his team winning in the AL has been the LA Angels’ Mike Trout, by most reasonable measurements. Measured by bWAR, Mike Trout has provided 10.1 wins to his team, followed by Robinson Cano of the Yankees at 6.8, and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers at 6.5. Measured by fWAR, Trout is at 9.2 wins, Cabrera at 6.8 wins, and Cano at 6.3. In any case, Trout is 2 or 3 wins ahead of anybody else. His batting stats are similar to his competitors, or possibly slightly worse, but his baserunning and defense has the others beat by a mile.

But there is an argument for Cabrera, in that he is only one home run shy of winning the Triple Crown: leading the AL in home runs, RBI and batting average. If Cabrera wins the triple crown, many people are arguing that he should win the MVP, too, for this accomplishment.

This has sent many sabermetric types into apoplexy, since the Triple Crown is just an arbitrary set of statistics, and is not a good measure of a player’s value. This anger towards the support for Cabrera bothered Ken Rosenthal, who said that although he would support Trout if he had a vote, he feels that voting for Cabrera is not a unreasonable idea, and sabermetricians should open their minds a bit more.

I agree with my fellow Ken here. As I’ve said before, awards are celebrations, not measurements. It is entirely reasonable to want to celebrate the player who has provided the most fWAR or bWAR in the league. But the MVP rules are vague, and do not define what value means. There are other ways to define value. We watch baseball not because we are tools of measurement, but because we are humans participating in a culture, and we acquire emotional and social value from watching it. If our culture values an arbitrary set of stats like the Triple Crown, for whatever reason, then there is value to the team’s culture and history by reaching this achievement.

So by any meaningful measurement, Mike Trout has been better than Miguel Cabrera this year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has produced the season that is the most worthy of celebration. It’s quite reasonable, especially if Cabrera does win the triple crown, to vote for Cabrera.

* * *

On the flip side of the M. Cabrera coin, Melky Cabrera was today ruled ineligible to win the National League batting title. The San Francisco Giants’ version of M. Cabrera was suspended last month for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. At the time of his suspension, he was just one plate appearance shy of qualifying for the batting title. When that happens, the previous rule was to assume he had enough hitless at-bats to qualify, and if his batting average was still highest in the league, he would win the title. But probably because the league wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having a player who cheated win its batting crown, they decided they wouldn’t do the “add 0-fers” to his number of plate appearances, and so Melky won’t win.

Which is odd, because the batting title is a measurement, not a celebration. It’s basically a matter of math; it goes to the player who had the best batting average in the league, hits divided by at-bats. But Major League Baseball is treating it like a celebration, not a measurement, and they have decided that they don’t want to celebrate someone who cheated, so they’re invalidating his measurement. I suppose they can do that because Cabrera finished shy of the required number of plate appearances, but I wonder what they would have done if he had already surpassed the required 3.1 plate appearances per team game to qualify. Would they have invalidated it then?

Eavesdropping

For us Oakland A’s fans, this year has been a dream. Very little was expected of the team this year after GM Billy Beane traded three of the A’s best players over the winter. When the A’s lost nine games in a row in May, we fans resigned ourselves to our low expectations having been met, another disappointment in growing series of disappointments. The A’s haven’t had a winning season in five years. But in June, some magic wand was waved over the team, and suddenly everything changed. With just three weeks left in the season, the A’s are now in the lead for a wild card playoff spot, and just three games behind Texas for the best record in the American League.

I headed out to the Oakland Coliseum on Saturday to soak up some of the magic vibes. The A’s were playing the Baltimore Orioles, in the midst of a dream season of their own. The Orioles haven’t had a winning season in 15 years, but here they were tied with the hated New York Yankees atop the American League East division.

The Orioles scored single runs in the second and third innings to take a 2-0 lead. This subdued the crowd a bit, and the focus of the people around me started drifting away from the game.

This is not the same boy as in the story

In front of me sat a young boy about 8 years old. To his left was another 8-ish boy, perhaps a friend, and the friend’s younger sister and father. They boy’s mother had made a pre-game appearance and scolded him very sternly to sit nicely and behave properly while seated here with this other family, and then had left. In the top of the third one of the kids pulled out a hand-held video game console of some sort, and they began to play. The three heads all gathered around the tiny screen.

Behind me sat a row of older men and women, all probably in their fifties or sixties. One of them was wearing a Cal shirt, so I introduced myself as a fellow Cal grad, and chatted him up about his experiences at UC Berkeley. He said he graduated in ’73, which put him there at the peak of the whole protest era. He remembered walking through Sproul Plaza the day after one of these protests, the condensation from the previous day’s tear gas still dripping from the trees, stinging his eyes.

Another lady in that row then launched into a lengthy monologue. I can’t remember it word for word, but I’ll paraphrase it thusly:

My oldest daughter lives in Riverside. It’s a great place to live. It’s an hour to Disneyland on the 91, or and an hour to downtown LA on the 10 if the traffic isn’t too bad. And San Diego’s easy to get to, about an hour and a half down the 15, and you can also get to Palm Springs in an hour heading east on Highway 60. It’s fantastic.

We took a trip down there a couple weeks ago. I had surgery for uterine cancer two months ago, so the kids had been all cooped up, and you know, they needed to get out. So we headed down 101 first to Soledad, where another of my daughters lives. Her husband works in the prison there. Then we continued down 101 to Paso Robles where our oldest son lives, and then on 101 through LA to the 10 and then down the 215 to Riverside.

The day before, I had blogged about how it was an error to mistake data for function. Here was a remarkable example of avoiding that error. You’d think uterine cancer would consume a person’s life — that fighting it would become the primary function of her life. Yet this lady somehow managed to make cancer sound like merely a data point on a highway map of Southern California.

The word “cancer” has struck me with more emotional impact lately, as my brother-in-law Jim died of melanoma in August. Up until then, I had been fortunate enough not to really know anyone who had been struck down by cancer. But now having seen someone close to me suffer from it, it’s far less of an abstraction to me now, hearing about all the chemotherapy and radiation and medicines, hoping that one or some combination of these will miraculously work. Having that lady mention Paso Robles struck me double, because about six weeks before he died, Jim took a trip from his Arizona home here to the Bay Area. We watched several Euro 2012 soccer games together. Then we said goodbye, and he and his wife headed down to Paso Robles to do some wine tasting. It was the last time I saw him. There were no miracles.

The somber mood of myself and the crowd quickly reversed itself in the bottom of the third. Stephen Drew led off with a solo homer to cut the Orioles’ lead to 2-1. The boy in front of me cheered enthusiastically, jumping up and down with his arms high above his head. The crowd seemed to sense some magic happening, as the chants of “Let’s Go Oakland” grew louder and more intense as the A’s got one hit after another. When Yoenis Cespedes hit a bullet single up the middle to give the A’s a 3-2 lead, the crowd went crazy.

Chris Carter followed with a two-run double down the right field line. Cespedes read the ball perfectly off the bat, and took off running. As that powerful body flew around the bases, so fast that he nearly caught up with Josh Reddick one base ahead of him, I couldn’t help but marvel at what an amazing athlete he is. His swing and his running stride have such an lovely combination of power and grace and speed, that I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Yoenis Cespedes is a beautiful human being.” Not in the sense of him being a nice guy, since I know nearly nothing of his character, but of his body. His strong yet fluid manner seems almost the Platonic ideal of human motion.

The inning ended with the A’s ahead, 5-2, and the crowd abuzz in an intoxicating mix of joy and disbelief. As it turned out, that was all the scoring there would be. The game then marched ahead straightforwardly, without much more excitement.

As the outs piled up, the kids in front of me started getting a little bored and restless again. At one point in the 6th inning, the boy picked up some empty peanut shells and tossed them into the air.

* * *

At the exact moment the peanut shells left his fingers, his mother returned, carrying two boxes of pizza.

“What are you doing?” she shouted at him, as the peanut shells fluttered harmlessly to the floor. “I told you very specifically that you needed to behave! What the fuck is wrong with you?”

What’s wrong with him, I thought, is probably that he has a mother who is the type of person who says “fuck” to her kids.

She handed the pizza boxes to the father of the other kids, and then grabbed the boy by the wrist. “Come with me,” she said sternly. She pulled him behind her, and pulled him up the stairs onto the concourse.

Two minutes later, they returned. “Now sit down right there, don’t move, and eat your fucking pizza.”

* * *

The next morning, Craig Calcaterra blogged about a letter from the poet Ted Hughes to his son, in which Hughes explains that our true selves are childlike and innocent, but we learn through the crush of circumstances in our lives to build a shell around that inner child, to protect it from pain. It is that armor that we adults use to interface with the world.

But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt.

As I read this, I thought about that mom from the day before. Where does her anger come from? Was she so overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt in her childhood that the only thing she knows is to make her own offspring feel overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt, too?

* * *

The boy sat. His shoulders slumped. His head bowed. His face lost all its joy.

He took a slice of his fucking pizza. With each bite, a hard shell began to form around his soul.

* * *

I was reminded of this new anti-alcohol video from Finland:

My dad had an alcohol problem when I was growing up. I was fortunate in that when my dad got drunk, he didn’t become abusive. He merely became the world’s worst standup comic. Still, as a child, you’re bewildered by it. Embarrassed. You try to ignore it, forget about it, put a shell around yourself and block it out.

Eventually, my mom had enough and divorced my dad. My dad remarried. Eventually, about the time I was a senior in high school, the drinking got to the point where he couldn’t eat if he drank. The food would just get stuck in his throat. I could see that same bewilderment, that same embarrassment in his new wife’s eyes, that I knew so well.

One day, after another one of these episodes, I found him alone in the basement. I walked up to him and said, “You’re going have to choose. Which do you love more, your bottle or your wife?” Up until that day, I had never said a word about his drinking, ever, in my life. He looked at me, speechless. I turned around and walked out.

I walked into that basement a hurt child, and walked out a man. I decided that this cycle of pain was going to end, right there, with me. Any family I had was not going to have to deal with this same kind of crap I had to deal with. That’s why I don’t drink alcohol.

Shortly after our confrontation, my dad quit drinking, cold turkey. Never drank another drop of alcohol the rest of his life. Our relationship got so much better after that. I am so grateful.

I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of socializing by not drinking. You don’t invite the guy who doesn’t drink out for beers with the guys. Fortunately, I’m an introvert, so missing out on socializing doesn’t really bother me at all. Pity the poor extrovert who has to make the same decision.

* * *

The boy now in submission, her damage done, the hurricane of a mother departed the scene as abruptly as she arrived. She was not seen again for the rest of the game.

* * *

The outs pile up, three outs here, three outs there, and eventually, the game is over. But that boy and I, we had that one moment together, didn’t we, that raw, magical, miraculous moment where Chris Carter hit that double down the right field line, where Yoenis Cespedes flew around the bases and almost caught up to Josh Reddick, and we broke through our shells and forgot our pain and fears and we marveled and cheered and threw our arms up in the air, each of us free as an uninhibited child.

MLB’s Customer Alignment Problem

As Apple announces the iPhone 5 today, I want to make a confession. It’s a bit embarrassing for someone like me who has spent his career in high tech, but here goes: I don’t have a cell phone.

At first, my reason was this: I lived and worked and played on a very flat island with no tall buildings, so coverage was awful. I had reception in only one room of my house, not at all in my office three blocks away, and spotty reception where I play indoor soccer. I spent 95% of my time at those three places, and I wouldn’t be getting what I was paying for. When I went out somewhere that coverage was better, I’d borrow my wife’s cheap pay-as-you-go phone, and my needs were met.

The cell phone service providers made a mistake. They gave me an opportunity to learn that I could live without them.

* * *

This is the image of an industry suddenly collapsing.

Why did the newspaper industry suddenly collapse like that? Because it got hit from two sides at once by the Internet. Craigslist and eBay took away their classified ad business, while blogs and online news sources directed their readership elsewhere for the same information. Newspapers might have been able to handle a one-front battle, but a two-front battle was catastrophic.

But there’s something else that hurt the newspaper industry: the indirect nature of their feedback loop. It’s a business model that provides a service to one group of people, while taking money from a different group of people.

The best kind of feedback for a business is revenue. If your revenue increases or decreases, you’re going to notice. But when the users of your product aren’t providing the revenue for your product, your feedback loop has a natural delay to it. The people who give you revenue might lead you to innovate (or not) in a direction your users won’t like, and you won’t notice that you’re making a mistake because it takes a while for that problem to reach your bottom line. So you react too slowly, and that slowness can be fatal.

* * *

In fact, all businesses that rely on advertising have this problem. Their users want one thing, and the revenue generators want something different. So if a company like Facebook starts alienating their customers in an effort to maximize their revenues, they may find themselves not just the subject of an Onion parody, but ruining their business before the bottom line has time to let them know they’ve made a mistake.

* * *

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is a very smart man. He understands this problem. He knows that the key to keeping ahead of the rapid pace of high-tech change is to master the feedback loop between what his customers want next, and what his company makes next. That’s why in his Kindle press conference last week, he laid out this doctrine:

Think about the major players in high tech right now: Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple. Which of these has their revenues most directly aligned with what their customers want? It’s probably in roughly this order:
Amazon/Apple
(gap)
Microsoft
(gap)
Google
(gap)
Twitter/Facebook.

Amazon and Apple sell most of their products directly to their users. When their customers buy something they make, they know the product is good; when they don’t buy, they know immediately they made a mistake. Microsoft doesn’t sell directly to users– they sell to distributors and OEM manufacturers, so there’s noise injected into their feedback loop, and they land just a little lower on this spectrum. Google sells ads, but their ads are often directly related to what the customer wants; if someone is searching for jeans, they get an ad for jeans. Sometimes the ad happens to be exactly what the user wants.

Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, need to inject their ads into an environment where the users wouldn’t really want to see ads at all if they didn’t have to. This leads to customer dissatisfaction, expressed not just in the Onion parody above, but also in a real-life alternative social networks like App.net who are trying to sell directly to users.

* * *

My favorite product of all is probably Major League Baseball. I consume a lot of Major League Baseball. But MLB is going in a very tempting, but dangerous direction. When MLB began, a vast majority of their revenues came from the product their users consume. They sold tickets to the games, and that’s how they made their money. But more and more of MLB’s revenues are coming from indirect sources.

At a local level, if you’re a team like the Oakland A’s, who play in an antiquated stadium that doesn’t generate a lot of revenues, a big proportion of your money comes from TV and league-wide revenue sharing. So you can do things over a number of years, like threaten to move away and trade away favorite players, that damage your brand but aren’t directly noticeable in your bottom line. Ownership may not even know how much their fans hate them, because their loyalty to their local team keeps them around despite their dissatisfaction. But eventually, there may be a straw that breaks the camel’s back. Los Angeles Dodger fans may have hated owner Frank McCourt for years, but it was only in the last year of his tenure that the dissatisfaction actually became truly noticeable in attendance figures. The feedback loop in baseball has quite a long delay.

In recent years, baseball’s misalignment problem has accelerated almost exponentially. Like the newspaper industry, the source of this change is new technology. Unlike the newspaper industry, however, the change has caused MLB’s revenues to increase, not decrease, dramatically.

The reason for this change is twofold:

  1. The DVR allows people to skip through commercials on TV. This makes live events, which people can’t skip through, a much more valuable delivery mechanism for advertising.
  2. Internet video allows people to watch television shows and movies without subscribing to any sort of cable or satellite TV service. Cable/satellite may or may not be shedding customers at the moment, but it’s certainly not growing much, and without sports would almost certainly be shrinking. This makes sports networks extremely important to cable and satellite providers: without them, most people will eventually learn to do without cable TV, and just get all their content from the Internet.

So this sets up a strange mismatch between what MLB customers want, and what their revenues tell them to do. MLB fans want to watch their favorite team on whatever device they prefer. But MLB’s revenue stream is depending more and more on their customers NOT being able to watch their team over the internet, forcing them to watch on TV.

MLB’s revenues come less and less directly from baseball fans, and more and more indirectly, from TV networks and cable/satellite providers.

This causes MLB to lose control over the customer experience of their fans. If a TV network and a cable provider can’t come to an agreement on price, for example, Padres fans can go a whole season without being able to watch their team on TV. And if not all TV networks are available on all cable/satellite services, fans have to scramble around to watch the games they want.

Or, fans just go without. And what does that do? It ends up teaching them that they can learn to live without your product. That too, may not be noticeable right away, until it snowballs too late for you to do anything about it.

* * *

But you can’t really blame MLB, can you? If you’re the Los Angeles Angels and someone wants to pay you $3 billion dollars over 20 years for your TV rights, do you turn that down? No, probably not.

In expectation of an even larger payday than the Angels got, the Los Angeles Dodgers recently sold for $2.1 billion. Given that the estimated value of the Dodgers just a year before that was about $800 million, over 60% of the value of the franchise lies in that regional TV deal.

But think about that for a second. The new owners of the Dodgers spent $1.3 billion dollars on a business model that:
(a) depends almost entirely on another industry that isn’t growing, and would be in steep, steep decline without your industry. If either one of your industries catches a cold, the other one will necessarily start sneezing.
(b) puts your industry in a complete misalignment with your customers, requiring you to prevent your customers from consuming your product in the way they’d prefer, distancing yourself from the revenue feedback loop, making it more difficult to know if you’re doing any long-term damage to your product, and where you need to improve.

The new Dodger owners obviously didn’t care. Maybe they didn’t think about these risks. Or maybe they did, and thought the math worked anyway. Or maybe they considered it, but they thought they could sell the team to someone else before the whole house of cards fell in, like an investor in a Ponzi scheme who doesn’t think he’ll be the one who ends up being the victim.

Who knows. But me, I wouldn’t touch a business model like that with a 10-mile pole.