Sunday, March 27, 2011


Tim Marchman: in sepia we trust...
Tim Marchman, writer and depth-blog scholar with tentacles in as many publications as it's possible to have fires where irons can reside (if only to keep the flame in his pipe eternally lit....), tossed out a tripartite book review at the Wall Street Journal--may I not be struck by lightning for uttering that three-word blight against mankind--which circles all sides of the soup bowl regarding the need for baseball to both centralize and democratize its information technology issues.

Try not to grimace when Tim is pushed into the "formal" mode by the editorial simians who seem to leap from the Journal to the Times in the most deadening of locksteps:

Anyone who learned about the game by reading Bill James and later consuming books like the annual Baseball Prospectus preview (to which Mr. Keri was a longtime contributor) has surely rued one odd effect of the triumph of their work within the sport: It seems that every time a sabermetrician does something really original, he is hired on by a team, with his work soon receiving a big stamp reading "proprietary" on it. Mr. Keri delivers a winning account of how the Rays came to hire Josh Kalk, a physics professor and former writer for with a knack for wringing insight out of the Pitch f/x camera systems that MLB has installed in stadiums during recent years. These record the location and speed of pitches from the time they leave the pitcher's hand to the time they cross the plate, and are used on MLB's website to provide virtual broadcasts of games. When you glimpse how Mr. Kalk uses it to study arcane aspects of throwing a ball 60 feet at high velocity, you will mourn the amount of talent sequestered in front offices, doing interesting work out of public view.

More to the point, we mourn the fact that baseball, just like the United States government in the hysterical years after WW II, did not see fit to re-invent its "mutual aid" deployment of technical advisors into a cluster of true "think tanks." By not doing so, a whole segment of industrial innovation became irredeemably wedded to free-market forces, and have brought us to the parlous state of affairs where innovation and co-optation are joined at the hip.

Now, of course, baseball is a whole hell of a lot smaller than the shards of the military-industrial complex, and it has a crucial advantage with respect to the government: it really is a monopoly, though it likes to pretend that it isn't. But since it is, it (ironically enough) has more latitude to impose rules and regulations over its minions. Instead of practicing their inverse omerta and waving their hands in imitation of haves vs. have nots, baseball owners should simply pony up a wad of cash to fund a centralized information technology development function, complete with a public on-line presence and a publishing program.

"Field f/x, schmield f/x--all you bright boys are going to wind up
in a slowly growing pool of blood in your mother's basement..."
What Tim isn't quite grasping yet is that Josh Kalk should be working for major league baseball, the monopoly that can impose a "think tank" on the members of its cartel. Neither he nor any of the other "bright boys" (who've been lucky enough to miss out on a destiny-filled date with the more zaftig of the two gun-toters in The Killers) should be getting direct deposit from the provinces. All of these guys, including Bill James, need to be kicked upstairs, if only to ensure that there is truly a level playing field.

Siegfried--tanned, rested and
 ready to become the next commissioner...
Will this destroy entrepreneurialism? We think not. There are always "bright boys" who get a leg up on technology. But the plain fact of the matter is that much of what's being done for baseball is second-order innovation, applications as opposed to cutting-edge hardware. What baseball needs to do is to identify the folks who can simply ask the right questions, and let them direct a centralized, open source approach to analysis.

It's time to keep the revolution from not being televised. Ironically, that means making a deal with the Godfather. And since the one we have is little more than a glorified used car salesman, it's going to be a bit longer before such a "socialist" concept can gain any traction. 

Until then, chaos (or is that KAOS??) will continue to reign...