Jim de Bree: Algorithms continue to change baseball

In 1961, I attended my first Dodger game at the Coliseum. As Vin Scully would say, the game was a dandy. The Dodgers played the Giants. Koufax faced Marichal. Both pitchers pitched a complete game. The Giants tied the game in the top of the ninth inning. Juan Marichal gave up a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to Daryl Spencer, a nondescript Dodger third baseman who nobody, except me, remembers. We sat in seats that were about fifty rows behind home plate and they cost $2.50. While baseball has been the one constant in my life, just about everything in the preceding paragraphs has changed. Much of this has changed because of the impact of technology. No other sport has so many statistical metrics to measure performance. Technology has begat additional metrics that are capable of analyzing and predicting performance beyond the wildest imagination of fans, players and coaches a generation ago. Those who play fantasy baseball are well aware of the impact of algorithms. For those who are not familiar with the term, an algorithm is a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations. Contemporary computer technology allows computers to parse historical data using algorithms to accurately predict probable outcomes of future performance. Algorithms, are increasingly becoming the basis for making decisions on the field as well as off the field. But algorithms are not always perfect-or perhaps they are sometimes ignored. Consider the case of Game 2 of last year’s World Series. You may remember that the first two games were played at Dodger Stadium in exceptionally warm weather. The Dodgers brought in Kenley Jansen, their star closer. Everyone was shocked to see Jansen give up a game-tying home run in a game that the Astros, ultimately, won. However, if you are Dodger fan who watches as many games as I do, you would have noted that Kenley routinely gives up fly balls that are caught on the warning track. That night was warmer than most nights at Dodger Stadium, and the ball went a few feet farther for a home run instead of an out. One of two things happened. Either the Dodgers ignored the algorithm predicting a deep fly ball, or the algorithm did not factor in the warm weather. Now, let’s look at baseball off the field. One of the major controversies during the hot stove season is that relatively few free agents were signed. When this has happened in the past, the players successfully argued in court that the owners colluded to not sign players hoping to suppress the price of player contracts. However, this year is different. There likely was no collusion. Rather, teams are increasingly basing their decisions on predictive data generated by algorithms. Because each team generates its own algorithms, there is no apparent overt or covert conspiracy on the part of the owners. What the algorithms show is what we all have known. Players typically sign big contracts when their best years are behind them. The algorithms predict future performance thereby establishing a maximum value of a free agent player. That makes it harder for a player’s agent to stir up an emotional appeal to enter into a bidding war for that player. Those maximum values are typically less that what players have historically been signed for. So, not surprisingly, the players are disappointed. There still are a number of unsigned free agents who have to be wondering what the 2018 season holds for them. Another driver of contract negotiations is the new salary cap and luxury tax rules. Teams like the Dodgers and Yankees, who historically have had the highest payrolls, are working very hard to keep their payroll under $197 million. The future cost of exceeding that threshold is just too great. Therefore these teams are using algorithms to ensure that their payroll dollars purchase the highest value rather than incurring the greatest cost. Certainly, a lot has changed since 1961. There was no free agency. Star players tended to play their entire career with a single team. Baseball was not big business back then. People say that baseball is a microcosm of America. When Jackie Robinson started the desegregation of baseball, soon thereafter the civil rights era was born. Today, the use of computers, in general, and algorithms, in particular, have changed baseball. Algorithms, artificial intelligence and robotics are transforming our world as well. Just as baseball will never return to 1961, our world will never return to the era portrayed by “Leave It to Beaver” or the other 1950s family television series. We can lament the changes or embrace them, but we cannot return to the past. Meanwhile, let’s hope for an exciting baseball season. Go Dodgers! Jim de Bree is a huge Dodger fan who is ecstatic that the baseball season starts this week.