Jayson Werth is the latest athlete to complain that data and analytics are taking the joy out of sports. Can numbers live alongside individual brilliance?
Are nerds ruining American sport? Recently retired baseball player Jayson Werth certainly think so. Theyve got all these super nerds, as I call them, in the front office that know nothing about baseball but they like to project numbers and project players, Werth, a decent player who earned more than $136m over a 15-year career with the Nationals and the Phillies, told a Philadelphia sports podcast last week. I think its killing the game. Its to the point where [we could] just put computers out there. Just put laptops and what have you, just put them out there and let them play. We dont even need to go out there anymore. Its a joke.
This is by now a familiar rite of passage for a certain category of old school baseball player: spend years playing the sport, make millions, retire, then, happily ensconced in wealthy middle age, dump on the nerds and propeller heads who are ruining baseball. Until Werths tirade, probably the best example of the genre came from former Yankees relief pitcher Richard Goose Gossage, who said in 2016: The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it. Ill tell you what has happened, these guys played rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever the fuck they went, and they thought they figured the fucking game out. They dont know shit.
These tirades almost always tip over into caricature: if only baseball could be freed from the tyrannical bonds of data, the jocks say, players would suddenly re-emerge in all their antenumerical glory, rippling and Byronic and pure. A few predictable themes recur: nerds havent played the game to any respectable level; they therefore dont understand baseball at an elemental, emotional level; nerds rely on data; theres too much data in the game, too much fussing over sabermetrics and analytics and Bayesian inferences and other dweeby irrelevances; as a result, baseball is being stripped of its spontaneity and fun, players are losing their freedom of self-expression, and the sport is dying; ergo, the nerds must be stopped.
This issue is not confined solely to baseball, of course with the use of analytics in coaching and player recruitment growing, other major sports are experiencing their own backlash against the statisticians. Its now at the point where we can speak of an authentic cultural battle to decide the future of professional sports: a battle between art and science, gesture and data, virtuosity and system, between the extravagance and unpredictability of individual talent and the icy certainties of mathematics.
Or so the nerd haters would have us believe. The most overlooked dimension of the war in professional sports between the meatheads and the nerds is that its only the former who appear to believe the war exists; you can read plenty of exuberant tirades against analytics or nostalgic paeans to the grandeur of sport before science, but never do you come across windy, overegged tributes to walks and hits per inning pitched or the groundout-to-flyout ratio. The nerds rarely have much to say in public in defense of their place within the sport, most probably because they realize the contest was already settled in their favor years ago. With a string of nerd-supported teams in place across all the major leagues (the Houston Rockets, the Boston Red Sox), nerds can legitimately say they hold the strongest currency of all in professional sports: the currency of success. Whether the meatheads like it or not (we know they dont), the nerds are here to stay.
But does this accelerating nerdificiation mean American sport is no longer any fun to watch? Its here, on the vital if subjective question of aesthetics, that opinions differ most violently. Run your eye over the news headlines of the past few days in MLB and whats most striking is the prominence given to individual feats of virtuosity and athleticism: Ramon Laureados throw of the century, Adam Engels acrobatic robbery of a three-run homer against the Indians (in a losing cause, no less), David Botes potentially career-defining grand slam against the Nationals on Sunday night. Search for clicky headlines or wannabe-viral posts about the Nationals stolen base percentage rate and youll come up disappointed. This holds true in all the other sports subject to a creeping anxiety about the march of data: hence all the excitement on social media about Wayne Rooneys masterly last minute intervention for DC United over the weekend (a triumph of skill over data if ever there was one), or the enduring highlights-reel appeal of that LeBron James block against the Warriors in 2016.
Fun, spontaneity, individuality, personality: professional sport in the US still has them all, and its ridiculous to pretend otherwise. Plainly, the countrys professional athletes have not all devolved into mindless automatons. Far from ruining sport and killing creativity, data by giving coaches the means to better understand where and how to allocate their resources may instead offer a superior platform for players creativity to flower. All the while it is still, very obviously, these individual sparks of genius that draw fans to the game. Teams can use all the data in the world but sport still comes down to the quality of individual decision-making on the field of play. Data can help train brains but it cant replace them or the arms, legs and heads to which theyre attached. Data, ultimately, is just one set of inputs among many in the coaching process. And though the factors that go into coaching may now be more diverse, our appreciation of the sports outputs our love of improbable fastballs, and back-breaking catches, and game-ending grand slams is hardly any different today to what it was 30 years ago.
Indeed if the experience of VAR at the recent World Cup is any guide, data and technology may actually enhance the viewing experience for consumers of sport. Data unearths new ways of understanding the sport, which in turn offers new controversies, new things to argue about and what, really, is the point of watching sport if not to hold aggressive opinions on issues we cant control?
For players, data unlocks new ways of being on the field of play, new ways of behaving. Decades ago Charles Reep used data to discover the benefits of the short passing game in soccer and the value of the high defensive press discoveries at the core of the two leading managerial schools of thought today (the quick pass possession game of Pep Guardiola and the frenetic press of Jurgen Klopp). The Golden State Warriors are famously run more like a tech company than a conventional basketball franchise, such is their commitment to technology; without data its unlikely they would have seen the efficiencies of a three-point heavy game and ushered in the tactical revolution that defines modern basketball. Whether Golden State are pleasing to watch is a matter of taste. Perhaps you have a problem with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant landing so many three pointers; perhaps you find the Warriors ceaseless quest for long-range scoring opportunities monotonous, or their abrasive defense and constant ball circulation tiring on the eyes. I for one welcome them, and our new nerd overlords as well.
And what, really, has been lost in the process? The Warriors data-driven model has upended old coaching shibboleths in basketball and put a whole style of play out of business: gone now are the cult of the layup and the idea that the ball should be recycled through two or three players only. Instead basketball has been remade as a sport of relentless passing, careful substitutions in defense, and spectacular looping bombs from mid-court. This is no bad thing.
Of course, much of the data the sports nerds hawk is often a distraction, or nonsense, or both. The two most irritating words in soccer today are expected goals. A good portion of sporting data not to mention the methodologies underpinning its collection remains experimental and contested. Theres still more scientism in sport than science. But the experiment is worth the risk especially if you accept that all physical processes, even highly unpredictable ones on a sporting field subject to the whims of human agency, have a structure that can be modeled.
Even Johan Cruyff, the golden god of football romanticism (Footballers from the street are more important than trained coaches), understood the power of simple numerical accretion on the football pitch: coincidence, he famously said, is logical. But data in sport is not the whole solution. It exists to serve the team; the team does not serve the data. Sport will remain this way for years to come, even as the use of analytics mushrooms. Fun things will happen on the field of play. Individual brilliance will shine undimmed. Patterns will emerge then fall away. Coaching fashions will come and go. The fans will keep arguing. The nerds will keep nerding. The meatheads will pass into history.