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The New Professional Orthodoxy

MLB analytics is an austerity movement. As MLB fans clamor for new metrics or data formats, the language of “market inefficiencies” and exploitation seep deeper and deeper into the game’s descriptive fabric. Amateur fan and professional executive interests align in the search for unforeseen, ignored, or under-appreciated skills in order to maximize value. Fans love the idea of finding the next statistical breakthrough, even as the fortress of professional Ivy League analysts and proprietary organizational knowledge renders fan contributions moot.

The ultimate goal is to find the cheapest labor to produce the most wins possible, whether that means searching for efficient and flexible marginal roster depth or gambling on toolsy players to become multifaceted superstars. It should be no surprise that multiple estimates suggest that the MLB Players Association is losing their traditional share of revenue, even as television contracts and Advanced Media shares soar: through analysis, MLB teams can consistently move revenue shares upwards to management, development, or executive ranks (rather than downwards to players). This development extends from Carlos Gomez’s Brewers contract extension (an unbelievable bargain for an elite power/speed centerfielder) to Clayton Kershaw’s contract, and to many others still. It’s easy to pull over on fans: as real wages decline for a large percentage of the USA, who’s going to care that Gomez or Kershaw might be underpaid by at least $15 million annually?

Austerity may be the best possible term to define the American political malaise of the last 40 years. Alongside private efforts to consistently redistribute capital “upwards” (instead of downwards, to labor), the State has swiftly and effectively acted to erode infrastructure, services, and entitlements in order to disenfranchise labor. This effort for upward redistribution can be found across all levels of Federalism, which further renders labor-side counteractions ineffective, contradictory, or misdirected.

Incidentally, this development correlates with widespread professionalization that is also reflected in the MLB executive ranks, as well as most other aspects of society. Knowledge no longer needs to be “scientific” once each field of proprietary analysts and executives moves true scientific advances into the realm of bureaucratic measurements that self-sustain each industry.

This is hardly a new criticism on my part; it’s hardly new to BaseballProspectus, even, as Rian Watt’s take on sabermetrics and baseball writing shows. For example, Ivan Illich used the progression of “scientific advances” to “bureaucratic/professional monopoly” to undergird his scathing 1973 pamphlet, Tools for Conviviality. Illich used the advancement of medicine as his theoretical entry point, but his argument and method fits many professional fields:

“It is not strictly necessary to this argument to accept 1913 and 1955 as the two watershed years in order to understand that early in the century medical practice emerged into an era of scientific verification of its results. And later medical science itself became an alibi for the obvious damage caused by the medical professional. At the first watershed the desirable effects of new scientific discoveries were easily measured and verified….The positive contribution of modern medicine to individual health during the early part of the twentieth century can hardly be questioned.

But then medicine began to approach the second watershed. Every year medical science reported a new breakthrough…The practice of medicine became centered on the performance of hospital-based staffs….The irresponsible use of drugs spread from doctors to the general public. The second watershed was approached when the marginal utility of further professionalization declined, at least insofar as it can be expressed in terms of the physical well-being of the largest number of people. The second watershed was superseded when the marginal disutility increased as further monopoly by the medical establishment became an indicator of more suffering for larger numbers of people.” (Illich, 1973, 6-7)

One can extract from Illich’s case study two moments in the scientific and professional development of a particular field:

(1) The “first watershed” occurs when the scientific method provides solutions to specific problems, thereby creating new tools of knowledge within a given field.

(2) The “second watershed” occurs when trained professionals commandeer those tools and employ new forms of self-measurement to judge their respective performances.

If one critically engages with, and then sets aside, Illich’s bleak attitude about professional monopolies over knowledge, one can find an extremely useful tension between knowledge and power within many different professional fields. Even the “analysis movement” that developed over the last 40 years (or so) in professional baseball is not immune to this tension. What first began as outsider interventions based on hunches that the game was not being properly measured by traditional statistics fully developed into a professionalized field almost fully controlled by the MLB clubs and their elite analysts and executives. Even the story of Bill James seems impossible now, as the idea that a security guard at a pork and beans factory can provide legitimate insights into professional baseball is now commandeered and rendered illegitimate by Ivy League-trained economists. MLB further proved this development with the release of Statcast, which was kept under close wraps to forbid the big data breakthroughs that occurred with pitch f/x.

The trouble with these new proprietary developments is that MLB clubs will use their own metrics as a form of measurement for their own success, which extracts those measurements from the groundbreaking potential or critical eye of the scientific method. One might also expect MLB proprietary analysis to produce competitive stasis: as clubs subscribe to databases and also build their own algorithms to measure scouting, mechanical, medical, and statistical inputs, the “fields of market inefficiencies” will grow smaller, less predictable, and ultimately more expensive.

The coming battle for the MLB, then, reverts back to some typical fight between labor and ownership over television and media revenue. In some cases, MLB commentators are already seeing the writing on the wall and encouraging clubs to spend more money on players. BP Milwaukee‘s own J.P. Breen and Jack Moore have both treated labor issues in the Moneyball era, as one example. J.P. Breen covered this point in his newsletter, Crumbling Sandcastles (#3, April 12, 2016), arguing in favor of increased spending on minor league nutrition and training (and increased minor league pay, as well). Jack Moore has also extensively covered minor league wages. Here, the idea of exploiting market inefficiencies — essentially, exploiting the cheapest labor possible for maximal gains on the field — will be contradicted by a labor fight that necessitates redistributing revenue downward once again.

Fortunately, as Commissioner Rob Manfred also works to increase diversity within the MLB’s executive ranks, there is a chance that the analytical reins will be loosened (this could open quite a fruitful new era for MLB as salaries also increase). The era of Ivy League economists running MLB analysis and player development will eventually close as new viewpoints and diverse training backgrounds populate the MLB front offices. Here, again, the “next market efficiency” will be contradicted by professional developments that hopefully loosen the hold on this iteration of the proprietary information movement.

Brewers fans might be particularly interested in this development, as one might reasonably question whether Chairman and Principal Owner Mark Attanasio was too late to the game in hiring GM David Stearns. Jack Moore offered pointed commentary on this hiring here at BP Milwaukee, comparing the impressive MLB front office experience of Tyrone Brooks to that of Stearns. Perhaps as the need for a specific type of analyst to assemble and judge proprietary information becomes less valued or necessary by MLB clubs, MLB owners will be more compelled to populate the executive ranks with more diverse personnel (this is as intellectually important as it is socially/ethnically important). Stearns undeniably had a fine first offseason, or perhaps a first offseason without major complaint, which makes the question of his place within broader MLB hiring trends more intriguing and critical.

One might also consider the entrenchment of new analytical tools to be as faulty or misguided as the “old” statistical regime in the MLB. The point of using empirical evidence to describe and analyze baseball is to look for new ways to think about the game, and implement new strategies to gain competitive advantage. The point is not to create a powerful means of controlling information and strategy. As the use of high velocity pitchers or fielding shifts shows (to name two strategies), MLB personnel indeed prefer a type of professional orthodoxy (even while touting innovative analytical measurements to support those strategies). Needless to say, both Manfred and Stearns face tall demands for industry innovation, given these points of conflict.

Returning to Illich’s “two watersheds,” then, points (1) and (2) above will conflict wherever a group of professionals in an industry can corner specific tools to gain a competitive or financial monopoly (in the case of the MLB, increasing the share of revenue for ownership is probably the most crucial benefit of the analytical movement, from their point of view). Fans looking for the “next market inefficiency” can ultimately speed the next watershed, the next return to point (1), by eschewing analysis in favor of other narratives, tools, and methods. One of the first keys to accomplish this task will be to abandon the pro-ownership view of using market inefficiencies to acquire cheap players that benefit the roster greatly, in anticipation (and, hopefully, support) of the forthcoming labor battle. Brewers fans ought to be particularly invested in this next battle, as the actual television market disparities and subsequent need for absolute revenue sharing will become yet another subplot to the fights regarding labor/ownership and executive hiring trends.

References and Recommended Reading:
Breen, J.P. 2016. Crumbling Sandcastles. Self-published: Email newsletter.
Dickson, David. 1974. The Politics of Alternative Technology. New York: Universe.
Fainstein, Norman I. & Susan S. Fainstein. 1982. Urban Policy Under Capitalism. Urban Affairs Annual Reviews v.22. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Illich, Ivan. 1973. Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper Colophon.
____________. 1996 [1978]. The Right to Useful Unemployment and its Professional Enemies. New York: M. Boyars.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1996 [1962]. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Macdonald, Keith M. 1995. The Sociology of the Professions. London: Sage.
Sawchik, Travis. 2015. Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak. New York: Flatiron.

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4 comments on “The New Professional Orthodoxy”

Brian

Fascinating article! I enjoyed it so much I shared with coworker who has never watched baseball. That being said, I am troubled by the increasing labor vs management bent that this site is displaying. Why? Is that necessary for baseball analysis or is it a conscious or unconscious bias filtering through in your writing?

Nicholas Zettel

In my case, it’s definitely a conscientious pro-labor bias. MLB players were underpaid by as much as $1 billion in 2015. Given revenue increases, and expiring CBA, I think it’s important to highlight coming labor battles in MLB.

Patrick

As a sociologist I love this kind of power analysis. I’d been thinking about something similar re: how the “field” of sports serves as laboratories for the kind of ideas/scientific-revolutions/watersheds that are then considered smart (= good, and held by smart + good people) and how those filter down into public consciousness and shape discourse. Super interesting, Nick. Thanks.

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