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Baseball's Fight to Reclaim Its Soul

Baseball's growing technocracy is responsible for many of its problems. It demands a deep examination of how the game is played and where it is going.

The enormous fallout from the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal has pushed baseball into a moment of crisis. The root cause of the scandal is embedded in the nine-page report by commissioner Rob Manfred: technocrats gaining power in how the game is played.

Amid all the outrage and the reviews of press conferences and interviews as if they were performance art, union chief Tony Clark issued the most important words in a statement last week that should have received more attention:

“How the parties handle the next several weeks will significantly affect what our game looks like for the next several decades. The opportunity is now to forge a new path forward.”

Manfred has vowed to reduce the live video available in and around clubhouses. It’s a start toward winning back trust. “That’s a joint obligation,” Manfred said. “It’s something we have to do and something the players have to us help us do.”

Discussions with the union have included an all-out blackout: video rooms closed, clubhouse televisions off, no more running inside to look at video during a game. Managers overwhelmingly favor the blackout. Several of them briefed by Manfred last week expect it to happen. It is the first step toward re-balancing baseball to be more of a player-driven game than a front office-driven one.

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“Get rid of it,” said Arizona catcher Stephen Vogt. “Get rid of the in-game video. It’s hard because sometimes you want to study your swing and go back and look at a pitch and see what it’s doing.

“But I’m all for removing all in-game technology. Let’s go back to six, seven years ago when we just didn’t have this instant feedback from all these cameras. Technology has really enhanced our game in a lot of ways, but it’s also created opportunities for people to take advantage of it, to take it further than it should have. If you want to work on that in between games, yes. It’s called preparation.”

Baseball is in a fight to reclaim its soul. That soul of the game must be found in its aspirational value: players of all sizes playing a simple kids’ game. The conceit we like to keep is that this is our game writ slightly bigger.

Baseball lost its soul under a growing technocracy. Brutish efficiency and cold, inarguable algorithms guide searches for the smallest of advantages. To be abundantly clear, the Astros are not evidence that this embrace of information and technology is wrong. It’s provided much good for the game, especially as a training tool. The Astros are the warning shot of what happens when it goes too far.

Games are being decided in real time, not just on the field but also in front of computers, often in clubhouses. Analysts overlay in-game video of the opposing pitcher to see if he is tipping his pitches, replacing human craft. Others monitor thousands of real-time data points to watch if their pitcher is dropping his elbow by an inch or two. Why do clubhouses look like start-up labs during games? Why is the replay monitor even in the clubhouse and not in a press box booth or TV trailer?

“The Houston Astros are a product of their environment,” said agent Scott Boras. “When fans go to games, they don’t want to know that the manager is not the one making the moves. You’ve got to create theatre, drama. I don’t care about efficiency. I care about the audience to help our game grow.

“My biggest problem with this thing is it came from the front office. Jeff Luhnow buried the memo from Rob.”

Baseball is borrowing ethos from Wall Street. Banking and stock trading are not spectator sports. Brewers manager Craig Counsell said the biggest change over his five years managing is the population of the room in staff meetings to plan spring training: it swelled from about 10 people to 45. The Dodgers last week introduced their R&D staff to their players: 12 of them, or about one analyst for every two players on the 25-man roster.

The Astros’ scandal was not wholly “player-driven” any more than is the game itself. We have a game so driven by metrics that players choose not to run from first base on a full count and less than two outs because they know a caught stealing hurts their Wins Above Replacement. (Yes, it happens.) We have a game in which 35% of all plate appearances end in a strikeout, walk or home run, when athleticism is moot. We have a game that saw a decline in attendance even with a spike in offense—the first time in 50 years that tried-and-true correlation didn’t work in tandem. We have a game that takes longer than ever: three hours, 10 minutes on average.

This is the game we get when knowledge is valued over wisdom.

What the Astros did, layered over what the Padres did (fuzzy medical records), what the Cardinals did (hacking) and what the Braves did (cheating on international signings), demands a deep examination of how the game is played and where it is going.

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“A lot of front offices are going away from hiring former baseball players,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. “I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. A lot of teams almost alienate the former player, saying they don’t want that in their front office. They don’t want that in their clubhouse. They don’t want that influence of old school baseball.

“They want a lot of guys with Ivy League degrees crunching algorithms and figuring out if you spin your fastball up in the zone two percent more you’re going to have this effect more. Great. I understand it. I’m not naive to that. [But] there’s a place in the game for guys who really know baseball.

“I think the Dodgers do a good job of that. As many guys as we have that are from Harvard or Yale or whatever, Ivy League guys, we also have Raúl Ibañez around. We have Chase Utley. We have Jamey Wright. We have a lot of guys around who played in the big leagues 15-plus years and that’s invaluable.

“You have to have that around, almost to balance everybody out. Because a lot of guys up there—now some of them do it well—but a lot of them who didn’t play don’t really understand how hard the game is. They show you what to do and then they’re like, ‘Why is he not doing this? Why can’t he do this?’ They just kind of take the human element out, too. You need both. There’s no doubt in my mind you need both.”

Manfred thought he created closure to the Houston scandal by suspending for a season manager A.J. Hinch, general manager Jeff Luhnow and assistant GM Brandon Taubman (who was bounced for an ugly rant directed at female reporters). The penalties were harsher than any ever associated with stealing signs.

But Manfred acted only against Hinch and Luhnow for a failure to act. He did nothing about the actual actors in the schemes. Luhnow’s hand-picked lieutenants—the technocrats—provided the runway to the trash-can banging scheme. They operated in-game schemes themselves under Codebreaker, the name they gave to their nefarious sign stealing first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Opposing players could not reconcile the report with the subsequent disclosure of Codebreaker. To that complaint Manfred responded, “I think in their concerns about a lack of transparency is they don’t quite understand how those two systems work together, which I think the report made clear. The Codebreaker system in and of itself could have been perfectly legal. It started as a non-in-game effort to decode signs. Lots and lots of teams do that. It doesn’t violate our rules.

“What the report made absolutely clear was that at the same time they were developing Codebreaker the video monitor/trash can system emerged. They got a little nervous about that. Then they started using Codebreaker in an inappropriate way.”

What the Astros did with technology should scare Manfred about where the game is headed.

“Stem cell management, cleats that allow you to jump five feet, and what else?” Boras said. “We need to have an independent medical board to be ready.”