Pruritus Emeritus

Fenway data, the final frontier


Data, as we all know, have taken over the world. Only what is “data-driven” counts. Doctors, teachers, policemen, all learn to “juke the stats.

Dr. Alan Rockoff, now semiretired, after 40 years of practice in Brookline, Mass. He served on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years.

Dr. Alan Rockoff

Statistical objectivity is in, individuality is out. You may have taught for 30 years and gained a sense for which child has a problem that needs intervention and which one just needs patience and time to develop. You may have managed patients for decades and have a hunch about who needs immediate help and who can be watched. But “senses” and “hunches” can’t be measured and therefore do not exist, or better, don’t count. Numbers count!

Data-obsession reflects what Germans call the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. But the Germans will have to come up with a different word for our age, won’t they? Nobody can measure a “spirit.”

Still, you know the spirit’s there, when it knocks you over and stomps on you.

The one sphere of life that has resisted being reduced to numbers is sports. In sports, you don’t need complex analysis to know who’s No. 1 and who’s number everything else. No. 1 crosses the finish line first, wins the most games, knocks out the opponent. The one lying on the mat is No. 2.

Of course, sports always had lots of numbers. Baseball fans have always known about batting averages, runs batted in, earned run averages. But there were always those individual intangibles that goggle the eyes of small boys and keep sportswriters in business: this athlete’s “ferocious drive,” that one’s “will to win,” the way a third “always comes through in the clutch.” Pitchers who couldn’t throw fast anymore were “crafty.” Grizzled, tobacco-chewing scouts could sense which youngster “looked like a ballplayer.”

As if you didn’t already know, you can tell how old I am to talk this way. Bill James and his statistical acolytes put paid to that old kind of thinking a long time ago. Read Moneyball or see the movie. In sports too, it’s now all about the stats.

To generate flagging interest among the young for America’s now-stodgy pastime, Major League Baseball has brought out Statcast 2.0., which adds, according to a recent news story, “Doppler-based tracking of pitch velocity, exit velocity, launch angles, and spin rates, and defensive tracking of players.” Multicamera arrays produce “biomechanical imaging and skeletal models that can help pitchers with delivery issues or batters with swing path quandaries.”

And so we have lots of new data to ponder: exit velocity – how fast a hit ball leaves the bat; launch angle – what angle it leaves at; spin rate – how fast a thrown curveball spins; and defensive tracking – how many feet this shortstop can move left to snag a ground ball, or a right-fielder to catch a fly. And there are new, composite stats, like OPS (on-base plus slugging). I will not try to explain OPS, because it is a mathematical abstraction that I cannot grasp. It signifies a blend of on-base percentage and slugging percentage, which to me is like what you get when you blend a tomato with a broccoli. Or something.

And, stats aside, you do still have to win. Not long ago the Boston Red Sox had a relief pitcher whose spin rate was splendid, but he couldn’t get anybody out.

The real aim of the new broadcast innovations noted above comes at the end of the report:

In an effort to at least reach, if not grow, a younger fan base, MLB from now on will focus on video engagement, gaming, and augmented reality on Snapchat.

You got it: the goal is to reduce baseball to a video game, and its players to gaming characters, perhaps with big contracts and marketing deals. Hey, check out that dude’s OPS!

You can’t measure a Zeitgeist, but you certainly know when it’s sitting on your chest. Your respirations get depressed. Measurably.

Yeah, I sound like every cranky old man in history. But hey – I’m Emeritus! See this column’s title!

In addition, the article has one more detail:

Curiosity about whether a fly ball to deep right field at Fenway Park would be a home run at Yankee Stadium can be satisfied by overlaying the Yankee Stadium footprint on top of Fenway.

Maybe it would satisfy you, buddy, but anything that superimposes Yankee Stadium on top of Fenway Park dissatisfies me by a factor of 6.7!

Dr. Rockoff, who wrote the Dermatology News column “Under My Skin,” is now semiretired, after 40 years of practice in Brookline, Mass. He served on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years. His second book, “Act Like a Doctor, Think Like a Patient,” is available online. Write to him at [email protected].

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