What Moneyball Has Done to American Culture

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The return of the World Series this weekend offers an opportunity to engage in America real national hobby: loudly wondering why people don’t like baseball as much as they used to.

Personally, my relationship with gaming these days is one of nostalgic confusion. The nostalgia part comes from flawless memories of watching Sunday night baseball on my parents’ couch, nestled between my dad and my dog: the playful graphics of ESPN, the theme song that sounded straight out of a video game, the suave baritones of announcers Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. The perplexing part comes from the fact that, like many people of my generation, I spend a strange time wondering why I don’t pass any more time watching baseball.

Possible reasons abound. After the steroid scandals of the 2000s, the stars of my childhood were dragged onto C-SPAN, ceremoniously reprimanded for cheating by grumpy old dudes, and blacklisted from the Hall of Fame. Kind of a disappointment, to be honest. But on a deeper level, I think what happened was that baseball was colonized by math and solved like an equation.

The analytical revolution, which began with the move known as Moneyball, led to a series of offensive and defensive adjustments that were, say, a catastrophic success. In search of strikeouts, managers increased the number of pitchers per game and increased the average velocity and turnover rate per pitcher. Batters responded by increasing the launch angles of their swings, increasing the chances of a home run, but also making strikeouts more likely. These decisions were all legal, and more importantly, they were all to correct from an analytical and strategic point of view.

The Smarties approached baseball as an equation, optimized for Y, solved for X, and proved in the process that a solved sport is worse. The sport I fell in love with doesn’t really exist anymore. In the 1990s, there were generally 50% more hits than strikeouts in every game. Today, there are systematically more strikeouts than hits. Singles have passed out at record levelsand hits per game have dipped to 1910s levels. In the century and a half of MLB history covered by the Baseball Reference database, the 10 years with the most strikeouts per game are the last 10.

Religion scholar James P. Carse has written that there are two kinds of games in life: finite and infinite. A finished game is played to win; there are clearly winners and losers. An infinite game is played to continue playing; the goal is to maximize the gains for all participants. Debate is game over. Marriage is an endless game. The midterm elections are game over. American democracy is an infinite game. Much of the unnecessary suffering in the world comes from not knowing the difference. A bad argument can destroy a marriage. A contested election can destabilize a democracy. In baseball, winning the World Series is a finite game, while growing Major League Baseball’s popularity is an infinite game. What happened, I think, was that the finite game of baseball was resolved so completely that the infinite game was lost.

When universal intelligence leads to universal strategies, it can lead to a more seamless product. Take the NBA. When every basketball team wakes up to the calculation that three points is 50% more than two points, you get a league-wide blitz of three-point shots to take advantage of the gap. Prior to the 2011–12 season, the league as a whole had never averaged more than 20 three-point shot attempts per game. This year, no team attempts less than 25 threes per game; four teams attempt over 40.

As I have written before, the quantitative revolution in culture is a living creature that consumes data and spits out homogeneity. Take the music industry. Before the 90s, music labels routinely lied to Billboard on their sales figures to boost their favorite artists. In 1991, Billboard changed their methodology to use more objective data, including point-of-sale information and radio surveys that did not rely on label information. The cards changed overnight. Rock and roll bands were toppled, and hip-hop and country surged. As graphics became more honest, they also became more static. Popular songs stay longer than before. An analysis of the history of pop music styles revealed that rap and hip-hop have dominated American pop music longer than any other musical genre. As the music analytics revolution has grown, radio playlists have become more repetitive and by certain measuresthe most popular songs became more similar to each other.

Or take a movie. As with music, you could certainly argue that the communications revolution has created an abundance of video content that, taken as a whole, is incredibly diverse. But while the rules of making a viral video or critically acclaimed movie are deeply complex, blockbuster movies are very much like a solved equation. In 2019the 10 biggest films at the domestic box office included two Marvel sequels, two animated sequels, a reboot of a 90s Blockbusterand one Batman spin off. In 2022the 10 biggest films at the domestic box office included two Marvel sequels, an animated sequel, a reboot of a 90s Blockbusterand one Batman spin off. Correctly observing that audiences reacted predictably to familiar IP, the studios invested in a strategy that pulled original IP out of the top 10 charts. Blockbusters are kinda boring now, not because Hollywood is dumb, but because it’s gotten so smart.

Is what I’m complaining about really a problem? Does it really matter that people watch a lot of Marvel sequels, or that baseball no longer dominates the national discourse? These problems do not belong to the inequality of wealth, to democratic continuity or to malaria in the spectrum of material problems. But I don’t want to hold cultural analysis as a ransom for the malaria test. The fact that movies and music aren’t as important as mortality is part of why they’re so important. Like Larry Kramer wrote sugar, culture is perhaps the most important thing in life, precisely because it is about living, not just staying alive.

So yes, I care about the dark side of Moneyball. Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist Frank Wilczek once said that beauty exists as a dance between opposing forces. First, he said, beauty benefits from symmetry, which he defined as “change without change.” If you spin a circle, it remains a circle, just as reversing the sides of an equation always reveals a truth (2+2=4, and 4=2+2). But beauty also draws on what Wilczek calls “exuberance,” or emergent complexity. Watching inside a mosque or one cathedralor looking at a classic Picasso or Pollock painting, you see neither total chaos nor simple symmetry, but rather a kind of synthesis; an artistic vertigo bounded by a sense of order, which gives the whole a seductive intelligibility.

Cultural Moneyballism, in this view, sacrifices exuberance in the name of stereotypical symmetry. It sacrifices diversity for familiarity. It solves finite games at the expense of infinite games. His genius blunts the rough edges of entertainment. I think it’s worth caring about. It is really worth asking the question: in a world that will only become more influenced by mathematical intelligencecan we ruin culture by our attempts to perfect it?


Want to discuss the future of business, technology, and the abundance agenda? Join Derek Thompson and other experts to That of the Atlantic first Progress Summit in Los Angeles on December 13. Free virtual and in-person passes available here.

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