An Unfair Game

The sheer quantity of brain power that hurled itself voluntarily and quixotically into the search for new baseball knowledge was either exhilarating or depressing, depending on how you felt about baseball.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

“Today, in sports,” wrote James Surowiecki in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, “what you are is what you make yourself into”—unlike forty or fifty years ago, nearly all elite-level athletes have a tremendous entourage of dietitians, strength coaches, skill coaches, and mental coaches to help them do their jobs. But not just athletes: at the team level, coaches and scouts have learned to use data both to recruit the best players and turn that talent into successful strategies. Surowiecki notes for instance that when sports columnist Mark Montieth went back and looked at old NBA games from the 1950s and 60s, he found that NBA coaches at the time “hadn’t yet come up with offenses sophisticated enough to create what are considered good shots today.” That improvement, however, is not limited to sports: Surowiecki also notes that in fields as varied as chess and classical music, airline safety to small-unit infantry tactics, the same basic sorts of techniques have greatly improved performance. What “underlies all these performance revolutions,” Surowiecki says, “is captured by the Japanese term kaizen, or continuous improvement”—that is, the careful analysis of technique. Still, what is more curious about the fact that so many disparate fields have been improved by kaizen-type innovations is not that they can be applied so variously, but that they have not been applied to many other fields: among them, Surowiecki lists medicine and education. Yet the field that might be ripest for the advent of kaizen—and with the greatest payoff for Americans, even greater than the fact that lemon cars are for the most part a thing of the past—is politics.

To be sure, politics doesn’t lend itself particularly well to training in a wind tunnel, as the top-level cyclists Surowiecki discusses do. Nor are politics likely to be improved especially by ensuring, like the Portland Trailblazers do, that everyone in government gets enough rest, or that they eat correctly—although one imagines that in the case of several politicians, the latter might greatly improve their performance. But while the “taking care of the talent” side of the equation might not, in the field of politics, be the most efficient use of resources, certainly the kinds of techniques that have helped teams improve their strategies just might. For example, in baseball, examining statistical evidence for signs of how better to defend against a particular batter has become wildly more popular in recent years—and baseball’s use of that strategy has certain obvious applications to American politics.

That team-level strategy is the “infield shift,” the technique whereby fielders are positioned on the field in unusual structures in order to take account of a particular batter’s tendencies. If, for example, a particular player tends to hit the ball to the left side of the field—a tendency readily observable in this age of advanced statistical analysis in the post-Moneyball era—teams might move the second baseman (on the right side of the infield) to behind second base, or even further left, just as to have an extra fielder where the batter tends to place his hits. According to the Los Angeles Times, the use of the “infield shift” has become far greater than it ever has: the “number of shifts,” the Times’ Zach Helfand wrote last year, “has nearly doubled nearly every year since 2011, from 2,357 to 13,298 last year.” This past season (2015), the use of shifts had exploded again, so that there were 10,262 uses of a shift “by the All-Star break,” Helfand reported. The use of shifts is growing at such an exponential rate, of course, because they work: the “strategy saved 190 runs in the first half this (2015) season, according to estimates from Baseball Info Solutions,” Helfand says. The idea makes intuitive sense: putting players where they are not needed is an inefficient use of a team’s resources.

The infield shift is a strategy, as it happens, that one of the greatest of America’s Supreme Court justices, Earl Warren, would have approved of—because he, in effect, directed the greatest infield shift of all time. About the line of cases now known as the “apportionment cases,” the former Chief Justice wrote that, despite having presided over such famous cases as Brown v. Board of Education (the case that desegregated American schools) or Miranda v. Arizona (which ensured that defendants would be represented by counsel), he was most proud of his role in these cases, which took on the fact that the “legislatures of more than forty states were so unbalanced as to give people in certain parts of them vastly greater voting representation than in others.” In the first of that line, Baker v. Carr, the facts were that whereas the population of the state of Tennessee had grown from 487,380 to 2,092,891 since 1900, and that said population had not been distributed evenly throughout the state but instead was concentrated in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, still Tennessee had not reapportioned its legislature since 1901. This, said Warren, was ridiculous: in effect, Tennessee’s legislature was not only not shifted, but it was wrongly shifted. If the people of Tennessee were a right-handed pull-hitter (i.e., one that tends to hit to the left side of the field), in other words, Tennessee’s legislature had the second baseman, the shortstop, and the third baseman on the right side of the field—i.e., toward first base, not third.

“Legislators represent people, not trees or acres,” Warren wrote for a later “apportionment case,” Reynolds v. Sims (about Alabama’s legislature, which was, like Tennessee’s, also wildly malapportioned). What Warren was saying was that legislators ought to be where the constituents are—much as baseball fielders ought to be where the ball is likely to be hit. In Reynolds, the Alabama legislature wasn’t: because the Alabama Constitution provided that the state senate would be composed of one senator from each Alabama county, some senate districts had voting populations as much as 41 times that of the least populated. Warren’s work remedied that vast disparity: as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Baker, Reynolds, and the other cases in the “apportionment” line, nearly every state legislature in the United States was forced to redraw boundaries and, in general, make sure the legislators were where the people are.

Of course, it might be noted that the apportionment cases were decided more than fifty years ago, and that the injustices they addressed have now all been corrected. Yet, it is not merely American state legislatures that were badly misaligned with the American population. After all, if the state senate of Alabama was badly malapportioned through much of the twentieth century and before, it is also true that the Senate of the United States continues to be malapportioned today: if the difference between Alabama’s least populated county and its most in the early 1960s was more than 40 times, the difference between the number of voters in Wyoming, the least populated American state, and California, the most, is now more than 60 times—and yet each state has precisely the same number of senators in the U.S. Senate. These differences, much like infield shifts, have consequences: in such books as Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation, political scientists like Frances E. Lee and Bruce I. Oppenheimer have demonstrated that, for example, “less populous states consistently receive more federal funding than states with more people.” Putting legislators where the people aren’t, in other words, has much the same effect as not shifting a baseball team’s infield: it allows money, and the other goods directed by a legislature, to flow—like hits—in directions that it wouldn’t were there fielders, or legislators, in place to redirect those flows.

To say that moving America’s legislature around would have an instantaneously positive effect on American life, of course, is likely to overstate the effect such a move might make: some batters in the major leagues, like Albert Pujols, have been able to overcome the effects of an infield shift. (Pujols, it seems, bats 28 points higher when a shift is on than when it isn’t, Zach Helfand reported.) Yet, teams still use the shift on Pujols—on the theory, apparently, that even though Pujols might overall bat better, still it is unlikely that he can keep it up, first, and second that on the occasions that he misses “hitting the gaps,” a fielder will be there.

Similarly, although it might be so that, as Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois argued in the aftermath of 1964’s Reynolds, “the forces of our national life are not brought to bear on public questions solely in proportion to the weight of numbers,” the forces behind such examples as Billy Beane’s Oakland As teams—assembled largely on the weight of the statistics put up by the players—or Japanese car companies—which redesigned workspaces, Surowiecki says, “so workers didn’t have to waste time twisting and turning to reach their tools”—beg to differ: although not every question can be solved by the application of kaizen-like techniques, surely a number of them can.

Among them, it may be, is gun-control legislation, which has continually been held up by structural features of the American Congress that have much to do with malapportionment. Surely, in other words, with regard to gun policy it matters that the Senate is heavily stacked in favor of mostly-rural states. Were it not, it is much easier to imagine the United States having a gun policy much more in line with that of other industrialized democracies. Which, in the light of incidents like the recent shooting deaths in Orlando, is to shine a new light on an old baseball phrase.

That phrase?

“Hit ’em where they ain’t.”


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