March 24, 2017
Always Tell Me the Odds
It seems like forever ago—it arrived, in fact, the year of Brandon Webb’s rookie season—that America fell in love with the game of poker. The 2003 World Series of Poker, broadcast on ESPN, was a ratings hit, and every evening somewhere along the dial you were liable to stumble upon a screen like this:
Since its arrival, televised poker has struggled to maintain its success: ratings have tumbled and most broadcasts appear in the twilight hours. There are various reasons for this, none of which require much attention here: suffice it to say that poker tended to live and die by the right side of the screen, the human drama of the players, their lives and backstories and conflicts. The elements of what we would generally think of as sports culture. My attraction to televised poker was rooted firmly in the left side of the screen. I loved the shifting probabilities.
What made poker work wasn’t the drama but the dramatic irony. The invention of the hole cam in the late 90s allowed the viewer to know more information, at the moment of play, than the collective players themselves. Knowing the odds, and then watching the contest unfold, turned out to be more satisfying than just seeing how it turned out in retrospect.
Televised baseball has been in the probability game for a long time now, in its way. Since the days of italicized all-caps fonts, batting and pitching statistics were flashed on the screen to give the viewer an impression of the kind of quality they can expect in the near future, a shorthand context. Over time the camera’s field of vision has been claimed by more and more information: base state, out state, and game state, while helpful chyrons flit across the banners with out-of-town scores, pitch speeds, previous at-bat results, pitcher vs. batter matchups, the weather.
The omnipresent pitch tracker, depending on the network, either chimes in after the pitch or hovers superimposed on the action like an annoying but not harmful ghost. Now Statcast, in recap format, has added its own data to the screen with its exit velocities, running speeds, route efficiencies, and home run arcs. It’s understandable why the common fan might have reached capacity.
And yet, I’d argue there actually is room for more, in some fashion. Not necessarily on the main broadcast, which really should be about the action on the field as an athletic display. But as a visualized expansion on the statistically-minded MLB+ broadcasts of 2016, there’s room to pack some more information on the screen.
But rather than descriptive statistics, like the heat chyron and the Statcast info, I’d be interested in constructing a viewing experience more like the one we have with poker, one intended to create the most context possible for the pitch ahead. What follows is a breakdown of what we might consider for our hypothetical MLB++ Network broadcast:
The most obvious source of hidden information, and one of the easiest to reveal to the viewing audience, is the signal from the catcher. However, this would be difficult to work into a live broadcast, for one practical reason and one strategic one. From a practical standpoint, the network couldn’t ask a team to employ pre-arranged signs, since changing up the patterns is an essential part of gamesmanship. But more than that, in a live broadcast a team could arrange to signal the television-revealed signals to the batter. Both problems are solved if the game isn’t broadcast live, but this obviously limits the value of such an enterprise. Perhaps a single game could be shown this way, as sort of an introductory special to new fans, though I wouldn’t envy the executive charged with marketing such a product.
Somewhat related to the above. The pitcher-batter matchup is the heart of televised baseball, the strategic matchup that drives the drama of the game and separates it as competition from pure feats of athleticism. The goal is to help the viewer understand, as much as possible, how each side is trying to outsmart the other, mixing strategies and going with or against strengths. On the bottom left of the screen, a breakdown of the pitcher’s arsenal and how often they use it versus the handedness of the current batter; on the right, the hitter’s effectiveness versus each type of pitch (fastball, breaking ball, changeup). One could also add in rates based on pitch count, to further underscore when the pitcher is going with, or against, the odds.
More of a dystopian baseball future than an idealized one, but as bullpen management descends into madness and relief pitchers grow increasingly specialized, the availability and deployment of reserves will take on an increasingly important element of manager strategy. Bench bats, if they still exist in the 10 years before these proposed changes might see light, could also be listed. This one would be more of an occasional appearance, between at-bats or at the start of innings, but it could still provide valuable context for why the manager is letting that weary 22-year-old face the lineup a third time.
Nothing fancy, just a very small window with some dots, revealing a top-down view of the defensive alignment. I’d actually much rather see this in football, where safeties almost never exist on television except when thrown to. But in an era when defensive alignment has grown increasingly specific, the data visualization would be interesting and, by nature of being textless, fairly unobtrusive.
OK, this doesn’t really help the context of the game at all, unless the runner is Dave Roberts. But baseball video games have been doing this for 30 years. Why not have a picture-in-picture of Jose Altuve at first base, twitching his feet, anticipating the move to the plate? It would certainly make the game feel more visually dramatic.
Either for the average team, given the out and base state, or including the relative value of the pitcher and hitters due up. The wonderful thing about RE24 is how intuitive it is to the casual fan: the calculations themselves may be an actuarial nightmare, but the number it spits out is clean. “With runners on first and third and no outs, the offensive team scores an average of 1.8 runs.” I’d love to see this on third-down conversion attempts and as a gradient to replace the red line often used as maximum field goal range as well, expanding to football. But knowing how many runs a team could expect to score does nothing to take away the excitement of the actual results, and builds a heightened sense of expectancy, especially during comebacks.
The big one, the obvious one, the dangerous one. It’s easy to understand why a network would be hesitant to stamp this number on their screen: viewers would change the channel in the sixth inning of half the games. And it places even more weight on the value of winning, over all other aesthetic and individual concerns of a sport. There are times when it’s fine to be free of context in baseball, when we want to take a Harper-Kershaw matchup on its own rather than as a meaningless eighth-inning at-bat of a blowout game. So maybe this is best left for the playoffs, when all pretense is dropped and winning really is everything.
None of this will ever happen, at least in my lifetime. People would hate it. They would see it as an encroachment, both physically in terms of screen space and metaphorically, of data on the physical act of baseballing. And they’re right, in a way; MLB++ could never replace the average broadcast.
But the idea that the numbers would themselves take away from the action they describe, that the enjoyment and appreciation is zero sum, is a false dichotomy. After all, even the most strident anti-numbers folks are fine with some numbers on television, just as they are in the box scores. The truth is that most people are either intentionally resistant to or at least uncomfortable with thinking probabilistically, and it doesn’t help that baseball is founded on a century-plus of hero worship and narrative-creation. Folks don’t like to believe in luck; they want to believe that the best team won, because they won.
There’s no better example of this than the pushback against recent odds-defying performances. When faced with multiple comebacks that stretched the bounds of win probability, a common reaction was not to celebrate the sheer improbability of the accomplishment, but to attack the odds themselves. One thing that a live WPA tracker would do, among its many issues, is force the fan to face the probabilities that rest, like atoms, in every action we perform. It forces us to realize that nothing is certain, no matter how close to zero a probability is, by virtue of not actually being zero. Especially in baseball, that one sport free of the clock, and thus always offering that most infinitesimal of chances.
Perhaps seeing those numbers, seeing the narrative thwarted and the heroes felled, would help the casual observer better empathize with the loser; perhaps it would make them realize that their own happinesses, and the unhappinesses of the impoverished, are elements of chance. Perhaps, this context would help create a level of empathy in the best-laid plans of the losing side.
Or maybe it won’t. But if nothing else, it’ll kill the -0.02 WPA sacrifice bunt, once and for all.