Baseball is life because physics is life.

None of us are here without energy exchanges.

And that is very good news. It means we’re not random. It means we’re not actually in chaos even though we’re currently in chaos. It means motion.

This is most apparent in massive, quantum-leap developments in the game. Some baseball fans will have no part of sabermetrics because they seem to suck the humanity, instinct, and romance right out of baseball. The outward simplicity of baseball does not, on the surface, lend itself to probability tables and algorithms.

It does make for an awfully cluttered scoreboard down at the old ball orchard, and sometimes I fear that my kindred math-avoidants will shy away from baseball because the overwhelming acronyms and stat blizzards are so very overwhelming and blizzardy.

It is, rather, a heavily embroidered velvet backdrop for ten men scattered across a bunch of grass. How closely you care to examine it is up to you.

Sometimes all that stitching illustrates a richness of the game we might not have otherwise considered. The physics involved in baseball have ever been and ever will be– the only real difference between the 1869 Reds and the 2024 Reds is that we can track them more broadly, measure them more minutely, and calculate them more quickly.

And most advanced analytics are, at their core, just a reflection of untamed forces- how fast pitch travels to plate, the angle at which the ball is smashed back the other way.

This is what has to happen before anything else happens: The ball must be thrown. The pitcher has to do something. He cannot maintain the status quo.

The business of baseball is an exercise in Newton’s Third Law: Each action has an equal and opposite reaction. When the ball crashes into the bat, it squishes out of shape for a split second, then re-assumes its normal dimensions as it begins its journey to the other direction.

That’s also comforting, somehow. The ball is slamming into a fellow solid object at what, 102 miles per hour? And it comes out the other end pretty much unscathed. It might bear scuffs and scars, but it’s usually in one piece.

The ball is thrown, the batter reacts. And all the practically infinite possible outcomes fall into one of two categories: Either the batter had an encounter with the ball, or he didn’t. Doesn’t matter if the ball went two inches in the air or out to the river. The ball and the bat meet, and the equal and opposite reaction take place.

This is where baseball happens.  Everything else surrounding the collision is irrelevant– however annoying, however politicized or electronically charted. This is where baseball happens.

That is also where one face-off taking place in one inning irrevocably changes history. Even in tee ball, an object must come into violent contact with another object to justify all of this standing around.

Even if a run results but don’t change the outcome of the contest, the score is forever shifted. The individual stats update ever so slightly. We’ve added another grain of sandstone to the Grand Canyon that is the length and breadth of the game.

And for such an allegedly low-contact sport, the act of the ball striking the bat unleashes an unholy amount of energy. This is demonstrated with varying levels of theatricality (“THAT BALL HAD A FAMILY!”)

A physicist calculated that the ball meets the bat for about .07 milliseconds, and the resulting impact produces anywhere between two and four tons worth of force, regardless of how much the player clamps down on the bat (Here’s an analysis of our once and future Toddfather essentially hitting a home run with no hands— he’s trusting the force of the bat, not his body, to take the brunt of the smack.)

We can look warily at in-bat gadgets, and atom-splitting radar guns, but when the last gigantic stadium screen flickers out for the night, baseball is nature. It is of God, of mighty natural forces that are harnessed into just a game with a bit of cow smacked by a stick of wood.

12 Responses

  1. LDS

    Good start to the new year. Baseball has been overly analyzed to the point where the game itself has suffered. Batting and pitching changes to align with the misinterpretation of “advanced analytics” has damaged the game. As has the current leadership of MLB. I suspect that when you reach my age, 20-25 years down the line, baseball will be a thing of the past. Or played on computers using AI generated players and all the advanced stats a sabermetrics nerd could possibly want.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I think it would be tough to take out the physicality entirely. I think people will still have attraction to the group project of attending a game in the stunning homes we’ve built for them.

  2. DataDumpster

    Yes, Mary Beth, that is the unique essence of the game. Pitcher vs. Batter, ball thrown meets bat swung. I believe also (@LDS) that the analytics and all the other “SABER stuff” tends to make the game something that our passive game-oriented youth might prefer to “participate” in more as a fantasy exercise with AI players, managers, and so forth.
    I sincerely hope the game (in the stands) doesn’t reach insignificance in the next generation but there are lot of concerning signs.
    But, humans have to have some (live) sports, right? Baseball doesn’t have many advantages to other major sports in the future, but if it does manage to stay relevant, it will because of that unique combination of One on One, Ball vs. Bat.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Exactly– thanks so much for replying.
      “I sincerely hope the game (in the stands) doesn’t reach insignificance in the next generation but there are lot of concerning signs.’
      I’m writing about this next week!

  3. BK

    @MBE, Fantastic! Using baseball, you have captured much of what it means to be human–our fascination with those who can do so much more than the rest of us and our innate desire to understand how wonderful things happen. I will take this as motivation to use the power of my humanity to make the most impact in 2024! Thanks for another great read!

  4. Mark Moore

    Another great article to kick off 2024. I especially loved the idea that even in T-ball there will be a “violent” act to initiate contact. And metrics would fail to account for the Keystone Kops routine that usually follows at that level.

    I am not deep into sabermetrics, but I do have some appreciation for them. I probably fall on the side that too much analysis and maneuvering goes on at times. We have seen the “dark side” of spin rate when the sticky stuff was outlawed officially and some pitchers were markedly worse.

    I still prioritize defense at certain positions. I also like to see the contact and speed game played more. I get weary of the three true outcome players.

    My crystal ball is in the shop, so I can’t predict 2024, let alone the future. I’m just happy that we’re inching closer to ST and the start of the season. I still have to consider where I may go to watch some games. Maybe back up to DC when our boys visit.

  5. Daytonnati

    Let’s not forget gambling! Is there another sport so mathematically aligned to betting as baseball? It could very well be that sabermetrics saved the sport by providing a data trove for otherwise disinterested bettors to use as recreation?

  6. Oldtimer

    Off topic but this may fit in here. Photo of Steinbrenner accompanied the Facebook post.

    … A group of investors, headed by shipbuilder George Steinbrenner, purchases the New York Yankees from CBS for $10 million, January 3, 1973 …

    Reds were sold by DeWitt to group of investors in January 1967 for $7 million.

    Now neither $7 million nor $10 million would sign a good free agent.