Arneson: 10 things I believe about baseball without evidence

From Ken Arneson at on November 5, 2014:

For any batter to hit a ball, the batter needs to predict where the ball is going to be before it reaches the bat. There are two different mechanisms for this prediction.

First, there is a conscious prediction. The batter may decide, consciously, based on some sort of rational analysis, that he is looking for a fastball down and in, and wants to swing at only a pitch in that location that he can pull.

But once the pitcher releases the ball, this kind of conscious prediction mechanism is far, far too slow to be of any use. At this point, everything is turned over to a much faster, subconscious, automatic system to predict the actual flight of the ball, and to send the muscles in motion to meet the ball.

My thoughts here are heavily influenced by Jeff Hawkins‘ book On Intelligence, which lays out a framework for how this automatic system in the brain works as a memory-based prediction machine.

Order matters in baseball, because this automatic prediction mechanism has a strong recency bias. (A conscious prediction might not have a recency bias if truly rational, but how often does a batter perform a purely rational analysis at the plate?) The speed, location and movement of the most recent pitch will affect the brain’s automatic prediction of the speed, location and movement of the next pitch. The more recent a pitch, the more it affects the automatic system’s prediction for the next pitch.

Pitch sequencing, therefore, is at the heart of the very sport of baseball, yet it is woefully understudied in current public analysis, because our tools, based on a foundation of unordered sets, are woefully bad at processing and studying sequenced events.

There is a whole industry now dedicated to the statistical analysis of baseball using these set-based SQL tools. But SQL does not have a recency bias clause in its syntax that you can apply to a query. Because these tools don’t handle the ordered data well, they basically ignore The. Very. Core. of the sport: the sequencing battle between pitcher and batter.

Let me say that again: statistical analysis (that we in the public are aware of) takes the most important element of the sport, and ignores it.

It’s like having Newtonian physics without relativity and quantum mechanics. There’s a lot you can do with Newtonian physics, but at the extremes, it begins to break down, because it is ignoring some deeper, more fundamental truths.

If you’re a team that relies on constructing its roster using such statistical analysis, what mistakes are you making by ignoring the most important part of the game?

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Originally published: November 5, 2014. Last Updated: November 5, 2014.