Baseball Meets Cognitive Science in This Wilmington Sportswriter’s New Book
Photo courtesy of Keith Law
Words by J.F. Pirro
In our September issue, we sat down with Wilmington’s Keith Law to talk about his new book, the 2020 season and whether analytics have ruined baseball.
In The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves (William Morrow), Wilmington’s Keith Law, senior baseball writer for The Athletic, dissects some of the best and worst decisions in modern baseball. But rather than acting as an armchair umpire, Law examines these decisions through the lens of cognitive science, explaining what motivated them and can be learned from them. The 19-year baseball insider, formerly with the Toronto Blue Jays’ front office and then a writer at ESPN for 13 years, combines baseball lore with its day-to-day decisions, all in the context of the game’s increasing reliance on analytics.
Delaware Today sat down with Law right before what would’ve been Opening Day to talk about his new book, the 2020 season and whether analytics have ruined baseball.
Delaware Today: How have you kept busy without a season?
Keith Law: It’s definitely thrown off my schedule. Beginning in March, I’m [usually] at spring training sites and all over scouting amateurs for the (June) draft to write my “Top 100 Prospects” story for The Athletic. It’s immersive, and back in the spring, part of me needed to see a game. My radar gun was charged. Instead, I was writing about favorite baseball video games we played as kids.
DT: This book isn’t one you can just hand to everyone, is it?
KL: It’s more like a textbook rather than a book to give to a friend. I marry psychology to baseball but also have fun with baseball stories so you can be entertained. I’m known as a baseball writer, so I had to deliver a baseball book, and it reads like a baseball book—but like no other out there, because if you want to learn about “moral hazard,” too, you can tie it into what’s going on now.
DT: You mean the coronavirus pandemic?
KL: If you get others sick, you might think you’re not paying the price, but (based on all the statistics), you need to stay home because we’ll all pay that cost if you spread the virus. It’s why staying in place matters.
DT: What made baseball go to analytics?
KL: The amount of money that’s involved. The more profit revenue, the more inevitable that team owners/presidents, who own a business, began looking for an edge, a tool no one else uses. Suddenly more guys looked like me on paper, guys who wanted to work in baseball but who weren’t from playing backgrounds.
DT: Some say scouting doesn’t matter anymore. True?
KL: More teams are using analytics, but I hate to see that. I’d like to see the best of everything. I’m the oldest edge of the analytics camp (at 46), but I also became a scouting person because I worked with people who saw the value of it.
DT: Teams house data warehouses, but that technology touched off a scandal last season. What’s next?
KL: Technology is more like a symptom. There will always be people trying to get an edge, and no matter what, there will be always be new cameras to get new data—and behavior that pushes the ethical envelope. See? That also deals with “moral hazard.” What gets me an edge doesn’t hurt anyone until it becomes widespread—then it hurts everyone.