Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Experience and the reality of disjoint skill sets

It is not uncommon to hear baseball players voice the opinion that those who have never played baseball have nothing to teach those who have. The implication is that those stats-geeks should shut up. They know nothing of "the right way to play the game" or "team chemistry" or "the little things."

This is a silly notion. It assumes the the skill set involved in playing baseball is the same as the skill set involved in analyzing baseball. In fact, this is almost guaranteed to be false. Playing baseball is an activity with a very aggressive form of natural selection on a player's physical talents. You have to be able to hit or pitch or field at an elite level to be a ball player. Analyzing baseball is a strategic activity that imposes none of the above physical survival constraints on those engaging in it. In order to excel at both, you must be both physically and strategically adept. Not everything is like this. In chess, the physical survival constraint is practically non-existent: even a quadriplegic can play.

What's amazing to me isn't that these two baseball skill sets are disjoint. It's that people have a hard time accepting that they are. To make this easier, allow me to present the analogy that inspired this post:

When one sets out to build a really grand, tall, expensive building, one hires an engineer. This engineer designs the building from the ground up, probably in conjunction with many other people: architects, other engineers, etc. He has specialized training in constructing really grand, tall, expensive buildings. He also may have never picked up a hammer in his entire life.

So when the time comes to actually build the really grand, tall, expensive building, one will not ask the engineer to actually build it. One will hire a construction crew. These crews have a lot of hands-on experience in the practice of building really grand, tall, expensive buildings. They can frame, nail, drill, pound, pour, and weld way better than the engineer can. They know far more about the practice of construction than the engineer does.

So why don't we let these guys design and plan really grand, tall, expensive buildings? Because no matter how well you can frame, nail, drill, pound, pour, or weld, none of it will matter if you're building has a fatal engineering flaw. These two skill sets are disjoint. Sure, you may find a brilliant engineer who is also a battle-hardened construction worker or a life-long construction worker who has a talent for engineering. However, you would never infer one from the other. Not unless you want your really grand, tall, expensive building to end up a twisted heap of steel and glass.

This is why it's so frustrating to see opinions and commentary from people whose only baseball experience is playing baseball presented as irrefutable fact. Regardless of how talented a baseball player is at playing baseball, that doesn't tell us a whole lot about their strategic and analytical skills.

1 comment:

Jack Lynch said...

Except of course for Miguel Cairo - he does something every day to help you analyze better.