In which the author attempts to forge a tenuous link between a mid-20th century German philosopher and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Writing in the middle of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, especially in his later works, comes across as a grumpy old man. While his grumpiness pales in comparison to that of Adorno and Horkheimer, his criticisms of science and technology exhibit their fair share of grump. He is concerned that technology is all-consuming and stands to reduce man to mere servants of technology—human Being would be transformed into technological Being. In this vein, he resists scientism—the religious devotion to scientific axioms and methods.
Like Heidegger, the Phillies and Ruben Amaro, Jr. have, until recently, aggressively resisted most of the analytical and statistical developments that have occurred over the past 15-20 years. This stance is exemplified in valuing Ryan Howard as the best player in baseball, viewing walks as antithetical, or at least not intimately connected to, scoring runs, giving an $11M AAV deal to a closer, and expecting to make the playoffs with two guys named Young taking the field every day. In opposition to the vast majority of teams establishing entire departments dedicated to putting their organizations on the cutting edge of new baseball research, the Phillies have defiantly declared themselves a "scouting organization" as if that designation excluded them from also being an "analytics organization."
Luckily for the Phillies, Heidegger posits a kind of thought different from the purely calculative straw man of sabermetrics they resist. Heidegger, after a dubious exercise in etymology—a practice entertainingly common to continental philosophy—on the Greek word commonly translated as "truth" (aletheia), concludes that the new task for thinking is to consider the nature of a "clearing". With this terminology, he envisions a dark forest where the clearing is the only space in which one can see his surroundings. To set thought on the subject of the clearing acknowledges that it is impossible to arrive at the truth about something unless it is first unconcealed and that unconcealing is a process that requires effort. In other words, we must be aware of what we don’t know before we can come to know it.
"What the hell does this have to do with baseball?" you might ask. Well, at its most basic level, sabermetrics originates from a drive to understand the game better, or, put differently, to discover truths about baseball. The first step for analytics, to put it in the language of the scientism Heidegger feared, is to identify areas of the game that are currently inefficient. A more palatable way to phrase it might be that it is a process of discovering important questions about the game that have not yet been adequately answered.
The Phillies’ shiny new analytics department needs to find areas in need of unconcealment. Obviously, since the department is new and zero regular season games have been played, it is probably too early to say much about the performance of said department, but it appears that they have, so far, been playing catch-up with the rest of the league. This is not to say that using analytics to implement defensive shifts or regress HR/FB rates when evaluating free agent pitchers (perhaps)—things many other teams are already doing—are not valuable things to implement; there is a lot of value to be gained by simply not being stupid.
While utilizing already available information is certainly a step in the right direction, the Phillies’ analytics department can make a profound impact by exploring research in new areas. With the budget of a big-market team, avoiding stupid decisions might end up being enough for the Phillies to reestablish themselves as a top-tier team. However, if they can undertake Heidegger’s task for thinking and unconceal unanswered questions and explore new fields—conditioning and injury prevention or quantifying clubhouse chemistry, potentially—they could establish themselves as annual contenders. All they need is find their own clearing.