Analytics identified in diminutive Venezuelan Jose Altuve something humans did not divine. A 10-year journeyman at the club, he became after metrics-minded re-tooling the best power hitter in baseball. “The reason this remarkable story exists at all is that the Astros never saw Altuve as a story,” writes Thomas. They didn’t invest in him because he was an underdog, good at karaoke or liked by teammates. “They did it because the data showed showed he wasn’t meeting the ball far enough out in front.”
The same syndrome is observable here at this time of year as footy clubs pore over the numbers to trade established players and draft new. An element of dehumanisation is inevitable. It is observable at the races, a numbers game if ever there was. It is easy to dehumanise horses, because they’re not human.
Lots of horses end up at the knackery. So, figuratively, do some footballers. Tom Boyd is retired at 24, Paddy McCartin on indefinite hold at 23. These are not also-rans, but No. 1 picks, with excellent numbers. The afflictions are different, or are they? Both are to do with rattled heads.
Before them, there was Franklin, and Beams, and Cloke, and Koschitzke, and any number of others whose heads hurt. In cricket, Will Pucovski and now Glenn Maxwell have retired bruise-free but hurt from seeming dream jobs. None could be re-set by pushing a button.
One thing analytics plainly has not allowed for is generational change. We applaud this cohort for talking openly about mental health challenges and increasingly about the debilitating physical toll without really paying much attention to what they are talking about. Our applause absolves us from further study.
But it is real, a Fact in fact, even if it cannot be charted, and it’s emerging as the biggest issue in sport. Meantime, post-Marmelo, this weekend might be the first in history in which we’re keeping greater vigil over the welfare of horses than humans.
Who dares to say where dehumanisation stops, but here’s one place. Last year, the Astros signed on Roberto Osuna, a high-class pitcher who because of a history of domestic abuse came cheap. Assistant general manager Brandon Taubman approved. He had come as a fantasy baseball player, but from outside baseball to work in the Nerd Cave, where the Astros crunch their numbers.
“Working in the Nerd Cave was not so different from fantasy baseball,” writes Thomas. “It helped to think of the players as projections of statistics, not as sons or husbands or fathers.” Taubman kept his distance from the clubhouse, to minimise empathy with the players.
But he was in the clubhouse the night the Astros reached the World Series. There, he spied three women reporters who had known issues with Osuna’s recruitment and screamed at them: “Thank God we got Osuna. I’m so f—ing glad we got Osuna.”
When the story emerged in Sports Illustrated, the Astros at first vehemently denied it and damned the author, then tried to sugar-coat it, then as more evidence emerged climbed down by degrees, beginning with Taubman’s classic “if anyone was offended by my actions …”. Finally, the Astros admitted that Taubman had taunted the women and sacked him.
Reflecting on the Astros’ astonishingly ham-fisted handling of the incident, Thomas writes: “(Only) when you consider the organisational ethos (does) it start to make more sense. After all, the team’s executives are human. They are emotional. They have hidden biases – and not so hidden biases. Their decisions are distorted by loyalty and an aversion to change. They have trouble adapting quickly or admitting to error. They model the world narratively instead of according to facts. They can’t see past their own stories.”
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.