There were years after I bought my first copy of Baseball Prospectus when I would have wished on a one-fingered monkey’s paw for the ability to run projections on everything, instantly, whenever I wanted. Having set aside the tragic and inevitable ironies that accompany all monkey’s paw usage as a matter of course, it seemed to me that real-time projections basically subsumed all other wishes.
The movie would have very little conflict but a ton of montages: The one where you walk into the casino and count cards without actually having to count cards, and become rich; the one where you see exactly how likely your significant other is to be charmed by your unpredictable (to her!) combination of flirtatious eye contact and mysteriousness, and fall in love; the one where you determine, finally, that there is a 90 percent chance the vector for the monkey’s paw’s insidious lesson will be your son who sharpens the diamond saws at the metal works, and find him a job where there is statistically zero industrial machinery for him to fall into. (At the time this was not already the plot of Limitless.)
It wasn’t just about using my powers to become rich; projections were as close as I could get to a metaphysics. I imagined the world around me as one potential outcome shuffled in among billions, the gaps impossible to cross without some kind of compass. Because I had the supreme self-confidence of the internet baseball fan circa 2003 it did not bother me very much that I was imagining a universe basically predetermined by a run of dice rolls I hadn’t been party to.
Most 18-year-old tools goofs you pick out of the middle of a draft will never make it out of the low minors. Most 20-year-olds who hit .215 with power will not outlast your self-deprecating jokes about touting them. Most 22-year-olds who suddenly show potential have not flipped a switch. Most 23-year-olds and 24-year-olds and 25-year-olds will start looking for other things to do when their own bodies tell them over and over that they are not cut out for the thing they’ve been preparing to do their whole lives. 40 games, 12 games, 75 games… PECOTA used to make a big deal of attrition rate. This was the gothic, extraordinarily complex Nate Silver version of PECOTA, held up on all sides by flying buttresses, but attrition rate just measured the likelihood of someone’s chances to play collapsing from one year to the next.
It captures injuries, but it also captures bad relationships with coaches, replacement by better or cheaper prospects, fluky playing time events. Far enough from the major leagues it has to be picking up more than that--a loss of the desire to play, or the conviction that you can get ahead, whether it’s your conviction or somebody else’s.
With a sufficiently clairvoyant projection-generator you could run live ZiPS career totals for all of us, figuring out just how many trade-offs it would take, and just how far back in our lives you’d have to go, to wedge a single game onto our baseball card. Here’s Babe Ruth if he had stayed a pitcher, or Rick Ankiel if he’d never been one; here’s Matt Harrington if he’d signed his first contract, and if he’d signed his second, and his third and fourth and fifth. You could watch the 90th-percentile projections of all the high school stars you knew flicker and zero out as they stopped growing or hurt their arms or followed their girlfriends to college or got a job somewhere in town.
Most 26-year-old September call-ups do not have long careers, but at every stage in his career a baseball player is facing the most certain projection of all, that eventually he will play zero games and figure in no pennant races.
I can’t disprove the world I imagined when I was 17—where all of us are governed by probability, and it’s best that we all accept it and will our favorite organizations to become more efficient—which I guess is the point. When you are a supremely confident teenager, if you’re lucky, you get some idea of how the world really does work, and you root for progress to take hold and install you in your rightful place among the elect who have also read the right books. Sometime after that, if you are lucky, you fail convincingly enough to realize that you are the fat, not the lean cut of meat you kept yelling at general managers to finish trimming.
We are in the world where Tommy Pham will eventually be forced out of the major leagues like all of us were, whether we were a minute old or 13 or 31. Between now and then we have a reasonably good idea of what will happen, but I think we also have an obligation to enjoy what happens in the moment—to be generous with our attention because the world conjured up by all the money and information there is in professional baseball will not be generous with much else. When I root for Tommy Pham it’s just because he’s a person who’s capable of surprising me, and himself—who has to alternately fight against and accept certainty like the rest of us.