Baseball Has a "Great Men of Science" Problem

Baseball Has a "Great Men of Science" Problem

The times, they are a-changin’. Beanballs are out, fWAR is in. It’s cool to bat flip, and no one cares what Joe Simpson thinks about the Dodgers batting practice shirts because the Cincinnati Reds are playing in sleeveless jerseys. Baseball is slowly letting its cranky old darlings die and embracing the future. And that, for many players and clubs, means getting comfy with advanced stats, investing in high tech training, and taking a scientific approach to the game. This, we have been told recently, is what’s so great about Cleveland Indians righty Trevor Bauer. According to The New York Times, Bauer is “a pitching scientist on a crusade,” testing and adopting the latest high-tech training methods and statistical analysis to better his game and evangelizing about them to other players.

But, like other crusading scientists of the past and of our own era, there’s a risk in trying to separate out the pitcher from the pitching science. Whether he’s aggravating his own team, accusing other teams of cheating, or tweeting about climate change denial and making bigoted jokes, Bauer is a questionable amabassador for the new game no matter how much number-crunching he’s done to maintain his edge. Bauer is perennially in sports news for one form of bad behavior or another, including a recent incident where he harassed a woman on Twitter for days. In the last month, his name has been surfacing in connection to the new book The MVP Machine: How Baseball's New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, of which he is one of the main characters, by baseball writers Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik. Bauer typifies the technical, data-driven approach to baseball that the authors document in the book.

In one book review in The Atlantic, writer Jack Hamilton describes Bauer as “STEM-obsessed,” and he criticizes the authors’ tepid coverage of Bauer’s public persona and his notoriously shoddy sportsmanship. Hamilton frames Bauer’s behavior as a labor issue that should not have been overlooked by the authors, arguing that in a book about performance, the possible effects of Bauer antagonizing his teammates (he tweeted that he was better than his Cy Young finalist teammate on the day of the announcement) should be taken into account. That the cultural aspects of baseball—like the labor issues Hamilton highlights, but also things like domestic violence—are not separate from supposedly objective scientifically-minded player optimization is difficult to swallow for fans who prefer to maintain a strict division between a player’s behavior and his performance. The same is true for those who would prefer to keep the scientist separate from the science, but the risks in both cases are the same.

In The New York Times profile, writer Tyler Kepner weaves a charming scientific origin story for Bauer by relating an anecdote about Bauer playing chess with his high school physics teacher at lunch and characterizing him as “too much of a jock for the nerds, and too much of a nerd for the jocks.” Kepner repeatedly uses Bauer’s interest in science on and off the field to deflect any serious engagement with his bad behavior. On his aggressive social media persona, the writer allows Bauer to skate by with the assertion that “he would rather be authentic—even to a fault —than simply spew clichés.” Kepner then notes, somewhat sanctimoniously, the pitcher has let his followers select charities for Bauer to pledge money to, and one such charity was Girls Who Code. But, given Bauer’s supposed love for all things science, Kepner neglects to mention that Bauer denies the reality of anthropogenic climate change. A selective engagement with the kind of science and scientific culture that reinforce his own views, coupled with a major league platform that Bauer himself is constantly expanding with his own media products, is a volatile combination.

We are used to giving scientific personalities a pass for bad behavior, whether because we value their contributions to our understanding of the natural world enough to excuse it or because we imagine that there is some luminous inviolable line between those contributions and the person who makes them. It’s the reason notorious racist and old cranky asshole James Watson still haunts the halls of public scientific life. It’s why physicists still hold up Richard Feynman, pick-up artist and questionable mentor, as a paragon of scientific virtue. It’s why people are still sharing Neil deGrasse Tyson memes even after he was credibly accused of sexual assault.

Like these once-great—now cancelled—evangelists of science, fans see Bauer as an emerging ambassador for the sport. Thanks to a YouTube channel, featuring the “Bauer Bites” interview show, Bauer is credited with giving fans an inside look at the game and intimate access to players who appear as guests on the show and as the subjects of other videos. Added to media posting, Bauer enthusiasts argue that he’s bringing visibility to the game and making it more fun and personal for fans. For baseball, the issue of who makes a good representative of the game is compounded by the sport’s lingering conservatism, which views both the scientific innovations that people like Bauer advocate and people who criticize his politics with seemingly equal derision. It gives Bauer an air of radicalism, while still allowing his politics and shitty antics to slide under the radar. And in a sport that only rarely doles out suspensions, much less real punishment, for domestic violence, it’s hard to expect Major League Baseball to come down on Bauer for harassing women on Twitter.

While moving the needle on these kinds of toxic scientific personalities within institutions, whether universities or MLB, can be difficult, we can always rely on the old standard of consumer choice. In science, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of charismatic, interesting scientists and science communicators, many of whom are women, to learn from and follow. Plenty of inspiring science personalities don’t harass their students, or grope people at receptions, or present papers on how women scientists are too emotional at huge international conferences.

In baseball, there are other players with YouTube channels. In fact, Bauer’s personal nemesis, Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, has one. His teammate, pitcher Colin McHugh, hosts an interview podcast that is just as intimate and interesting as Bauer Bites, without the toxicity. And everyone’s favorite bearded left handed reliever, Sean Doolittle of the Washington Nationals, is a passionate advocate for LGBTQ organizations and labor conditions in baseball. Any of these players is a better face for baseball—kinder more inclusive ambassadors who aren’t obnoxious and aggressive—than Bauer.

The “great men of science” problem that Bauer manifests for baseball, however, is not limited to science or baseball. It’s a larger question of the place of scientific culture in our larger society and the privileges it conveys on its practitioners and adherents. It’s about the lines we draw between individuals and their actions, and who gets hurt in the process.

Image Credit: Batter and pitcher, Two modeled figures photographed by Pearsall, Brooklyn. New York Public Library | Public Domain

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