White Sox fans should enjoy the anticipation, ignore the PECOTA computer model
I have a friend who has issues with technology. I don’t want to out him, but his initials are fellow Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander. Anyway, my friend is concerned that technology, specifically artificial intelligence, will reduce all of us to slaves and that someday soon we’ll be taking martini orders from our master robots.
My friend is not alone in his antipathy. Some White Sox fans are very, very upset that a computer algorithm believes their team is going to be mediocre this season. (The first clue you’ve lost: You believe a computer ‘‘believes.’’) They’re upset because they think their team is on the cusp of greatness, and they’re upset, I suspect, because Baseball Prospectus’ computer model has been eerily accurate at times.
What we have is a classic battle between man and machine. For those Sox fans who don’t know how to fight a computer, I offer the same counsel I often give to my technophobe friend: We humans have overcome all sorts of challenges throughout the ages, so why be worried about self-driving vehicles or voice-powered assistants, such as Alexa? Also, the cyborg behind you wants to know whether you’re emotionally attached to your left arm. His name is Mr. Giggles.
Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections have the Sox going 83.1-78.9 and finishing third in the American League Central behind the Twins and the Indians, respectively. This is the same Sox franchise that made it to the playoffs last season and the same Sox franchise that has been amassing highly rated talent for the last three seasons after a painful teardown.
The question, then, is whether you believe in a cold, heartless computer algorithm whose entire existence is analyzing baseball numbers or in a lineup that includes 2020 AL Most Valuable Player Jose Abreu, 2019 AL batting champion Tim Anderson, wunderkind Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez and Yoan Moncada. The question is whether you believe in a math problem or in a pitching staff that includes Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks.
In other words, would you people pull yourselves together?!
General manager Rick Hahn has done a masterful job of collecting quality players the last few years. We started seeing the real fruits of that when the Sox went 35-25 in a pandemic-shortened 2020 and lost in a wild-card series to the Athletics. PECOTA sees regression in many of the Sox’ hitters this season, to which I say, is there no place for momentum in your coding? No room for the possibility that optimism will fuel Sox players to greater heights in 2021?
I see a team on the rise, one headed for 90 victories. I see a team building off its success last season. And, if we’re to believe some of the hype that came with the hiring of Tony La Russa during the offseason, the ol’ skipper should be worth a few victories this season. I’m proud I resisted adding, ‘‘Just ask him.’’
PECOTA has had some big misses, most notably in 2005, when it projected the Sox to win 80 games. Sox fans will recall that 99-victory season, the one that resulted in a World Series title, the way they might remember the birth of their first child.
It’s a waste of time getting mad at an algorithm. There’s no emotional reward in shaking a fist at a computer you can’t even see. For the same reason, there will be nothing good about the day technology replaces umpires. If you question a robot’s eyesight on a curveball off the plate, it won’t care. What’s the fun in that?
The Sox are made up of flesh-and-blood human beings who are capable of lofty highs and dark lows. Computer projections try to take that into consideration by running through all sorts of possibilities and coming up with an average. But that computer can’t possibly know, certainly not in the way the most loyal Sox fan knows his or her team is going to be great this season. That’s the beauty of anticipation and the miracle of being alive. It’s why Sox faithful shouldn’t get caught up in what a motherboard is predicting for 2021.
It’s like I tell my technology-fearing friend: Yes, I know the world might not be recognizable in 100 years. But I like to concentrate on the here and now. And I would think that, rather than obsess about the bad things that might happen down the road, most Sox fans rather would enjoy the sweet possibilities of the upcoming season.
Oh, and those robots, Rick T.? They’re coming for you.