Friday, September 14, 2012

Mike Trout, Stephen Hawking, & the Arrow of Time

The increase of disorder or entropy with time is one example of what is called an arrow of time, something that distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.
Stephen J. Hawking, A Brief History of Time

In his beautiful book, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking addresses questions such as “Why do we remember the past & not the future?” Why indeed? According to Hawking, the fact that “psychological time” (how we experience time) & the thermodynamic arrow of time—namely, the law of entropy, a sort of ontological Murphy’s Law—are in profound accordance with each other.  To use Hawking’s own example, we remember the cup falling off the table & breaking on the floor because this obeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is also how our mind operates: we don’t experience the broken cup re-assembling itself & leaping whole from the floor to the table as in a backwards film. Hawking also connects this to the concept of the expanding universe.

But what can this possibly have to do with Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout?  If you’ve followed baseball even casually this season, Mike Trout needs no introduction; but for the sake of readers who are fans of Beer League Box Score without necessarily also being baseball fans, I’ll say that Trout has been probably the best player in major league baseball this year, despite the fact that this is his first full year, & despite the fact that he was all of 20 years old when the season began.

Mike Trout has been one of those prospects that fill the vivid fantasies of hardcore baseball fans with visions of mind-boggling stats & that stoke the championship fantasies of Angels fans everywhere. Despite a brief & pedestrian call-up last summer (during which he didn’t amass enough at bats to lose his rookie eligibility), Trout was highly touted coming into the season, & tho he didn’t leave spring training on the Angels roster, he was called up on April 28th to an Angels team off to a disappointing start. Predicted to be one of the strongest teams in the American League, the Angels’ record after April 27th was 6 wins & 14 losses. Although Trout started slowly his first few games, he put up a .324/.385/.556 slash line in May, scoring 21 runs, hitting 5 home runs & stealing 8 bases—& Trout was just getting started. He peaked with an unbelievable .392/.455/.804 in July, scoring 32 runs, hitting 10 home runs & stealing 9 bases (note: each month is almost exactly 1/6 of the season), & while he came back toward earth from the troposphere in August, he still posted a .284/.366/.500 line with 26 runs scored, 7 home runs & 11 stolen bases. His June was only slightly less elevated than July, while his September stats continue to be strong, if considerably more earthly than at mid-season.

This sort of performance really can’t be predicted or expected. People in the know realized Mike Trout was very good, & he had been compared to Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays & Rickey Henderson—all first ballot Hall of Famers! Obviously such comparisons are odious in the extreme, & particularly in light of his short & pedestrian 2011 debut, it wouldn’t have been at all surprising if he had fallen far short of such lofty expectations.
But instead, Trout is a nonpareil—a “singularity,” if we can borrow a term from Professor Hawkingwho seems to defy all the laws of physics, at least as they apply to baseball performance. His overall season statistics thru September 13th are as follows: .331/.396/.569; 27 home runs; 45 stolen bases; 114 runs scored; he’s even driven in 77, despite batting lead-off (typically not an rbi slot in a line-up.) To look at his season in terms of major sabermetrical measures, he has a wRC+ of 174 (which means he’s creating runs for his team at a rate of 74% above the league average player) & a wOBA (weighted on-base average) of .424 (from Fangraphs.) Moving to Baseball Reference, we find that this site calculates his “wins above replacement player” at 10.3—meaning that by this formulation, he has added 10 wins to his team’s total above what the fictional “organizational player/replacement player” would have added. 

The 10.3 WAR is significant at a number of levels. In the entire history of major league baseball, dating back to the 19th century, players have achieved a 10 WAR only 47 times—in fact, players have achieved a WAR of 10.3 or higher only 28 times, including Trout! I made a survey of the 33 position players (as opposed to pitchers) who were first ballot Hall of Fame selections, plus the two who were inducted by special election (Gehrig & Clemente, in both cases due to untimely deaths), & found that a whopping 23 of those 35 had never had a single 10 WAR season—& the list of 23 includes such major figures as Hank Aaron, Rickey Henderson (he just missed with 9.8 in both 1995 & 1990), Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt & Roberto Clemente. In addition, the highest WAR for a position player rookie was Shoeless Joe Jackson’s 9.0 in 1911; the highest post 1920 (the "live ball" era in which we still find ourselves) is the 8.5 registered by Dick Allen for the Phillies in 1964. If we look at the three great players with whom Trout has been compared, Mays, Mantle & Henderson, we also find that their rookie season WAR figures were 3.6, 1.3, &  -.1 respectively! It is true that Mantle & Henderson played partial seasons in their rookie years (tho with enough at bats to use up rookie eligibility), & each skyrocketed in the next year to 6.3 & 8.7 respectively; & that 6.3 season was Mantle’s age 20 year; the 1.3 was compiled when he was 19. 

Of course such singular efforts have made Trout a runaway choice for the Rookie of the Year award, but his season has also made him a favorite for the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. He has some competition—Miguel Cabrera & Josh Hamilton are probably the two most likely rival candidates—& it is true as I mentioned that his statistics have gone from unheard of to merely very good while the pennant races have heated up (& while his team has struggled to maintain traction for a playoff spot.) But all things considered, I would think Trout is the deserved favorite. In fact, for those who don’t know, only two players have ever won both Rookie of the Year & Most Valuable Player in their debut season; both, interestingly, were American Leaguers: The Boston Red Sox Fred Lynn in 1975 & the Seattle Mariners Ichiro Suzuki in 2001.  Of course, Ichiro was a special case, since he had already had a star career in the Japanese major leagues staring in 1994.

& it’s when we begin to consider some of Trout’s rookie comparables that we begin to see the connection with Professor Hawking. Fred Lynn posted a .331/.401/.566 line, with 21 homers, 103 runs scored & 105 driven in for the ’75 season. His WAR value was 7.1; in terms of sabermetrics, his wOBA was .427 & he had a wRC+ of 162; & Lynn only had one other really comparable season—some might say an even better one, actually—in 1979, his penultimate season with the Sox before he moved on to the Angels as a free agent. Don’t get me wrong—Fred Lynn was a good major league ballplayer for most of his career—but there were only two seasons that approached Olympian heights.

I also should mention the two players who’ve had the highest rookie WAR before Trout—both pitchers. These were Russ Ford of the 1910 New York Highlanders with a WAR of 10.6! & Mark “the Bird” Fidrych of the 1976 Detroit Tigers—9.3 WAR. Sadly, Fidrych’s arm gave out after that one glorious year & Ford also was out of organized baseball after 1915, also with arm troubles.  & finally, how many players have had multiple 10 WAR seasons? Babe Ruth had 8, but he was a true phenomenon;  Willie May had 6; Mantle 3; you can find the complete list here.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics does indeed apply to the ballplayer & the ballplayer’s body (as it does to us all!); the exertion of performance strains tendons & ligaments & joints; eyesight worsens over time; hand-eye coordination & other reflexes slow. In theory, Mike Trout qua baseball player is already the intact cup in flight toward the floor. We can’t remember him from whatever future season during which he may (or may not) peak in his skills in reverse to this season’s glorious outburst.  & lest we forget, even the greatest of the great, those that actually do fulfill their potential against all the odds of entropy, eventually break down: Ruth, Mays & Mantle had all lost a high percentage of their skills by the time they each retired.

But Professor Hawking also writes about “imaginary time” (time calculated using “imaginary numbers”) & “real,” linear time. This is of philosophical & scientific importance because if the universe begins & ends in singularities (as in the model of General Relativity), the universe wouldn’t obey physical laws at its beginning & end; but if time is considered in its “imaginary” form, there would be no singularities as such; it would be like a sphere, finite, but with no boundaries. Hawking goes on to write:

This might suggest that the so called imaginary time is really the real time, and that what we call real time is just a figment of our imaginations. In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to spacetime and at which the laws of science break down. But in imaginary time, there are no singularities or boundaries. So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic, and what we call real is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like.

I think of this—perhaps tweaking & even mistreating Hawking’s intent a good deal!—when I consider Mike Trout.  It occurs to me that there’s a point of comparison between Hawking’s concepts & the concepts of history versus liturgical or mythic time. Now I’ve mentioned before that baseball is charged with aspects of sacred drama, & as such, it obeys some of the rules of mythic time—or if you will, “imaginary time”—finite, but with no boundaries. The season begins & moves thru its narrative arc. Certain archetypal events & personages emerge; the season ends, only to be renewed again the following spring. In “linear time,” that season produces real names, real winning & losing teams, real statistics. But whenever we encounter the baseball archetype of the “phenom,” the young player who remakes the game like some mythic hero—or who emerges like a singularity, for whom the laws of physics have no power—we see him as ageless; we project his seasons ahead into summer following summer full of glory.  We forget the laws of the physical universe. We already remember the full glory of Mike Trout’s glorious career.

All images link to their source
  1. Mike Trout: Wiki Commons, by user Keith Allison, who publishes it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
  2. The "intersection" of past & future in spacetime: Wiki Commons, SVG version: K. Aainsqatsi at en.wikipedia
    Original PNG version: Stib at en.wikipedia; This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
  3. Willie Mays, 1954: Wiki Commons; public domain (from Baseball Digest-copyright expired, not renewed)
  4. Mike Trout July 22, 2011: Wiki Commons, by user Keith Allison, who publishes it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
  5. Fred Lynn from
  6. NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking: Wiki Commons, NASA image, public domain
  7. Time Line of the Universe [linear!]: Wiki Commons, NASA image, public domain
  8. Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout :  Wiki Commons, by user Keith Allison, who publishes it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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