Is Tom McCarthy from the Future?

Or is it simply that fiction has a way of predicting (and even shaping) events in the real world?

In McCarthy’s novel Remainder, the narrator compares the forensic science of murder investigations to the geometric patterns left by a sporting match.

Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No, I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it’s real. Take just one aspect of it—say the diagrams: with all their outlines, arrows, and shaded blocks they look like abstract paintings, avant-garde ones from the last century—dances of shapes and flows as delicate and skillful as the markings on butterflies’ wings. But they’re not abstract at all. They’re records of atrocities. Each line, each figure, every angle—the ink itself vibrates with an almost intolerable violence, darkly screaming from the silence of the white paper: something has happened here, someone has died.

“It’s just like cricket,” I told Naz one day.

“In what sense?” he asked.

“Each time the ball’s been past,” I said, “and the white lines are still zinging where it hit, and the seam’s left a mark, and…”

“I don’t follow,” he said.

“It… well, it just is,” I told him. “Each ball is like a crime, a murder. And then they do it again, and again and again, and the commentator has to commentate, or he’ll die, too.”

“He’ll die?” Naz asked. “Why?”

“He… whatever,” I said. “I’ve got to get out here.”

For McCarthy’s narrator—who may or may not be cracked in the head—the real substance of life can be found through careful scrutiny the details of violence—with sports, naturally, counting as violence. “Well, all these patterns have to be recorded,” he says. Over the course of the novel, he documents and re-creates a few key moments of transcendent violence, hoping to inhabit them through re-enactment and somehow approach a fuller understanding of life.

Remainder was written in 2005—two years after Moneyball, the transformative book that argued for a better understanding of the relative value of Major League Baseball players through a more comprehensive system of record-keeping. But, as reported this week in New York magazine, it wasn’t until now that Moneyball’s philosophy turned into a McCarthy-esque endeavor to document each tiny movement of the baseball itself.

John Dewan is the former president and CEO of Stats. […] Each season, the company pays fifteen to twenty video scouts whose lone job is to watch every single Major League Baseball game and notate everything that happens. Every. Single. Thing. “Each of our video scouts has a computer screen with a replica of the field and about 50,000 pixels to choose from to determine the exact location of every batted ball,” Dewan says. “We mark the exact location and velocity of everything.” […]

Dewan has each of his scouts note not only where the ball was hit but also its type (grounder, fly ball, line drive, or “fliner”) and an estimate of its speed (on a scale of “slow” to “hard”). He says he has quantified the exact lengths of time a ball that is hit to the gaps between the center-fielder and the right- and left-fielders needs to be in the air so that almost every outfielder will catch it (six seconds) and so that almost none will (three seconds). The goal is to figure out what balls certain players get to and others don’t. A fly ball hit to center in Citi Field might look something like this:

Vector 187 degrees. 290 feet.
Medium. Fliner.

At the end of the season, Dewan has a complete log of every fliner hit in the major leagues to each of roughly 3,000 zones. He can see which center-fielders caught the most and which caught the least. And using that information for every tiny zone of the field, he can tell you how every player in baseball plays his position relative to everyone else.

All I’m saying is, this careful attention to the quantifiable data of sports was probably a logical evolution in our understanding of the game, and it would have happened one way or another. But first it was imagined and described in a novel. And this isn’t just a science fiction thing, where someone writes about a laser gun and then we build a laser gun. This is a prediction about how we perceive our world. This season, more than any other before it, MLB owners and fans are turning themselves into data fiends. In McCarthy’s narrator this obsessive quality was explained as a possible mental defect. But very quickly, his fictional abnormality came to resemble our popular view our world.


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