Is David Ortiz a Zombie?
After a morbid start to the 2009 season- hitting .188 through 49 games- Boston Red Sox DH David Ortiz returned from the dead to lead the American League in homeruns from June 6 on. After going 0-7 in his first two games in 2010, a hostile media tried to drive a stake through Big Papi’s heart, to which Ortiz did not take kindly. Ortiz is now just 4-for-26 (a .154 avg.) with 13 strikeouts. And he has looked dead on arrival to the plate; Ortiz has missed on 43 percent of his swings so far, more than double the league average of 20 percent. Can Ortiz resurrect his season yet again?
Two-time World Series champion Boston manager Terry Francona has come to the defense of his misunderstood (perhaps former) monster masher. But not merely out of loyalty. Refusing to replace Ortiz in the lineup, Francona argued that when it comes to benching a player, “It’s not fantasy baseball, it’s not like chess pieces”, and that there’s a “human element” in making personnel moves.
The “human element”, rather than being a position on the periodic table (or an ill-conceived Milla Jovovich vehicle), is, apparently, that additional component which humans have but chess pieces and numerical representations of humans lack. That added element, presumably, is consciousness. Does consciousness help? Is the human element valuable? Many philosophers these days debate the existence (duh) of “zombies“, which, in these debates, are creatures physically indistinguishable from people but who lack consciousness. Can such creatures possibly exist? If something can be physically indistinguishable from a person yet lack consciousness, then the mind is not physical. Such zombies would lack the “human element”. But they could still hit a curveball. Presumably, then, they could be substituted in and out of a lineup with no ill-effects, as they could suffer the vagaries of slumps or platoon splits without suffering.
Chess pieces do not move themselves, nor do fantasy baseball players; an intellect outside the system must do so. But the human element involves agency; Francona- the chess player- employs some “strategy and things like that”, but he knows the players “appreciate” being “let [to] go play”. The well-trod refrain that games aren’t played on paper but on grass is intended to prevent trespassing on the agency of the players. On paper, data is the fuel that drives the formula, the engine of prediction; here, the numbers do the work, and generate their own conclusions. The players are but pawns.
Some philosophers think the line between human and zombie is not so clear. Daniel Dennett argues that treating another entity as conscious is a matter of adopting a “stance” for the purpose of predicting its behavior. So, when predicting what that human-shaped object is going to do tomorrow, don’t attempt to compute the trajectory of each of its subatomic particles; instead, assume it has beliefs and desires and ask for its plans. Rather than working out all the possible moves a chess-playing computer might make, assume it wants to take the bishop. Treating something as conscious is a method for overcoming intractable computations. Nobody here but us Zombies.
The accuracy of Ortiz’ calculations have waned over the past year as he has treated himself as increasingly human; the added human element has made him a worse computer. According to Fangraphs’ Dave Allen, Ortiz has lost power to right field as he has aged. And, in so doing, he has become prone to chasing high and inside pitches. Perhaps “Ortiz thought he would generate power only on inside pitches, so he forced the issue rather than taking these pitches as balls and waiting on better offerings.” The human element in Ortiz has only gotten in the way; had it not been for the fearful expectation of losing power, Ortiz may not have become desperate to swing at unhittable pitches. Zombies keep their cool, and, being undead, don’t fear the death of their skills.
The Red Sox have the option of removing 36 year old Mike Lowell- now relegated to bench duty due to hip surgery- from cold storage. [update: Lowell, a righthanded candidate for designated hitter, started in place of Ortiz Thursday against Minnesota lefthander Francisco Liriano.] Lowell’s slow, lumbering gait may remind some of the non-philosophical, brain eating sort of zombie. Having been through a winter where saying the Sox were searching for pitching and defense became a cliché, that so much in 2010 might turn on the plodding one dimensional slugger might appear an irony. Which zombies probably don’t appreciate.
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