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Chris Sale, pitching star, ignores big data

Commentary: In a baseball era in which every last piece of data is tabulated, the Red Sox pitcher shows no interest at all. A lesson for tech, perhaps?

 Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale

Who needs data? Why not just rely on talent?

Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The nerds have taken over baseball.

Every front office is full of those who crunch numbers rather than sunflower seeds. Brad Pitt appears in movies glorifying them.

Why, even in the most lowly professional league, the Pacific Association, the Sonoma Stompers let two stat nerds, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, act as general managers for a season. (The resulting book they wrote about it is painfully charming.)

One of baseball's greatest pitchers, however, has no time for all that data. As The Wall Street Journal reports, Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox doesn't look at opposing batters' tendencies, as presented in numbers. 

He doesn't care whether they put 25.2 percent of their balls in play in left field. He has no interest in how many fly balls they hit versus grounders, or whether they hit lefties better than righties. He doesn't watch video. He doesn't even shake off his catcher when the catcher suggests he throw a certain pitch.

Currently, he's the third-best pitcher in baseball. At least, that's what the stat nerds say

Why, though, does he ignore the numbers? Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis told the Journal, "It just clears his mind." 

There might be a small lesson here for many in the tech industry. Has there ever been a group of people with more cluttered minds? The worship of data in tech has become almost comical. It's as if the answers must always be buried within the numbers because, if not, how can you build a business?

Sale didn't come to his conclusion alone. He was influenced by former Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle, a four-time all-star who, among other things, notched a perfect game. Buehrle was fond of pitching quickly, thinking not at all and relying on, well, talent.

The man so many in the tech world most revere, Steve Jobs, also relied on talent rather than numbers. He trusted his instincts far more often than he pored over spreadsheets. 

Increasingly, however, we seem to get products whose parents were data and whose sole purpose is the collection of more data. 

How often do you look at a tech product, software or hardware, and believe it looks truly inspired, rather than constructed by a group of rationalists?

I'm sure I'm in a minority when I suggest that one reason Apple's Home Pod will succeed is because someone remembered that it wasn't just a tech gadget but a piece of furniture, and dedicated some data-free talent to making it look good. 

I compare it to whichever robot cobbled together the Google Home saltshaker and I wonder whether the data -- Google is passionate about data -- said saltshakers were the way to go.  

What would happen if all tech companies, and all baseball teams, ignored the data for a year? Would the world be a more uplifting, more entertaining place? Don't we all need a collective clearing of the mind?