Useful Items From The Art of War

Recently, I finished reading The Art of War, the famous work of Chinese general Sun Tzu. Although the goal of Sun Tzu’s writings is to educate the generals of his state of Wu in the art of defeating large armies of people, potentially with deadly force — something not too similar to baseball, given the non-contact nature of the sport — some of Sun Tzu’s thoughts on the competitive and strategic aspects of war actually apply quite well to this fine sport. Here are a few selected items which people in various positions in baseball could find useful.

For the manager assessing his team:

He first of all considers the power of his army in the bulk; afterwards he takes individual talent into account, and uses each men according to his capabilities. He does not demand perfection from the untalented.

It is key both for managers to understand the strength of their teams relative to the league as well as the bits and pieces individual players bring to the table. This passage seems particularly applicable to platoons — the strong manager does not demand each hitter hits lefties and righties equally well, and instead uses two players to the best of their abilities when possible.

For those who overly trust their guts:

The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all!

Of course, Sun Tzu is not referring to literal calculations here, but the point still stands: those managers, general managers and even players who are unwilling to think critically about a situation are unlikely to come out of it on top. Whether that means studying new metrics or understanding proper bunt strategy or scouting a draft prospect, it is important to use calculation to gain the best possible position entering the situation.

For those fans who think they would be better than their team’s manager:

This one actually comes from one of the many notes in the Kindle version of the text in which the editor references other noted miltary men. In this case, the quote is from British Colonel George Francis Robert Henderson, who wrote a biography on General Stonewall Jackson among other military works.

The rules of strategy are few and simple. They may be learned in a week. They may be taught by familiar illustrations or a dozen diagrams. But such knowledge will no more teach a man to lead an army like Napoleon than a knowledge of grammar will teach him to write like Gibbon.

It is tempting to watch managers bumble their way through sacrifice bunts and pitching changes and assume we could do better, and I have little doubt that there a few cases in which fans do indeed have better basic tactical knowledge of the game, strictly in terms of win probabilities and the like, than some “baseball men” with their ingrained opinions. But that doesn’t mean this tactical knowledge would allow these fans to be better or even serviceable as actual managers — it takes much more than a knowledge of statistics to serve as a legitimate leader of men, even in such a trifle as a baseball season.

For those who clearly have never met a baseball player:

Prohibit the taking of omens, and do away with superstitious doubts. Then, until death itself comes, no calamity need be feared.

Yeah, good luck with that one.

Notes from the free Kindle version of The Art of War, available here.

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Sun Tzu had in mind Wade Boggs with that last one, then Wade Boggs rode on a horse around the stadium and received Sun Tzu’s respect.