Taxonomies, biology and baseball: The need for fieldwork



Editor's Summary

Between baseball and biology, a surprising point of conjunction is taxonomy. A baseball afficionado's proposed three categories for players in spring training could serve as a start for an expanded classification generalizable to all sports. At the same time, a biologist laments what seems to be the abandonment of biological taxonomic classification field studies for pure lab work. The common point is the value of taxonomies for facilitating understanding of the field, whether biology or baseball, from a broad perspective and on a detailed level. Taxonomies define a conceptual space, clarify groupings and identify relationships between concepts, and can help reveal trends and prompt insights for a domain.

Baseball and biology are not commonly found in the same conceptual space. Neither do you often find taxonomy associated with baseball, but these connections have been made. Earlier this year, Grant Bisbee, editor of Baseball Nation, digressed into the arcane as he lamented the challenges of spring training, or the “He's in the Best Shape of His Life” season [1]. Spring training (which traditionally runs from mid-February to the first week in April) is the time of year baseball writers must assess the prospects for the coming season, and clichés and hyperbole reign. The dubious practice of evaluating the physical condition of players runs rampant as spring training begins. With tongue in cheek, Bisbee tries to shape a taxonomy to classify this spring ritual. His would be the taxonomy of the “In the Best-Shape Stories.”

Bisbee suggests three categories: “Player X Got in Shape,” “Fixed Eyesight” and “A Serious, Previously Undiscovered Affliction.” He compiles representative stories for each classification. He is somewhat skeptical that a player could be in the “best shape of his life” as a result of some of the reported training regimes. Can someone really put on 18 pounds of muscle in the off-season? Legally? Shouldn't vision examinations be a regular part of baseball teams' operations? After all, they're paying millions for their players' hand-eye coordination.

Are there baseball taxonomies already out there that could help Mr. Bisbee classify his apocryphal collection? An online search of baseball along with taxonomy returns a million items more or less – plus or minus – give or take – a few hundred thousand. Not much help there. At the very least, Bisbee could expand the classification to include other sports and how each portrays their mystical, preseason rituals.

And biology is experiencing a potentially season-disrupting trend. Tom Spears, reporting for the Ottawa Citizen, filed the story, “Taxing times for taxonomy.” [2] On a more serious note, Mr. Spears chronicles the demise of field-based taxonomic study in biology in favor of lab work. Computers and DNA studies have relegated classification to the closet. While the work done in laboratories is vital to the field, biologist Ernest Small (of the National Research Council Canada) is quoted, “How can you do a study of forests without knowing the trees?” The reverse is also true; you can't really study a tree without understanding its forest. Commenting on his lab-centric colleagues, Dr. Small laments “the lack of knowledge of what plants and animals make up our world.” Spears goes on to write, “We need to understand whole species, not just genes, if we are to solve the problems of agriculture, fisheries, insect pests, ecology and the spread of diseases.”

Taxonomies are central to understanding a field as a whole, whether biology or sports. And they are critical to understanding individual members of the taxonomy. The taxonomy of plants and animals tells you about the relationships and characteristics of its members. The child, or narrower node in a taxonomy, inherits the properties of the parent, or broader node. Reviewing an entire hierarchical branch and its relationship to other branches conveys the properties, similarities and differences of branches. This knowledge can lead to sleuthing out meaningful trends and can help explain interactions or identify possible interactions. Taxonomy for organizing sports articles might reveal interesting groupings and trends. Are there more injuries being reported this season? Are there geographic trends or team trends? Applying graphical analysis visualizes the content in ways that enhance spotting of trends [3].

What these two diverse stories have in common besides the core theme of taxonomies is the need for hands-on, down-and-dirty fieldwork. Sports writers need to see players perform during preseason to really assess their fitness. Biologists can learn a great deal about a species by looking through a microscope, but they can't really understand behavior that way. They need to observe firsthand. When the field data and lab data are gathered, placing it in context gives it meaning and leads to insights. Taxonomy is ideal for grouping data in meaningful ways, and that can lead to insights. It can also lead you back to the data at some future point. Taxonomy is often focused on organizing content for search to make search easy, fast, reliable and replicable. Taxonomy also defines a domain or conceptual space. It can help you find your way and keep you from getting lost. Equally important, it provides meaning to the conceptual space you're wandering through. Spring is here – enjoy the first Danaus plexippus of the season and know it has a genus and a tribe and a family and more [4, 5]. Play ball!