Monday, October 4, 2021

When the Stat Nerds Took Over Baseball

By Brian Wallace

One of my sports obsessions and favorite films of all-time is the movie Moneyball. (Sad to say, it just left Amazon Prime Video for those that wanted to check it out after reading this.) Without spoiling the concept of the film, the general premise of the story is so interesting to me because it completely revolutionized the game of baseball to look at run production and getting on base instead of players looking the part — in short, using data over intuition that teams relied on the gut reaction of scouts for 150 years.

What Moneyball did changed the game so much that other sports followed baseball. The 2002 Oakland A's had an incredible 20-game winning streak and a win/loss record second to only the New York Yankees. The thing that was even more impressive to many was that they were able to do this for a fraction of the payroll of that of the Yankees.

A favorite quote of mine from the movie said by Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane as played by Brad Pit: "It's hard not to be romantic about baseball." I find this particular quote fascinating as it hones in on the raw emotion that baseball brings out of you, yet he and his Assistant General Manager are literally changing the game through their practice of sports analytics.

While I admittedly don't have as much time as I used to in my youth to watch baseball games all the way through (but I did have a chance to see my Cincinnati Reds in person this season), I am drawn to the allure of sports statistics. Guess I'm not the only one when you consider that the Sloan Conference — the nexus of sports franchises and data scientists.

Still, it took a lot of bravery to face head on the massive payrolls of franchises such as the New York Yankees for comparatively cents on the dollar by putting a team focused run producing team on the field as they referred to in the movie as an "island of misfit toys." Players that normally would have been excluded for body type, age, and other distractions such as Chad Bradford pitching the ball in a strange delivery made such players otherwise overlooked by other teams.

Across all sports and businesses, there is a temptation of thinking with our gut. It's dangerous to only go with our intuition without analyzing data we may be biased against looking through. Confirmation biases abound in organizations — those seeking a self-fulfilling prophecy to be "right" may cherry pick data.

Now that sports analytics have been released to the world, it's difficult to imagine not making data-driven decisions going forward. We don't have to diminish our love of the game, though. You too can make more data-driven decisions instead of simply trusting your gut.

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