When Michael Lewis revealed the tactics of Oakland Athletic’s baseball team in his book Moneyball, he opened the eyes of sports teams and businesses to how data and analytics can produce results, despite small budgets.
Prior to the book’s release 20 years ago, baseball sides would typically rely on scouts who were experienced in watching the game to pick up talent. They would consider batting average statistics to determine whether a player was worth signing – a view Oakland’s general manager Billy Beane thought was outdated and overrated.
Instead, this innovative club found data such as slugging percentage a better indicator of quality – and cheaper to obtain on the market than the other over-analysed indicators at the time.
The resulting success of that team and the book’s release changed the way sports clubs such as Liverpool FC valued sabermetrics (the empirical analysis of baseball statistics) and how businesses looked at data to improve efficiency and performance.
“Forget baseball, Moneyball was about how we misjudge and misvalue people,” Lewis said at a recent SAS Innovate conference in Orlando, Florida.
“It came from the business world’s appreciation of the scientific method in a place where science doesn’t usually intrude.”
The genesis for the book, Lewis said, came from a trip to the baseball club where he was considering a different article idea. He noted that the players in the dressing room didn’t look particularly athletic. “They looked more like… well, data analysts” he laughed.
When he mentioned the variety of body shape in front of him to Beane, it was then that he revealed the team’s analytics secret.
“They were using information to get below the surface of the appearance of a person and what their value is on the team,” he said.
“Data was enabling you to get to the true value of a human being. Twenty years ago, that was revolutionary in baseball. Now, Moneyball would be boring because every team is run by data.”
It wasn’t just the sports world that took note of this lesson in underappreciation, however. He was recently told in conversation with Todd Park, entrepreneur and former chief technology officer of the United States, that he discovered it was the person six levels down in an organisation that actually knew how to solve problems and answer the big questions.
“The person who often knows the answer is low down the organisation,” Lewis said. “But because they don’t have status, all the important people want to speak.”
In was this thought process that he believes contributed to the United States’ relative mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, despite being in one of the better positions for such an outbreak.
“One of the reasons was not knowing who was best equipped with disease outbreak,” he said. “You can’t think of that person as an important person. There was expertise that we just didn’t unearth.”
When the dust settled after Moneyball’s publication, Lewis got a call from Billy Beane, bracing himself after revealing to the world the club’s secrets for success.
“He said, ‘My mother’s going to be upset – you had me swearing so much in that book.’ I said: ‘You should be upset about your secrets being revealed to the world.’ He was sure no one was going to care in baseball about the book. That didn’t turn out to be true.”