Sports’ biggest rivalry: Analytics vs. data haters (or, five reasons why folks like to see the Oakland A’s lose)

They aren't jumping for data! ESPN's coverage of yet another A's playoff loss
They aren’t jumping for data! ESPN’s coverage of yet another A’s playoff loss

The concept of Moneyball is so simple and self-evident that it should never be controversial. Don’t overpay for things; and it’s possible you do, and haven’t realized it yet, because of the way you value things.   In baseball: Maybe it’s better to have two decent platoon players cover third base duties than Alex Rodriguez at $22 million a year. In your life: Maybe try Netflix instead of that $300-a-month cable bill. Where’s the disagreement?

You know, go bargain hunting. Find hidden gems.

Yet every fall, when the Oakland A’s are eliminated from the playoffs after a solid season when they don’t win the World Series, Moneyball faces yet another trial of public opinion.  Analytics aficionados close their spreadsheets and wander off muttering about random chance and how stupid the rest of the world is. “See, the A’s should have bunted more,” yell the gleeful data haters in response.

What fascinates me is the hatred, ire, and derision that accompanies this annual dance.  If you ask me, Moneyball vs. Data Hater is now the biggest rivalry in sports, easily surpassing Yankees-Red Sox (Did you see their seasons?).  Why?

I’m going to suggest five reasons.

1. False binaries. Talk to any manager worth his or her salt — in baseball or business — and they’ll tell you judging employees is a really hard job. Some of them want to pass the work off to spreadsheets and other data-driven tools. That’s folly, of course.  People’s productivity is a combination of tangible and intangible results.   Of course, we should measure how many widgets someone makes, or how many sales they close, or how many stories they write.  But there are 1,000s of other, more subtle ways people can contribute to a team.

It feels like the high priests of Moneyball hate this idea.  There’s no cell in a spreadsheet for intangibles, therefore they reject the notion. In fact, they giggle at it, as if someone had just argued the world is flat.

This is a false binary, like the idea someone can’t be good at both writing and math, or company can’t be successful and treat its employees well, or a country can’t be strong and compassionate. All good decisions are made with both the head and the heart.  Ignore one or the other, and you are moving through life fighting with one hand behind your back. Which apparently people like to do.

2. The giggling

It’s certainly possible to use both analytics and intangibles to judge athletes, employees, monthly expenses.  What I suspect the analytics fans really mean when they giggle is that they think the intangibles folks are making this mistake in reverse, and I suspect they are.  People overweight their affection for popular ballplayers, ignoring the truth that lies in the data.  That’s frustrating in the way the anti-vaccination crowd frustrates pre-med students. And you’ve got to give them that.

Click to learn more about The Restless Project
Click to learn more about The Restless Project

On the other hand, the analytics crowd often laughs the laugh of a snotty kid watching an old person fumble helplessly with a smartphone. So when that kid walks into a tree because his head is in a smartphone, well, there’s a lot of giggling on the other side.  Doesn’t help mend fences very much.

3. Dehumanizing

Let’s get this out of the way.  The “measure everything” crowd has swept through nearly all American workplaces.  Folks like Stephen Covey have made a killing selling these ideas. They seem to fit more in the 19th Century that the 21st Century, however. Sure, improving assembly line speed by adding efficiencies was brilliant!  Having people log the emails they write in a spreadsheet probably isn’t.  Instead of counting the obvious stuff, a lot of firms now try desperately to shove everything they do into some kind of counting mechanism, as if creating sales good will can be measured.  It can’t. Somewhere along the line, basic human trust, instincts, and (gah!) intangibles have to be left alone to do their thing.  Shoving people into spreadsheets is a sure-fire way to get them to hate you.

4. The false belief: If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.

There are endless stories — I’m sure you know one — about teams struggling after a popular office manager retires or gets laid off. Why? She was sometimes the only person who made coming into the office tolerable.

There is a creeping, sinister concept invading Western culture which suggests that if you can’t measure it, it’s not important. This is not only dehumanizing, but it’s actually contrary to the concepts of Moneyball. After all, finding hidden value in small differences *requires* that you turn over every rock looking for it.  Under some of those rocks you’ll find “mystery ingredients,” which we discussed at length in our book, The Plateau Effect. Discard mystery ingredients at your own peril.

5. Class warfare

This is what I think most folks have missed about Moneyball ire. While it’s been cast as the savior of a “Little Baseball Team that Could,” it actually has another, far more sinister function now. Simple: it’s a tool for lowering wages.  I’ll talk about baseball first, then I’ll talk about the larger marketplace.

Moneyball is major league baseball’s counter-revolution to free agency.  Freed to be capitalists in the 1970s, baseball players finally had the chance to get rich off their job.  In less than two decades, players went from needing winter employment to pay their bills to routinely being multi-millionaires.  The best free agents started earning astronomical sums.  How did owners react?  By creating a brilliant scheme to devalue these big-ticket players. Never mind that the money isn’t really for on-field performance, but rather for all the revenues that star power brings. Moneyball created a downward force on wages that, while certainly not checking free agency, at least gives owners a weapon in the fight. If you doubt that, read about some contentious arbitration hearings and out just how willing owners are to tear down their own players.

Many American workers, curiously, go along with this. Why? They tend to hate overpaid athletes more than they hate just about anything else. More than racism or stagnant wages or even Bank of America. I guess it’s normal to hate rich people if you are struggling, but what’s fascinating is that folks tend to hate new rich more than old rich, and  a little rich more than a lot rich.  They often hate the players more than the owners.  And they cheer for efforts of a billionaire to pay less to a millionaire. That’s not always true, of course — who gets more disdain has varied with each baseball labor crisis, for example.  But the smartest of smarty-pants screams bloody murder every time a baseball team — in a non-salary-cap league — pays too much for a player with a substandard .OPS as if it were his or her money. Something strange is going on there.

That something strange has invaded American workplaces like a virus.  Unless you haven’t been paying attention, or unless you really, really, really hate data, you know that real American workplace wages have basically been stuck in place for two decades.  I’m examining this phenomenon in The Restless Project.  That’s why it feels like housing and health care costs are so oppressive. They are.

How has this happened? I’m not going to blame it all on Moneyball. But….

Spreadsheet wielding MBAs now routinely descend on workplaces with one idea, and I promise you it isn’t finding hidden gems. It’s finding ways to justify cost-cutting. They get paid a lot and come up with pretty formulas, but in the end what they do is pretty simple – they lay off 50-year-olds and hire 25-year-olds at half the price.  Look, that 50 year old isn’t good value. Certainly not worth twice the salary (or probably three times the health care costs). So, in the workplace, Moneyball is often easy. Sort spreadsheets by salary and cut off the top rows.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Good use of analytics at a workplace can find over-performers and reward them. But the way you hear some people explain shareholder value,  doing so would incur a lawsuit. If there’s a cheaper way to run the company this quarter, shareholders demand it. And Moneyball is one way to justify it.

It also provides cover for human resources departments and executives. It’s just like the manager who says, “Hey, you go with the lefty-lefty matchup there,” and ignores that the 22-year-old he just put on the mound in the 9th inning looked like he was about to vomit before he gave up the winning home run.

“I’m sorry,” you’ve heard.  “The data says we have to reorg you out of the company.”

So it’s not just Moneyball we hate, or the Oakland A’s, or Billy Beane, or analytics fans who love to brag about winning their fantasy leagues.  We hate the way our world is changing.  I think that’s partly why people like watching the A’s lose every year. We’re relieved that baseball still has some magic left in it, that we aren’t all numbers — not yet, anyway.

The irony is that bunting and stealing were the original Moneyball. You have probably heard somewhere that baseball is special because it is so democratic. Every player gets his or her chance at bat, equally.  That’s certainly not true in basketball (I’m looking at you, Carmelo Anthony).  This makes baseball subject to all kinds of delightful surprises, as anyone who’s ever seen a little league game would agree.

When your team is playing the big bashing team full of heavy hitters and a dominant pitcher, you resort to one tried-and-true tactic. You play the pest game.  You play small ball. You bunt. You steal. You disrupt the big guys’ rhythm; you confuse their pitcher. You seize momentum. You do everything you can to maximize the value you have. You play Moneyball. And often, underdog teams catch the big guys by surprise and win.   This is why a 5-foot-6 light-hitting second baseman can be as important as a 6-foot-six slugger. That’s what makes baseball beautiful. That’s what makes the sport part of American mythology.

Moneyball shouldn’t kill this spirit, it should be its champion. And in fact, it was. I played baseball well enough to be around pro scouts in my teens and early twenties, and the most accurate part of Moneyball (the movie) is the way old-time scouts behaved. Yup, it’s true – if you had a hot girlfriend or threw 95 mph in high school, they wanted you. Otherwise they were busy eating hot dogs.  Moneyball disrupted this fat and lazy system and gave guys like Nick Swisher a chance. And that’s fantastic.

Americans should embrace anything that levels the playing field and gives the little guy a bigger chance.  It doesn’t. Why?

Some of it is earth-is-flat stuff, surely. But I think the real reason is that many of us have seen data analytics be co-opted by corporations as an excuse to treat us like numbers. We hate this for reasons so deep we could never put them into words. So instead, like Cubs fans who scapegoat Steve Bartman, we scapegoat Billy Bean. And Michael Lewis. And anyone who dismisses intangibles in the people we love.

So, we think, “Run, Kansas City Royals, run!  Show once again that the little things, that the little people, matter.”  Hold off those big, soulless databases for one more season.

But back to false binaries. Data and souls can coexist. Stealing bases and home runs both matter. There’s no failsafe rule to say bunts are always better, or always stupid.  And sometimes, you just go for it, data be dammed. Billy Beane traded his cleanup hitter for a rent-a-pitcher this year, just to pitch that one game last night, and he failed.  Sometimes you act on a hunch, you have to.

A sociologist said to me recently that the reason people hate sociology is its research requires massive macro sample sizes, which are all but useless in the micro of day-to-day life.  Put elegantly: Sociologists are looking at an entire season, but your life is really just one at-bat. I don’t know about you, but I’m using anything I can to help me get a hit in my at-bat. Data, hunches, a veteran’s advice, a rookie’s gumption. Anything. Even if I have to bunt.

Sign up for Bob Sullivan’s free email newsletter

Don’t miss a post. Sign up for my newsletter

About Bob Sullivan 1600 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.