I watched the movie Moneyball this week and enjoyed it. I’ve heard of the book and avoided reading it due to my own biases.
I’m a skeptic of statistical analysis, which often (even in the movie) gets confused with science. My statistics-loving friends raved about how the book showed just how valid and effective the use of statistics is, even in a sport.
I see this confusion and misapplication of statistics as science in everything from how we run our schools, climatology, economics, fitness and diets and how we run our businesses and other organizations. I’ve observed enough attempts at “scientific management” in my career to know that the use of it does not guarantee success — and sometimes can make things worse off (it certainly didn’t help in the housing crisis).
But, based on what I saw in the movie, this isn’t quite the case of baseball science that many people believe it is. I realize movies simplify the story, but what I saw in the movie is more in line with what I have seen to be effective in real life: focusing on meaningful facts over biases.
It wasn’t the use of statistics that improved the performance of the team. Rather, it was the use of meaningful performance and output measures to overcome deep-seated biases in the coaching the recruiting staff.
This is demonstrated in one scene of the movie when the team’s talent scouts are discussing potential new players to add to the team. This is a good-looking kid. He has a nice swing. Other teams like him. I like this kid.
I’ve seen this in real life all too often. I’ve seen business programs die and good talent passed over for promotion because of similar biases. Usually the bias is as simple as: That’s not what I’d do or That person doesn’t do the things the way I do them. Very rarely is the true performance of the project or person even discussed.
The key insight of the statistician in Moneyball wasn’t the use of statistics, or sabermetrics, per se, but in using meaningful output measures to trump the biases. Baseball fans want wins. Wins come from scoring and scoring comes from getting on base. Good defense is a must, but not quite as important as scoring. So, instead of worrying about whether this was a good-looking kid, they’d worry more about whether he could get on base. Facts trumped biases.