The New Moneyball: How Historical Analysis Might Be Used by Teams to Get Ahead

This post has been updated with new content on July 1, 2014

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana

“It’s like deja vu all over again.” Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra

In some ways, I wish I had been born a decade or two later. If I had been, I think I could have been the General Manager for my beloved Philadelphia Phillies (or at least the assistant general manager). About thirteen years ago, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) in the movie Moneyball based on the book written by Michael Lewis, started to think a different way about the game of baseball. Instead of thinking the same way the game had been thought for the past century, Beane began instituting advanced analytics in measuring how best to put a team on the field that would produce wins with a limited payroll. The success of the A’s, Beane’s team who are leading the American League this year incidentally, and the extraoridinarily well written book Moneyball by Michael Lewis, pushed many leaders of sports teams to think similarly.

Today it is not uncommon for GM’s like Sam Hinkie of my woeful Sixers franchise to take Beane’s ideas for baseball and apply them to basketball. Hinkie was the darling of last Thursday’s NBA draft process because he has used a disciplined and patient approach to acquiring assets (affordable and potentially talented players, along with future high draft picks). For Hinkie, and folks like his mentor Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey, the surest way to a championship is a few years of futility and a lot of painful losses. Such a process, while excruciating for fans, ensures salary cap space, roster flexibility and those valuable assets: high draft picks, foreign player rights, and tradeable expiring contracts. Simulateously, these highly criticized “gurus” are analyzing player statistical data with new algorithms, derivatives, and hokus pokus that only the valedictorians of our classes understood or cared about to create meaning and a way forward.

Which gets me back to my generational disappointment. You see, I did not see myself as being good at Math. I did not have the benefit of Carol Dweck’s Mindset. I didn’t realize that though I struggled in Math it was because “I wasn’t good at it ‘yet.'” I did, however, love sports and I imagine if I was born twenty years later, I might have been going to college with Moneyball on my mind. It may have helped me relate to Math more. Maybe I would have loved Economics more and would not have been scared away by all the Math in Econ if I knew that it could be applied to Sports Management.

I did, however, love History. I majored in History during my undergraduate work and even had a graduate fellowship in History before making a career change to coach College Basketball. (Man, I wish I had Beane’s cronies’ metrics when I was trying to recruit good players to Montgomery, WV with 3.5 total scholarships to offer for the whole team). Incidently, one “academic discipline” used to lure talented players to my school West Virginia Tech before I got there there was allegedly “Geography.” Well, really, the supposition that school systems were so bad at teaching Geography that high schoolers couldn’t tell the difference between West Virginia (Tech) and Virginia (Tech). One of the lores commonly held at WVU Tech was that the best player ever to play there, Sedale Threatt (Sixers, Bulls Lakers, Rockets) thought he was signing his letter of intent for the Virginia Tech Hokies of the Metro Conference in Division I, not the Golden Bears of WVU Tech of the West Virginia Conference in the lowly NAIA at that time. Once he had signed, no one had the heart to tell him his mistake until he was on campus for classes in 1979.

I bring up my love for History because I am wondering when the use of Beane’s Moneyball style of analytics will run its course in sports and give way to some other discipline’s dominance. As the movie Moneyball suggested, during the past ten years there has been a tension between traditional scouting that used relationships at the local level, live viewing of games, and “gut instincts” of seasoned scouts versus the unemotional statistics-based biases of Beane’s boys. These boys were typically young, newly graduated Economics and Math Majors from the Ivys.

I bring it up because I’m wondering what the next generation of sports analysts might look like and pondering if educational institutions like ours might be able to get ahead of the curve in training young men and women to be the next generation of decision makers in sports. Is it possible the the next strand of sports analytics will be looking for excellent historians?

One could make the case that using data like OPS (On Base Percentage and Slugging statistic widely used by sabermetrics to value batting prowess) might give way to historians looking at similarly situated teams from earlier eras. Could my Phillies find historical cause and effect elements in the Big Red Machine’s foundation in the 1970’s and build a dynasty similarly? Could the woeful Astros of today take the history of the Cardinals’ storied franchise and practice the same empire building? (Ben Reiter recently wrote an excellent piece in SI about them doing such at Astro-Matic It certainly seems possible. Afterall, franchise decisions catalogued over long periods of time offer glimpses to the future in the same way one might look at the successes and failures of peace processes in the Middle East. As 20th Century Pragmatist Philosopher George Santayana famously penned: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” so should teams remember the history of the game to avoid going down a woeful road.

After about 5 wonderful years and World Series Championship in 2008, my Phillies appear to be at the crossroads many teams face. Aging stars with hefty contracts no longer produce like they did 5 years ago when they were on cost efficient salaries. They appear to be like the millions of our citizens on FDR’s Social Security doll, paid for past services rendered though not capable or desiring to work at the levels they previously worked. Historians can debate the equity and fairness of offering a nationwide pension plan like SS (though it was never really intended as such). However, there is no getting around the fact that SS and other entitlements make the United States as ineffective and stuck for the long term as my current Phillies.

Once could make the case the Phillies situation may be even worse. At least China has been willing to swoop in and buy American debt obligations. China doesn’t play in the MLB. So they won’t be buying up what amounts to long-term disability payments to dear players like Ryan Howard who gave up his Achilles heel to previous playoff battles but who is now the metaphorical Achilles heel of the Phillies future plans. They can’t trade him and they can’t develop a talented Darin Ruf behind him.

Could the Phillies have seen what was coming? Could they have sold off the likes of Howard and Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels in 2009 before the crash? They only needed to look at American Economic History two years before when both the stock market and the housing bubble buried Americans in the Great Recession. It is safe to say we are out of the recession now seven years later with the Dow at 17,000 and homes in FL, CA, NV and others flying through the market, but what a “long, strange trip its been.” Here’s to hoping it won’t take seven years for the Phillies to rebuild their market share. FDR said “all we have to fear, is fear itself.” I’m fearful of much more like 20,000 fans or less in the stands, 60 win seasons, and futility rivaling an Post WWII Eastern European Economy.

In the meantime, I’ll be studying ways to help students look at these trends and design a better future. While technology and mathematical algorithms might be the current trend, it would be wise for us not to forget history as a means of finding meaning and preparing for the future. Training our students as historians may also prepare them for careers in lucrative endeavors like sports entities.

If you still believe that sports are not one of the most important industries in America and the world, you may have your head buried in the sand. Perhaps you still have some quaint notion of college sports as the attractive amateurism of the 1950’s. The O’Bannon, et al case versus the NCAA that is currently going on in Oakland, California is likely to be as much a landmark case in postsecondary education as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (affirmative action). If the verdict goes as most believe it will, there will be untold economic implications. Historians may be needed to create meaning in what will be a Wild West of athlete freedoms. They will be needed to liken the current scenario to previous scenarios and build a framework for how to move forward. As they create meaning, they will create a new paradigm. As they do this, they will also create immense career value for themselves. 20140701-091054-33054588.jpg

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