On Moneyball and the Importance of Data

November 19, 2011
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At the recent IBM Information On Demand Conference, keynote speaker Michael Lewis discussed some of the principles behind his best-selling book, Moneyball. In his superb and compelling text, Lewis describes how Billy Beane (general manager of the Oakland Athletics, an American baseball team), successfully used data-oriented strategies to compete against teams with payrolls two or three times as high.

To be sure, Lewis and Beane (also in attendance) were not addressing the baseball intelligentsia at the conference. (OK, maybe a few wannabes and baseball geeks.) They were talking to information management (IM) professionals from a wide array of industries. Yet, the principles in the book could not have been more apropos to the audience:

  • Information matters now more than ever.
  • Information has never been easier to obtain and manipulate.
  • Any lead or advantage gleaned from the effective use of information is fleeting. It isn’t that hard to employ a copycat strategy.
  • People often refuse to adopt information-based strategies later in life because they know what’s best.

Lewis’ last point about change-averse baseball old-timers–and people in general–is particularly salient. For all of the pontificating I do on this site about data quality, intelligent information management, and the like, it all comes down to people. Human beings make decisions about what–and what not–to do.

Limited Means

Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. It’s interesting to note that Beane had to rely upon unconventional means to field a competitive baseball team. In other words, he did not have the luxury of a big budget that would have allowed him to spend the big money on traditionally valued players. Instead, he had to develop and use new statistics, in many cases relying upon neglected but potentially valuable Sabermetrics. As Lewis explained at the conference and in the book, Beane had to look at the market for undervalued players and make intelligent bets. Paying $120 million to sign his best player at the time (Jason Giambi) was not an option. (Ten years ago, Giambi signed a 7-year $120-million deal with the New York Yankees.)

While the A’s have yet to win a championship on Beane’s watch, the team has been very competitive with limited means–especially in comparison to other small market clubs like the Pittsburgh Pirates. In fact, teams with far bigger payrolls have performed much worse.

Simon Says

The parallels between the A’s and most organizations could not be more stark. Few have unlimited means. Nearly all have to make tradeoffs between what is necessary and what is desirable. Learn from Lewis’ book and Beane’s approach to information management. Embrace data and new ways at looking at things. You may well be surprised with the results.

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