Overcoming Tradition with Analytics – Baseball’s Mindshift

November 23, 2010
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Tradition is always a challenge to overcome. It reminds me of the definition of stupidity as “repeating the same mistakes and with more gusto”. A good example of overcoming tradition is with Major League Baseball’s recent voting of its American League (A.L.) Cy Young Award to the year’s best pitcher.

Winning games isn’t the only thing

Tradition is always a challenge to overcome. It reminds me of the definition of stupidity as “repeating the same mistakes and with more gusto”. A good example of overcoming tradition is with Major League Baseball’s recent voting of its American League (A.L.) Cy Young Award to the year’s best pitcher.

Winning games isn’t the only thing
There was controversy and debate this year when the voting journalists selected the Seattle Mariners’ Felix Hernandez with a landslide vote despite his perceived weak 13-12 win/loss record. Two other pitchers had win totals of 21 and 19. The journalists overcame the temptation to default the award selection to those other pitchers by equating the most wins with the best pitcher. The journalists’ reasoning considered the low batting run support the Mariners gave to Hernandez when he was on the mound. Although Hernandez’ win total was the lowest ever for the award in a non-strike season, Fernandez prevailed with other performance statistics that were overwhelming. Seattle scored only 513 runs, the fewest of any A.L. team since the designated hitter began in 1973. But Fernandez almost achieved the triple crown for pitchers by leading the A.L. league in earned run average (ERA) and innings pitched, and he was one strikeout short of the league’s leader.

With the collection of statistics paralleling the emergence of analytics in all forms in business and daily life, the journalists have shifted their mindset in determining what qualifies as “best”. They realized that a pitcher does not have full control over his record or number of wins. For example, the Mariners scored only 3.06 runs per game for Hernandez and a total of only seven runs in his 12 losses. Opponents batted only .212 against him for the season as he led the league in that category for the second straight year. He allowed fewer than seven hits per nine innings. He had 12 starts in which he allowed only two earned runs or fewer and did not win.

Fear of statistics and analytics?
For many statistics are a scary memory from their college courses that makes them nervous? “Let me just get a D and be done with this course!” But the times are a-changing. Today commonly accepted generic strategies are vulnerable as competitors can invade one’s market for customers or become a low-cost supplier. The only sustaining force is for an organization to become competent with analytics of all flavors, such as segmentation analysis or correlation analysis to understand cause-and-effect relationships. It must shift to a culture for metrics.

Tradition is a cousin to human nature’s resistance to change. People like the status quo. They typically will not change unless they feel some discomfort or dissatisfaction with the current state and are provided a vision of what a better condition or solution looks like. Both are prevalent today. Doing the same things over again, and maybe a little better, is not a winning tactic. Change is required, including the adoption of analytics-based performance management methodologies, such as strategy maps, scorecards, predictive analytics, activity-based costing, and driver based budgeting, just to name a few.

If baseball journalists can embrace analytics for insights to make better and more judicious decisions, then so can employee teams, managers and executives.