[Image courtesy of Lester’s Legends]
Today marks the release of Moneyball, a new movie starring Brad Pitt and based on the brilliant book of the same name by Michael Lewis. Both the book and the movie follow Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, who commits to building his team’s roster by using data to augment (and occasionally overrule) the recommendations of traditional scouts.
Moneyball is a terrific story that uses baseball to explore the competition between businesses with different resources (i.e. “big” vs. “small” market teams) as well as the struggles any new idea must undergo to gain acceptance and overcome the weight of tradition.
But the real star of the story is someone who barely gets any play in the movie: Bill James.
James is widely regarded throughout baseball as the father of the stats-based analysis known as “sabermetrics.” What’s remarkable is that James had no formal connection to baseball; he was simply someone who loved the game yet had the kind of mind (and personality) that was unwilling to accept many of the game’s traditional “truths.” This post by writer Joe Posnanski is an excellent introduction to the man – especially his hunger to learn more about the game and, more importantly, his commitment to using data as part of the journey. Here’s Posnanski:
Take one question in particular: Do great and exciting pitchers like Nolan Ryan draw more fans than others? Why that question? Who really cares? But I think that question was a particular breakthrough for Bill James because it seemed so obvious (OF COURSE Nolan Ryan outdrew other pitchers) and it was relatively easy to answer. All he had to do was look up the attendance when Ryan pitched and when others on the Astros pitched. This wasn’t exactly EASY in 1977 — it was long before personal computers and Retrosheet.org, so he had to go through the box scores he had clipped out of The Sporting News — but it was relatively easy. And what he found was: No. Nolan Ryan absolutely did not draw more than other pitchers. He didn’t draw more than his Angels teammates like Don Kirkwood in 1976. And in the Astrodome in Houston, he was outdrawn by Vern Ruhle and Joe Niekro in 1980.
Well, if people could get something that simple wrong, they could get just about anything wrong. It wasn’t in Bill’s nature to trust conventional wisdom anyway, but the more he looked at the box scores — the more he hours he spent with the evidence — the more he came to believe that so much of what people said automatically about baseball was silly, misleading, incomplete.
Over time, Bill James literally changed the game. A whole generation of new GMs have built their teams in part on the strength of sabermetric analysis and seen their teams’ fortunes improve as a result. And while the battle between statistics and scouting continues, every day the two worlds come closer together as people realize “the way we’ve always done it” and “the new way to do it” aren’t as incompatible as they thought.
The world of elections needs someone like Bill James.
On this blog, we have already discussed in great (excruciating?) detail the growing availability of data to evaluate election administration. We have seen how our traditional ways of looking at elections (i.e., turnout, partisanship) are problematic in a world where accuracy, security and cost-effectiveness are increasingly important. What the field needs is someone who will wade into the rising tide of evidence (and collect their own if necessary), identify the misconceptions and show us all the path to a newer, better way.
I get flak occasionally for using the term “election geek” to describe people who immerse themselves in the minutiae of election administration – but somewhere out there, I hope, are one or more “election geeks” whose passion for the field, mixed with skepticism for the inertia of tradition, will change election administration the same way Bill James transformed baseball.
If it’s you, reader, all I ask is that you invite me to your movie premiere.