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The Science of Baseball: Brains vs. Guts

The media is ripe with the analytics vs. intuition (brains vs. guts) debate right now. Will analytics replace the expert? Will Big Data enhance or overrule human judgment? What about human ingenuity, the one-in-a-million individual, the exception, and the person who beats the odds? 

This past winter, I sat through the amazingly bad Trouble with the Curve, Clint Eastwood’s father-daughter buddy film that aimed to prove Moneyball wrong.  Even an aging scout with glaucoma can beat the cocky analytic scientist and know in his gut that the flashy high school prospect is not first round material. Of course, the punch line is that Clint’s discovery (that only an experienced scout would notice) could have been uncovered easily with videotape and analysis of the player’s mechanics. But whatever, that is Hollywood.

The Analytics Arms Race

Today many baseball teams are in a statistical arms race, and to ignore analytics could be disaster for a franchise. No team wants to overpay for an underperformer, and every team covets that diamond in the rough that comes in and makes a big difference. Budgets and talent are finite, so bringing Albert Pujols up as a rookie is better than signing him to a $254 million 10 year deal as a free agent. But as franchises greedily adopt analytics like sabermetrics, it gets more and more difficult to differentiate and be the first to find a Pujols. Analytics are quickly becoming commodities in baseball –  table stakes but not how you win.

The Complete Information Game

To win, franchises are investing in more complete information. Yet, we have to recognize that we’ll never have complete information. Infinite information comes at infinite cost. We’re all familiar with “paralysis by analysis,” where so much analysis goes into a decision that ultimately some of the analysis isn’t adding value. In other words, the extra value of that last extra bit of analysis is less than the extra cost of doing that last extra bit of analysis. This assumes that analysis produces less and less net incremental value the more you do of it, but that’s my experience, and it’s probably yours, too.

But what is too far? Today’s young athlete is a one sport kid. He settles on his sport at about ten years old, and then participates in traveling teams through high school. By the time he gets to college there is nearly a decade of well documented stats on his development. At the same time, sports medicine has developed to such a level that it is possible to evaluate the performance of an athlete down to the swing of the bat or the trajectory of a throw. It really is possible to know everything about an athlete, but perhaps miss the point. Lose sight of the late bloomer. Misunderstand that unorthodox mechanics, like a pitching style and a slight build ala Tim Lincecum, can win Cy Youngs, World Series games …  be a difference maker.

Analytic Scientist or Opinionated Scout?

So, where should a franchise invest? A team of analytic scientists, or opinionated scouts? A little of both, with plenty of integration – the scouts act as field researchers educating the analysts; the analysts help identify players for the scouts to evaluate. Since you can overthink based on numbers (WAR, VORP and BAPIP – these acronyms stand for Wins above Replacement, Value above Replacement Player and Batting Average on Balls in Play), and bias can unfairly influence gut feel (he looks good on paper, but he seems arrogant), franchises needs scientists and scouts to work in harmony. Moneyball meets Trouble with Curve.

 Mike Farrar contributed to this post.

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