“Is sabermetrics ruining baseball, Billy Beane?”
In a surreal and thrilling moment, I asked the man himself that very question last Thursday night. BioCatch hosted The Oakland A’s Executive Vice President in a special online event for our customers, partners, and some (hopefully) future customers. And to his credit Beane, the main character of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and the blockbuster movie starring Brad Pitt, was defiant and unapologetic.
For the uninitiated, the perceived demise of what was once America’s pastime has had baseball purists lamenting for years.
Sabermetrics, the mathematical and statistical approach to the game, which Beane adopted as the managerial philosophy of the Oakland Athletics in the late 1990’s, has revolutionized how teams select and value players and make in-game managerial decisions. Beane built a winning team in a small market by identifying undervalued players and optimizing their use. At a time when teams valued players who looked like superstar athletes and hit home runs, Beane and his team scoured the data to find hidden value. He found players who may have had physical drawbacks, but also had the plate discipline to draw walks and run-up opposing starters’ pitch counts. Those behaviors and characteristics that Beane valued won the A’s 102 games in 2002 and a division title, despite having lost three all-star players to free-agency during the previous off-season. Six more division titles would follow.
Eventually the rest of Major League Baseball caught up with Beane’s approach. A game once run by former players and career scouts is today heavily influenced, if not dominated, by a meritocracy of statisticians and economists (among other disciplines). Beane pointed-out his protege Farhan Zaide. Zaide was born in Canada of Pakistani descent, raised in The Phillippines, and achieved his PhD in economics at MIT and UC Berkeley. He is now President of Baseball Operations for The San Francisco Giants.
But in the intervening years the pace of play has slowed, games are running longer, run totals have declined, and attendance is down almost 14% since 2007. And MLB fans trend older than other major sports, with an average age of 57. An avid Boston sports fan, I frequently hear sports radio hosts lamenting that ‘the nerds are ruining baseball’. And to a degree, I agree with this criticism.
Look, data analytics have revolutionized many, if not most, industries over the past two decades. Billy Beane, a national treasure, is an ambassador of data innovation because he had the vision and fortitude to be first in a highly visible industry. Meanwhile, similar thinking has also reshaped agriculture, real estate and property management, telcos, healthcare, and countless other industries. You’ll find lesser-known transformative figures in nearly every industry; many having brought even greater benefits to their investors, to their customers, and society. A great many BioCatch customers will attest, having harnessed behavioral data to transform their organizations’ cybersecurity and fraud prevention practices.
In answering my provocative question, Beane cited the phenomena of sports radio, sports cable networks, and sports analytics websites. Every decision he makes is analyzed and discussed (if not argued and criticized), and fans (particularly the younger ones) have access to the same data he has. That data, those analytics, those discussions (or arguments) are now just as much a part of the game as the game on the field. And while Beane didn’t mention them, fantasy sports and online betting have also become elemental in the sports industry.
There’s no turning back. Failing to follow the data would undermine both the product on the field and the evolving fan experience. In 2019 MLB achieved record revenues, despite the perceived decline. The questions the talk radio hosts don’t seem to be asking are, ‘What are the upward trending revenue channels?’ and ‘What will it take to engage and delight whomever is opening their wallets in those channels?’ In not so many words, Beane seemed to indicate that MLB is continuing to follow the data, rather than talk radio hosts.
And that’s not to say following data should excuse ignoring core customers. MLB has taken to experimentation during its Covid-seasons to address pace-of-play issues; including 7-inning games on double-header days and putting a runner on 2nd base to start extra innings. Alas, the data points to fans not liking either experiment enough to make them permanent. However, a universal designated hitter (DH) rule may be coming next.
I hope that sharing our time with a data innovator (who’s also a cultural icon) was as fun and inspiring for the 60-or-so data innovators who fight fraud every day as it was for me. At BioCatch we constantly look to inspire new ideas and opportunities for harnessing the power of behavioral data. If you have ideas that might ignite inspiration, please share.