BOSTON — The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference celebrated its 10th anniversary by marking the event that thrust sports analytics into the mainstream: the 2003 release of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which focused on the Oakland A’s data-driven approach to Major League Baseball’s 2002 amateur draft.
Lewis joined a panel Friday with former Oakland A’s executive and current chief strategy officer of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns Paul DePodesta and Boston Red Sox Senior Adviser Bill James, whose Bill James Baseball Abstract is widely credited with creating the field of sabermetrics. The panel, moderated by ESPN Senior Writer Jackie MacMullan, reflected on the impact of the book and data analytics on professional sports.
“I had never written a word about sports, so it was completely implausible to my publisher. I didn’t even want to bring it up,” Lewis said. “I stared watching the Oakland A’s … and noticed that left fielder was making $4 million and the right fielder was making 150 grand when salaries were exploding, and I wondered how [angry] the right fielder was when the left fielder dropped a fly ball. I thought maybe there would be a story about class warfare inside of a baseball team. So I started watching it that way, looking at the money on the field.
“I thought I was going to write a magazine piece,” Lewis added. “And it morphed into … what were they doing to get so much more out of their money than everyone else? I probably spent six to eight weeks with them before I realized that this was more than a magazine piece, this was a book.”
“When Michael first came to spring training in 2002, he was writing an article for the New York Times Magazine,” said DePodesta. “Someone mentioned that we had seven [draft] picks in the top 40, and [he] said, ‘Do you mind if I sit in the draft room?’ And [A’s general manager] Billy [Beane] said, “That’s fine, as long as you go sit in the back and don’t say anything.
“That day, in the draft room, it was the most emotionally charged draft I had ever been a part of,” DePodesta continued. “At the end of the day, I was in the back of the room getting some food, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ And [Lewis] looked at me right away and said, ‘This is too rich. This isn’t an article. This is a book.’ And I turned around and walked straight to Billy and said, ‘Time to clam up. He’s writing a book.’ ”
“Bill James got me through this book,” Lewis said. “In every press box, people would be watching the game, and I would be reading the Abstracts. “The intellectual substructure of the book is all him. It all comes out of his stuff. He showed me just how exciting baseball could be made on the page.”
MacMullan asked James how he devised formulas that measured actions on a baseball field that had been considered difficult or impossible to quantify.
“What I was doing was just trying to get from a question to an answer,” James said. “And in order to get from a question to an answer, we had to create a structured way of looking at the problem. It turned out that the structured ways of looking at the problem were very useful to people in the game. But I didn’t have any understanding of that at the time.
“I did the projections for my own benefit,” James said. “I never really thought about what use this would be to baseball professionals.”
“Most of what you read or heard about baseball was coming out of the mouths of people who already knew,” Lewis said. “A lot of industries are this way, but baseball especially – people who talk about baseball know about baseball. But what was coming out of [James’] very learned treatises, underneath it, was, ‘I don’t know. We don’t know. There are things we can still learn.’ Approaching this thing that we all know, and define ourselves by how well we know it, in a spirit of inquiry yielded these riches.”
MacMullan said that many of the sports executives she has covered are former players who often are looking for themselves in prospects.
“What [Billy] had to learn to do was not to trust his intuitive judgment,” Lewis said, “to defer to evidence and data. And that’s the hard part. It’s very hard to acknowledge that you don’t know what you think you know. By the time I came along, they were so far down the road that they weren’t going to make any decision unless there was data to back it up.”
DePodesta said the lack of major-league caliber players produced by the draft evidenced a need for a different approach.
“Back then, the baseball draft was 50 rounds and the average draft produced one everyday major-league player,” DePodesta said. “Billy said, ‘Can you imagine what would happen if we just got two? And we did it two or three years in a row? It would fundamentally change our franchise.’ So we started talking about what we can put in place just to stack the odds in our favor. So that was the backdrop leading up to the 2002 draft. We still knew we were going to be wrong most of the time. Even if we were wrong 48 out of 50, or 47 out of 50, we would be perfectly happy.”
The discussion wrapped up with a question about recent comments by Hall of Fame pitcher Rich “Goose” Gossage, who lamented the influence of “nerds” who never played the game.
“That’s what changed since 2002,” James said. “You used to have to pay attention to those guys. Now you can just ignore them.”
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