Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Opening Day (Part 2)

To help me get ready for the upcoming baseball season, I recently purchased the 2008 Baseball Prospectus, an annual almanac of analysis and predictions from the folks who brought us 21st century metrics like VORP (Value Over Replacement-level Player) and BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play).

I got to thinking about the evolving perception of analytics in a baseball context. While mentioning those metrics at the water cooler of 2008 might get you some confused looks, you're probably not in danger of being stuffed in a locker, because analytics have begun to earn respect from a wider baseball audience. How, exactly, did this happen? Off the top of my head, I came up with four possible drivers of this change (not mutually exclusive):

  1. Boil the frog slowly – If On-Base Percentage really correlates better with runs scored than batting average, well, who am I to argue? And if that's true, then maybe I ought to listen to some of your other ideas...

  2. Myth-busting – Some assertions have been controversial (e.g. “There’s no such thing as a clutch player”), but maybe they’re plausible and interesting enough to get attention

  3. Case studies – Michael Lewis’ best-seller Moneyball and the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox (World Series winners) have shined a public light on organizations that succeeded with analytics-friendly leadership

  4. Audience evolution – People in general have better quantitative reasoning skills than they did, say, 20 years ago, and so are more open to evidence-based insights

Here’s my question, and it’s not about baseball: In your organization and mine, a major barrier to extracting value from analytics is a rejection of the methods and implications from (for lack of a better term) the “old school” crowd. What’s the best way to make the case for analytics in your organization? Take on a single cherished nugget of conventional wisdom and prove it wrong? Or is that too risky? Is it better to plug along cautiously, incrementally adding some objectivity and trickling new metrics into the soup until the organization is ready? Or is it the Moneyball approach – find one manager willing to try the Kool-Aid and make something happen?

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