That's one thing I've always loved about baseball, though I never was very good at playing the sport. I'll still take the constant action of basketball or the hard-hitting exhilaration of football over a lazy trip to the ballpark any day. But I have always followed baseball, for the stats -- its data.
Baseball's data is what lets us compare one era to another -- Babe Ruth's greatness to Hank Aaron's. It's why the "Steroid Era" in baseball delivered such a major-league curve ball -- so to speak -- for fans. That aside, it's where you find baseball's very best stories.
Case in point: Once upon a time, baseball scouts looked for maybe three key qualities in a prospective recruit: big hitting, top speed, and superhero-quality arm strength. Of course, if you were a pitcher, your slider would count for something, too.
But today those scouts look at data, to impressive effect.
They have Billy Beane to thank. Back in 2002, as general manager of the Oakland As, Beane faced a dilemma. With the draft approaching, every team wanted the same players, and those players commanded salaries that only the most well-endowed teams could afford to pay.
Beane's team wasn't one of them. So he decided to try something new: he looked to the data. Taking a quantitative approach, Beane found that most winning teams didn't have the fastest pitchers and best hitters, but had the players with the highest on-base percentages and pitchers who forced lots of ground-outs. So he brought on players to fit that bill. And the team he pulled together delivered just as many wins in the 2002 season as the Yankees (103, if you're curious), with a third of the payroll ($41 million vs. $125 million). Indeed, for a number of years, the A's had the lowest payroll with the second-best winning record; talk about ROI!
The analytical methodology Beane adopted -- Sabermetrics, it's called -- wasn't for every team. The Yankees wouldn't be the Yankees without the big names and colorful characters that keep New York fans enthralled. But even the Yankees (and the Red Sox, and the Padres, and just about every other MLB team) now have a "Sabermetric analyst" on staff. Of course they haven't fired their traditional scouts, but they have incorporated a new, complementary, quantitative approach to hiring the best players. (Hmm, complementary metrics to drive ROI -- interesting concept.)
(There is evidence that the broad adoption of new analytics actually leveled the playing field: The As have had a rough few years.)
Still, Beane's story is a great one. (You can get the long version from Michael Lewis's excellent "Moneyball," or the film due out in September starring Brad Pitt.) It's also a familiar one. After all, one of the things I enjoy best about what we do is teasing stories out of data to make advertising more effective for marketers and more relevant to viewers.
In television today, we have easier and better access to quality data than ever. We also have technology to mix and match our metrics across any number of platforms to find the audiences that marketers want. For instance, two brands increased ROI from their TV ad dollars 25% and 35% respectively when they changed their creative and media-buying based on data-driven recommendations. These are the kind of results that Beane himself might recognize.
So let's take a new approach to "winning" the game. I guarantee we'll get better results than we do with plain old "traditional scouting."