Sunday, August 28, 2005

David Leonhardt: To Play is the Thing

August 28, 2005
The New York Times

Baseball has always been the most literary of sports, but it never managed to produce an intellectual fight worthy of the term. For most of its existence, writings on the game tended toward the poetic, like John Updike's "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," a farewell to Ted Williams, or toward statistical minutiae.

This summer, however, the sport has found itself in the equivalent of a theological dispute about whether baseball is a game of mystery or of data, of statistics and analysis or of intuition and human instinct.

Like any good intellectual spat, this one involves high-brow questions and low-brow insults - in this case, dumb, narrow-minded and even unloving. It also has attracted interest from fields as far from the dugout as medicine, Hollywood and Wall Street, which find themselves grappling with the same question as baseball managers: When information can be gathered more cheaply and quickly than ever before, should people rely less on their hunches and more on numbers?

"I've been sat down and told they can give me a better way to do everything," Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and the hero of a new book celebrating the hunch, said last week, describing the statistics crowd. "They really are convinced that they can sit there and crunch out a formula that negates my power of observation."

"It's been a little irritating," La Russa added, "because there's a certain arrogance with that whole group."

It began two years ago, with the publication of "Moneyball," the Michael Lewis best seller about the Oakland A's, whose general manager, Billy Beane, used quantitative tools to keep his team near the top of its division every year, despite having less to spend than many competitors.

All the while, Beane marveled at the inanity of baseball's old ways, like judging prospects by body type instead of performance. Beane's success, and that of Lewis's book, brought even more number-crunchers into front offices, often at the suggestion of a team owner who had read "Moneyball."

Last year's World Series victory by the statistics-centric Boston Red Sox set baseball's old guard even farther back on its heels. The lessons of their championship will be enumerated next month with the publication of "Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart and Finally Won a World Series," written by the staff of Baseball Prospectus, a Web site that is to baseball's reformation what The Public Interest was to the rise of conservatism.

The traditionalists, who still dominate the scouting ranks, many front offices and the baseball media, have mounted a counterreformation this year with two books of their own. The first, "Three Nights in August," by Buzz Bissinger portrays La Russa as a master at tinkering with players' psyches.

He tries to bring out the best from an underachieving player, and he decides which pitchers should be briefed about the opposing lineup before a start, and which should simply go out and throw.

The second traditionalist text, "Scout's Honor," by Bill Shanks celebrates the scouts of Atlanta Braves, a profession that often serves as Beane's foil in "Moneyball." The Braves have won 13 straight division titles, Shanks writes, by letting their scouts find the players with the best "makeup," a baseball catch-all for hustle, attitude and heart.

Shanks is openly contemptuous of the Lewis book, writing, "the brash disregard for scouting in its truest sense as portrayed in 'Moneyball' was just as insulting to me as it was to so many scouts around the game."

Academic research, however, is pretty much on the side of statistics. Whether diagnosing patients or evaluating job candidates, human beings vastly overestimate their ability to make judgments, research shows. Numbers and analysis almost always make people better.

"There have been hundreds of papers on subjects from picking students for a school to predicting the survival of cancer patients," said Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago economist who uses sports examples in his class on decision-making. When a computer model is given the same information as an expert, the model almost always comes out on top, Thaler said.

Baseball's new analysts say that teams rely too much on instinct and received wisdom, which leads to things like the overuse of the sacrifice bunt and the drafting of high-school players.

In a speech to a group of investment bankers shortly after "Moneyball" appeared, Paul DePodesta, then Beane's deputy, called baseball a game where you were supposed to sit on your behind, "spit tobacco and nod at stupid things," borrowing a remark from a retired pitcher named Bill Lee.

"It became clear to us that the inefficiency in decision making in baseball was vast," said DePodesta, who played baseball at Harvard and led the Los Angeles Dodgers to the playoffs last year, his first season as their general manager.

The early record suggests that the reformers have found a real edge, if not a fool-proof method. The small-budget teams that depend most on analysis - Oakland, Toronto, Cleveland - are among the only ones in the playoff picture this year.

But their record is hardly spotless, the old guard happily notes. Beane has never won a playoff series, and DePodesta's Dodgers are struggling this year. The Braves are in first place again, despite Baseball Prospectus's many predictions of their imminent demise. So are La Russa's Cardinals.

The most entertaining part of the battle is the charges and countercharges. Bissinger, for example, writes that the number crunchers do not truly love the game because they do not appreciate its lore or its human ingredient, a claim Lewis called absurd.

Indeed, what makes this fight truly comparable to those that periodically roil the worlds of art history or foreign policy is that the differences between the sides aren't as great as the sniping between them suggests.

La Russa spends much of his time jotting down information on index cards and studying statistics in his office, while members of the new guard often say the future belongs to teams that combine number crunching with scouting and injury prevention.

"The 'Moneyball' kind of stuff has its place, but so does the human," La Russa said by telephone from Pittsburgh. "Really, the combination is the answer."

But reaching that happy medium is likely to prove more difficult, and more interesting, than talking about it. The Cardinals, after all, created a statistical analysis department in the last two years, but La Russa said it had "almost zero effect" on his strategy. He wishes the team had instead spent the money on new video equipment.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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