Baseball—America’s Pastime—is often thought of as a metaphor for 19th century pastoral life. But it can also be a perfect example of the opportunity and challenges of 21st century data-driven decision-making.
At New Relic we fervently believe in the disruptive, transformative power of data. And more and more businesses are recognizing and taking advantage of that power. Sometimes, though, organizations get the data but the disruption and the transformation simply don’t happen, at least not right away.
Looking at why that happens—and how to move past it—through the lens of baseball’s long flirtation with and resistance to advanced metrics was the theme of Brian Kenny’s eloquent, amusing, and ultimately inspiring closing keynote at our FutureStack16 Tour: New York event last week.
Kenny, MLB Network host, author of Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution, and former anchor for SportsCenter at ESPN, used baseball and the Sabermetrics data movement as the everyday example of how and why organizations sometimes deny the obvious competitive advantages offered by the data staring them in the face—and how that opposition can be overcome.
Numbers and stats are a regular part of the baseball lexicon, a regular part of our lives, Kenny said. And yet, he noted, there’s often “great resistance to numbers, great resistance to many things that offer great competitive advantage. I wanted to find out why.”
It’s not just about the numbers
“Metrics are not about the numbers,” Kenny told the rapt audience. The Sabermetrics guys who ultimately revolutionized baseball weren’t just into mathematics, Kenny said, they were the ones who asked the questions no one else had thought of. It turns out that the key to change is almost never about the numbers themselves. Instead, it’s about using the numbers to ask—and answer—the questions that reveal what’s really going on. By asking the questions raised by SaberMetrics, “we found that the game isn’t what we thought it was.” Similar situations are playing out in a wide variety of organizations and industries.
Invoking everything from Thomas Kuhn’s landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to the science of brain chemistry, Kenny explained the factors that keep people from recognizing and utilizing the data in front of them.
For one thing, he noted, “paradigm shifts” don’t happen slowly and smoothly—they tend to come in fits and starts accompanied by huge upheavals. It can take a lot to upend decades of accepted best practices. Internally, the brainwork involved in questioning deeply held beliefs instilled at a young age—our “biases and blind spots”—can be physically taxing, Kenny said.
Just as important, the social pressures to conform can be overwhelming. The full import of new ideas is not always clear to insiders deeply invested in the prevailing ways of thinking. And insiders seeking to hold on to their positions find it all to easy to ostracize, bully, and humiliate outsiders with new perspectives that challenge orthodox opinions and practices—even if those new ideas promise a true competitive advantage. (It’s not hard to see the connection to the diversity issues making headlines in the tech industry.)
Data changes, so should our decisions
That’s true even when the conventional wisdom relies on facts and assumptions that are no longer relevant. “It wasn’t that baseball people were dumb” for relying on misleading stats, Kenny said. It’s that they were using accounting principles from the 1800s, the dead-ball era when anything more than a single was rare as a complete game today, when pitchers threw the ball to where the batter requested it (really!), when teams committed a dozen errors a game, and when observer had little data about what was actually happening on the field.
In that era, measuring batters by batting average and tracking errors made sense—but that’s not the world of Major League Baseball today. The modern game is all about pitching and power—and all 30 MLB stadiums are now wired for StatCast, constantly tracking the position of every player, the ball’s exit velocity off the bat, the spin rate on pitches, and much, much more.
“What do you do with all this data?” Kenny asked. “How do you figure out which metrics are the most meaningful?”
How to win a baseball argument
In baseball, and in the real world, smart managers “need to be bold, make data-driven decisions, and actually act on them,” Kenny said. “That’s when you can have competitive advantage.” But he acknowledged that it takes extraordinary courage to do that.
If you follow the accepted procedures and things don’t turn out well, Kenny noted, people often make excuses for your decisions, saying it wasn’t really your fault. But if you’re the manager trying a radically new approach and something goes wrong, you might find yourself vilified in the press—and in the locker room. This kind of “blame shifting” is why so many managers still “call for the bunt,” Kenny said, even thought the data clearly shows it’s a poor percentage play in almost every situation.
If you trust the data and want to effect real change, however, you “can’t be afraid to be that guy” who challenges inertial thinking, Kenny said, “even if it comes at some cost.” That’s how the real winners emerge, in baseball and everywhere else.
Join Us for FutureStack in San Francisco
For more insights like the ones Brian Kenny shared at FutureStack16 Tour: New York, be sure to attend FutureStack16 in San Francisco, November 16 and 17. You won’t want to miss the keynote by Nate Silver, founder and editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, just days after the November 8 election. $495 early bird pricing is available until September 1: register now!
Note: Event dates, participants, and topics are subject to change without notice.