Posted by: structureofnews | October 15, 2011

Brad Pitt: The Face of Statistics

It’s not often you can link Brad Pitt with geeky number crunching, so you have to take the chances you get.   And here it is: Moneyball, the recently-released movie about the Oakland A’s winning 2002 baseball season, based largely on using smart statistical analysis of undervalued players to turn thinking about the sport on its head.

There are echoes here of data journalism’s push into the newsrooms – and maybe lessons as well.  Not to mention Brad Pitt.

I haven’t seen the movie yet – but I will – but the story is well-known to anyone who follows baseball or read the Michael Lewis book the film is based on.  Pitt plays Billy Beane, the A’s general manager, who turns to serious number crunchers to look beyond traditional ways of evaluating players.  The “sabermetrics” method lets him assemble a winning team at a fraction of cost of that of his deep-pocketed opponents.

By digging into all the various facets of player performance – and baseball, more than any other sport, adores numbers – the A’s management come up with better metrics to evaluate how much valuable players are to a team’s success.  It’s a fact-based approach to sports that flies in the face of traditionalists: Perhaps not all that unfamiliar to data journalists trying to win some respect in old-fashioned newsrooms.

But for the A’s, at least, respect – for them, and for nerds in general – comes when they win the American League West division title that year.   As Wired put it in its review of the movie:

That’s the magic of Moneyball — it’s a PG-13 sports movie for wonks who thought card-counting was the most interesting part of Rain Man. It’s also a math movie for sports fans who want to see a group of underdogs do well. Add in all the complex, front-office fuss, and Moneyball becomes the most cerebral sports drama since Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday.

And the New Yorker weighs in as well, in a comment again perhaps not all that unfamiliar to data journalists:

…there’s an inescapable oddity at the center of “Moneyball”: Beane and Brand are possessed by a passion that is almost sacred in its strength, yet it’s devoted not to character or courage but to hard, cold numbers…

Not that odd, really.

Still, there isn’t a real-life happy ending for the A’s.  It’s true they punch above their weight for some time, but they haven’t done particularly well in recent seasons.  As other teams have adopted the statistics-driven approach to talent evaluation, the A’s advantage has steadily eroded.  Simply having a smart algorithm – so to speak – doesn’t confer an edge if everyone else is has access to it.

As Lewis notes in a recent San Francisco Chronicle interview:

“The market inefficiencies have corrected,” Lewis said. “Everyone is operating with the same information, and the opportunity to be smarter than everyone else isn’t there. That dooms the A’s. I’d really be shocked if they are able to get back into the playoffs in that stadium, with those revenues. …

Which is a good reminder that smart analysis is an arms race, with new techniques and tools being developed all the time.  Being the only newsroom with access to, say, Access, can be a real advantage.  But one that goes away once other newsrooms get the same tools.

Yet this also highlights the fact that one potentially enduring competitive edge lies in exclusive data – the more you own, or at least have preferential access to, the more of an edge you can keep.  Competitors can’t crunch what they don’t have.

In baseball, the numbers are out there for everyone to see, use and analyze.  In news organizations, there’s a lot of use of public records and data, which is a great thing.  But anyone – news org or not – can do the same thing.   On the other hand, analysis of proprietary – or at least hard-to-get – databases can yield (potentially) unmatchable insights; Thomson Reuters certainly has a number of those, and so do a number of other large news organizations.

And just as important, there’s the potential for any journalism outfit, regardless of size, to create its own databases out of its day-to-day work, just as Politifact has done.   That gives them the ability, at least in theory, to analyze their stash of information and draw insight from it in a way competitors can’t.  Which suggests we should certainly work harder at keeping what we uncover daily in a form that we can keep and analyze later on.

Maybe one day they’ll be a movie about journalism’s embrace of data – an All The President’s Men for this generation.  Perhaps even with Brad Pitt.  Although we had Robert Reford and Dustin Hoffman the last time around.  Not bad, if we’re comparing.


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