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How data finds the truth -- in baseball and in business

Thor Olavsrud | Sept. 23, 2015
Speaking at the NetSuite NYSE Disruption Summit at the New York Stock Exchange, baseball luminaries Bill James and Billy Beane talk data, truth and the new frontier for sabermetrics.

Ignorance as opportunity

Speaking at the NetSuite NYSE Disruption Summit at the New York Stock Exchange on Friday, James and Beane both expressed that in business, as in baseball, the key to making the most of the data you're collecting is to let go of preconceptions and start thinking of areas of ignorance as mines of opportunity.

"Ignorance is inexhaustible and a vast resource to all of us," says James, now senior advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox, a far cry from his early days writing about baseball stats while working as a night-shift security guard at Stokely-Van Camp's pork and beans cannery. "Whenever you find something that you do not know, that you could know, that's gold. That's an opportunity to turn lead into gold."

"It's taking bucketfuls out of an ocean," he adds. "Every field is shot through with things that people are convinced are true but just aren't true. Areas of growth are based on discovering those things you know that just aren't true."

The trick is to look into that sea of the unknown and understand what is quantifiable and what isn't.

"Baseball is at a point in which the new data has piled up so deep that it will take us a long time to dig our way out of it," James says. "The first thing that will happen with all that new data is that a lot of fictional beliefs will grow out of it; there will be a lot of mushrooms that grow out of it. Eventually we'll get to the value, but it will take us quite a while."

Can you measure chemistry?

One case in point: team chemistry. It's often cited, but rarely quantified.

"The word collaboration is synonymous with chemistry in sports," Beane says. "Despite the turnover, [the Oakland A's] always been known for having great chemistry. But when we're doing poorly, the chemistry is poor. There is chemistry, but it's a byproduct of success. Usually bad baseball teams have bad chemistry."

"I think chemistry on teams is very real and I think it has value, but we're very, very bad at quantifying it," James adds. "Sometimes the guys who contribute the most to chemistry one year contribute the most negativity the next year. Success breeds entitlement."

"If they become entitled, they become too expensive for us," Beane quips.

Another example: arguments in the sabermetrics community around pitch framing, the ability of a catcher to present the catch of a pitch in such a way that the umpire calls a strike even if the pitch just missed the strike zone. Some zero in on pitch framing as a key measure of a catcher's defensive ability. Others consider the metric another bit of esoterica, or question the ability to quantify it at all.


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