Moneyball – How to Count What Really Counts

Several people urged me to watch Moneyball– “You’ll love it,” they said, “it’s all about statistics!”

Mapping out what counts (from Moneyball)

It turns out they were right – I did like the film a lot – but not so much because it used statistics. Just as I say when I teach statistics – the numbers can give you the answers to a question, but the hard part is asking the right question.  Moneyball tells story of a paradigm shift – of baseball asking new questions. That is the part that I found fascinating.

The traditional approach – the one ultimately vanquished – evaluated baseball players according to an ideal of “the whole package” of skills, discounted for oddities of style, physique or personality – a combination a rational assessment and irrational bias. The Moneyball approach used statistics to identify players who were able to deliver what counts – in baseball’s currency of men on base, runs batted in, leading to games won – regardless of whether they fit the traditional mold.  For the Oakland Athletics of the time, with the lowest budget of the major leagues,the statistics could identify “undervalued” players who could contribute more towards winning than the traditional method recognized.

The central question of the movie is: what counts? What doesn’t count? The new metrics are ultimately vindicated – not only for Oakland but for wealthier teams that adopt them. The film reshapes the question for Billy Beane, the general manager who first uses the new metrics – will he follow the money to a richer team or remain in Oakland where he is close to his daughter? – and he has to consider what counts in his own life.

Statistics are based on probabilities, not certainties – and Moneyball includes its moments of the human spirit – the Head Coach substitutes a hitter, he hits a home run to save the game – and the longest winning streak in the American League occurs. The numbers could predict a percentage of home runs for that player, but not its delivery at the crucial moment.

I’ve spent most of the last year working on a report that tallies up the record for the college where I work, tallied according to the criteria of the Higher Learning Commission that accredits us and the federal government that, via student loan dollars, foots much of the bill. I’ve discovered a lot of great things about the College that I didn’t know before I began this endeavor. I’ve also spent hours wondering about what “really counts” from a college education. I’m not alone in this: politicians and newspapers and public opinion are also weighing in.

For some – mostly the politicians – it’s all about jobs. This is closest to the Moneyball approach: do the college grads really get jobs? Is a major in art or  literature or ancient civilizations really valuable, or should colleges be working harder to shunt students into accounting or the health professions (or the ignored-but-booming field of data science as seen in Moneyball)? Do we count the value of a college education by the dollars it brings in at the end? With soaring student loans on the one hand and President Obama’s push for an increase in college-prepared workers on the other, this seems an important metric.

Others emphasize the traditional liberal arts and sciences: a college education should be transformative, producing deep and critical thinkers who will go on to be the scholars and the intellectual leaders of the next generation.   This view is close to my heart: after a year weighing history, sociology and economics as majors, I chose history because it seemed the most important – without even asking the question “what will I do next with this degree?”  It was a good choice – even if my subsequent path took me into a licensed profession – social work – and a more directly applicable social science.

The Benedictine in me takes the question still one step back, to ask the question raised by St. Benedict and the psalmist before him:

“But let us ask the Lord with the Prophet: Who will dwell in your tent, Lord; who will find rest upon your holy mountain? (Ps 14 [15]:1) After this question, brothers, let us listen well to what the Lord says in reply, for he shows us the way to his tent.”

Moneyball is an excellent film for what Fr. Benedict Auer 1 calls video divina – watching a film from a contemplative perspective, seeking the message God has for you. On the one hand, it suggests the importance of finding methods that are not led astray by appearances: to be able to truly count, to keep objective measure without bias or sentimental thinking – to be accountable. On the other hand, it places the question of ultimate value – what does matter, and how do we measure it – clearly before us.

It is a great film for statistics. I may find a way to include it as an extra-credit project next year. But it’s real value is in asking: what counts, and how do we count it?

1 Auer, Benedict, OSB, (1991). Video divina: A Benedictine approach to spiritual viewing. Review for Religious, Mar/April 1991.

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