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EDUCATION/ Moneyball: How to Count What Really Counts

May Wed 09, 2012

Brad Pitt in Moneyball  Brad Pitt in Moneyball

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

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.



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