The irony of Moneyball
The irony of Moneyball is that it is a story, and the Oakland A’s management hated stories.
That story is now well-told:
- The antagonists – old school scouts – used narratives (“ugly girlfriend”, “presence”, “a tools guy”) to draw conclusions on players.
- The protagonists – Bill James, Billy Beane and sabermetricians – used data to try and disprove these narratives
- Fighting against decades of institutionalised knowledge, the protagonists triumph, and change the game forever
The irony, however, is that this period of history about fighting against narratives has itself become a narrative – about the power of data in sport.
Stories work because they help us make sense of the world. A follows B, A happens because of B. It is the narrative fallacy. And we fall for it in Moneyball.
The reasons behind the Oakland A’s success were complex and manifold, and not simply about the use of data. There was cultural change, management change, an ability to learn, critical thinking, luck, and so on – to list them all would suggest we know them all and can describe them in neat stories, as has been done around the team’s use of data.
Stories and comforting narratives give us entertainment and a view on the world. But as a tool to help us win, they can be misleading at best.