CoolData blog

8 September 2011

Analytics goes to the movies

Filed under: Fun — Tags: , , — kevinmacdonell @ 5:25 am

I’m not a big baseball fan, but I am an analytics fan, so I’m curious to see how the concept is portrayed in the movie Moneyball, set to hit theatres on Sept. 23. The movie is based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis. It tells the story of Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland A’s in the late 1990s, who needed to field a winning team on a meagre payroll.

You might already know about this analytics success story. Beane and his assistant general manager Paul DePodesta had an idea: There had to be champion players out there whom everyone else had overlooked; if no one was looking for them, they would be affordable. Their prospecting tool would be statistical analysis.

For example, their analysis showed that new stats such as on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better predictors of offensive success than the tried-and-true qualities valued by traditional buyers of talent. The analytical approach paid off, and it was soon copied by other major league baseball teams.

I don’t know if the movie will have much to do with analytics, but the trailer (click here to watch on YouTube), does seem to portray a geeky practitioner trying sell crusty, tradition-bound decision makers on the value of his craft. I like that story.

Better than that, though, is a line spoken by the fictional character Peter Brand (based on DePodesta and played by Jonah Hill): “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players,” Brand says to Beane. “Your goal should be to buy wins. In order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.”

It’s a statement about success with statistical modeling: You have to start by properly framing the question. The rest is just technique.

The analytical approach doesn’t pay off for professional sports like it used to, because now everyone does it. (The Oakland A’s are not doing very well these days.) But analytics will always pay off in the nonprofit world because in the hunt for potential donors we still mostly compete against ourselves — we either identify our friends and supporters effectively, or we don’t.



  1. I’m a huge baseball fan and I read Moneyball a few years ago with great interest. What was interesting was that the A’s manager was almost taken out of the decision making all together. Almost every decision was based on a statistical formula. This actually worked well over a 162 game season. In other words, it works well over the long-haul. But in baseball, the season ends with playoffs. Every game is an end unto itself. There is no long-haul. This means that while statistics do play a roll, it’s the manager’s gut instincts and non-statistical knowledge that plays a bigger role. Billy Beane’s A’s had gotten so stuck on stats, that they didn’t do well in the playoffs.

    Interestingly, I do analysis for lots of non- profit organizations, and they tend to have the opposite problem. They treat every campaign as a game unto itself when in reality every campaign should be part of a long-haul strategy. This is why so many of them are struggling in metrics such as retention rates.

    Thanks for the great post!

    Comment by Karen — 8 September 2011 @ 9:52 am

  2. Oakland lost their 4 playoff (2000-2003) series 3 games to 2 and if Giambi had slid in Game 3 of the 2000 series, it could be a different perception of that team.

    I’m pretty excited to see the movie.

    Comment by al varady — 8 September 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  3. APRA Upstate New York is hosting its fall conference this year with a speaker who is a baseball statistician. Write me at if you want more information.

    Comment by Marianne Pelletier — 8 September 2011 @ 2:57 pm

  4. […] inspiration for this post comes from excellent blog  Cool Data Blog which reminded me that MoneyBall is being made into a movie.  Baseball and analysis, I ask you, […]

    Pingback by Play Ball! « DMI News — 8 September 2011 @ 3:56 pm

  5. Kevin- we couldn’t agree with this more…that identifying who we need to connect with is the most important thing that one can do…and instrumental to ROI.
    Ann Oleson

    Comment by annoleson — 12 September 2011 @ 3:59 pm

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