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No. 2414:
Intuition Versus Numbers

by Andrew Boyd

Today, intuition, or numbers. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Time magazine chose Bill James as one of the hundred most influential people of the year in 2006. James made his mark in the world of sports. He's not an athlete, coach, sportscaster, or team owner. But he was the catalyst for one of the most significant movements in the history of baseball. And now, of business.

James's journey was fueled by an obsession with numbers. His job as a night watchman at a pork and beans factory gave him plenty of time to obsess — and to write self-published books. James worried that the usual statistics, like batting average, didn't say much about a player's ability. Teams could do a better job of choosing players, he argued, if they looked at the right statistics.

Runs Created = (Hits + Walks) x Total Bases/(At Bats + Walks)

But James went further. He challenged the baseball establishment by asking the following question: Should baseball teams draft players based on field reports from grizzled, tobacco chewing scouts? Or should they rely more on statistics? Scouts like to develop intuition about the player's skills. Is he athletic? Does he look like a baseball player? James advocated using a player's numbers. How often does he get on base? How often does he strike out?

The ensuing intuition versus numbers tug-of-war took its toll. James met with so much resistance he eventually threw up his hands in frustration. But his writings were the seed of something much bigger. People were reading his ideas. And these ideas would spark a slow ascendancy of numbers in the front offices of major league baseball teams — with emphasis on the word "slow."

I recently spoke with Sig Mejdal, senior quantitative analyst for the Saint Louis Cardinals. The team's general manager listens to his advice. But, Sig told me, it's going to take generations for baseball to fully embrace decisions based on numbers.

The story's not limited to baseball, or even sports for that matter. In January of 2006, the cover of BusinessWeek proclaimed "… MATH WILL ROCK YOUR WORLD: More math geeks are calling the shots in business. Is your industry next?" Businesses have decades of data stored in their computers. The question is, what will they do with all of it to be more efficient?

Enter the numbers guys. Their job is to turn that data into useful information. Statisticians, operations researchers — they're in high demand these days. 

But even as quantitative analysts make headway, they face the same resistance James faced. It's inevitable. They're challenging the established order.

Baseball. Business. There's a lot more than numbers to being successful. But, thanks to computers, numbers are an important new source of information. Successful businesses — and baseball teams — must come to terms with these numbers if they want to remain successful.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

S. Baker and B. Leak. Math will rock your world. BusinessWeek. January 23, 2006.

M. Lewis. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2003.

S. Walker. Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe. New York: Viking, 2006.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

The formula for Runs Created, attributable to James, is taken from Moneyball.

See also, the Engines episodes 1881 and 1196