The Humans are Winning Again, at Least in Baseball

maddonepsteinEver since the publication of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, baseball has been ruled by computers.

The book revealed how the Oakland Athletics managed to consistently put together one of the best records in baseball with the one of the smallest player-salary budgets. They accomplished this feat by rigorously analyzing reams of data and finding that on-base percentage, which was largely ignored in favor of batting average, was the most valuable metric for predicting success. With this knowledge in hand, the Athletics acquired players who had great on-base percentages but, for some irrational reason, weren’t commanding large salaries.

After Lewis’ book hit the newsstands, the rest of the league quickly adapted. Teams hired spreadsheet jockeys to sift through the statistics and find ever-more advanced metrics for predicting success. For a while, the teams with the better geeks were able to generate better performance for less money than teams with inferior nerd squads.

But now that every baseball team has a stat shop, the incremental returns of this data-driven approach are collapsing toward zero.

So how are baseball teams going to wrest bargains out of the market of players now? By making them happy.

The team using this strategy the best right now is my hometown favorite, the Chicago Cubs.

Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, who was one of the pioneers of the moneyball strategy as during his time as general manager of the Boston Red Sox, recognized that there was no more advantage to be gained from crunching the data even harder. The only way to gain an edge would be to make the best players want to play for you and to optimize their performance once you’ve got them in the dugout.

So a year and a half ago, he made it a priority to hire the manager that every MLB player wants to play for: Joe Maddon.

In a profession dominated by growly old hard-asses, Maddon is a different species of baseball manager. He sometimes arranges for zoo animals to show up at practices. He hires magicians to entertain the players and loosen them up. He has them wear pajamas on cross-country flights. One week every season, he cancels before-game batting practices so they can rest. When the Cubs players decided last year they wanted to throw a disco-ball dance party after every win – something very few managers would allow – Maddon let it happen.

Maddon’s approach yields two advantages. One is that all of those quirks produce a team that has fun and surpasses its potential on the field. The other is that players want so badly to play for Maddon that this offseason the Cubs signed three high-profile players – Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, and Ben Zobrist – for less money than they were offered elsewhere.

I’ve been negative about humans so far on this blog, first by lamenting how weak we are and then moaning about the various scenarios in which we’re all going to die.

But I’m also reminded that humans have a unique set of soft skills that can’t be quantified and that won’t easily be duplicated by robots, even if they’re beating us at everything else.

In baseball at least, the power is shifting from the machines to the men.