Showing posts with label moneyball. Show all posts
Showing posts with label moneyball. Show all posts

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight

If you have followed my blog or Facebook, and are not living under a rock, you know that I am a bit bleary-eyed today. The Cubs made history last night, ending the longest (by forty years) championship drought in modern sports. After 108 years, the Cubs are champs. This morning a friend (and LA Dodgers fan) asked me what I will do now that THIS season is over. I replied "Wait 'till next year!" The traditional Cubs-fan greeting has a different ring to it now. I can't wait!

I have one more piece of my own on the Neshama (soul) of Baseball. It will run tomorrow morning. First, I want to bring this terrific piece to your attention. This, appropriately, arrived from eJewishPhilanthropy this morning. Warning: it is based on some seriously nerdy Baseball thought. It is also, I think, brilliant. Stick with it. Rabbi Harris brings home in the end.

The Neshama of Baseball, Part IV

Measuring Good:
Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

If Sabermetrics was a religion, Bill James would be the Messiah who was sent to reveal the Truth, Billy Beane his first prophet, and Theo Epstein the current High Priest of the Temple of Baseball. And if you have no idea what the previous sentence means, then permit this humble rabbi to invite you to into the garden of baseball nerdery.

I’ll start with a story: in the 1970s, while working as a night shift security guard, Bill James developed an alternative set of stats for baseball called Sabermetrics – an unorthodox analytical model worthy of Nate Silver. For many years, James’ ideas were only known to a tiny group of extreme baseball junkies. The story of how Sabermetrics was finally embraced by a major league team’s general manager, Billy Beane, is wonderfully told in Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” and the 2011 movie it inspired.

Beane’s dilemma was that the team he was responsible for building, the Oakland A’s, didn’t have the money to compete for the free agents who were the best players. Beane was a Bill James fan with a small budget and nothing to lose. He concluded that if James’ stats were actually better at predicting success than the traditionally used stats, then maybe he could build a winning team by acquiring overlooked players that traditional scouts would miss – players whose Sabermetric stats were cream of the crop. He did, and the A’s went on to become the winningest team in baseball for a good stretch of years.

Finally, there’s Theo Epstein, who’s in the sports headlines these days. He’s the Sabermetrics whiz kid who applied James’ model to the Boston Red Sox, finally ending their long championship drought. He’s spent the last five years doing the same with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.

So what’s spiritual about all this? I promise, we’ll get there, but stay with me a bit longer.

Sabermetrics works by applying probability math to a very large amount of baseball data. It claims to deliver a higher probability of winning games over a long stretch of time. The regular baseball season is 162 games long, and typically the best teams at the season’s end win no more than 60% of their games, and the worst teams no fewer than 40%.

Applied over many seasons, the model has produced impressive results. For the first 10 years the A’s used Sabermetrics, their winning percentage was 52.1%. That may not sound that amazing, but it actually is. Historically, out of 30 major league teams and over 100 years of stats, there are only 3 teams with a higher all-time winning percentage – the Yankees (56.9%), the Giants (53.8%), and the Dodgers (52.5%). The team with the worst overall record throughout its history, the Tampa Bay Rays, still has won over 46% of its games.

Now, finally, we come to the spiritual insight in all this baseball meshugas.

Judaism is an optimistic yet realistic tradition. Every High Holy Days, we’re reminded of the sages’ teaching that we should all think of ourselves as people who probably do roughly the same amount of good deeds and bad, and that by taking a moral inventory and doing teshuvah, we have the power to tip the evenly balanced scales towards the good. We’re also taught that the world is profoundly broken, but that we collectively have the power to improve it. And, at least in liberal Judaism, we tend to believe that the world includes accidents, random events, and uncertainty.

Judaism’s attitude towards the power we have as human beings to improve the world is very sabermetrical. This is true of individuals and it is true of our organizations and congregations. If a group of us works hard to do good in a proven effective way, does that mean good outcomes will happen next week? Who knows? Too small a sample set. But if we stick with it over the long haul, our faith is that the cumulative effect will bend the moral arc towards righteousness.

This isn’t to claim that all the world’s problems can, or should, be addressed with comfortable incrementalism. That would be a misunderstanding of the Judeo-Sabermetric Tradition! Global warming needs dramatic action, for example, in part because we’re reaping the awful harvest of many decades of harm.

No, the faith of the rabbinic Sabermetrician is a faith that accepts the existential fact that even if we do the most good that we could conceivably do to address a great problem, the probability is that we only improve the odds of success by a few percentage points. For those of us worried about climate change, we have to reckon with the possibility that even if the entire world suddenly cooperates with massive clean energy reforms, we may be too late to avert lasting terrible consequences. That said, our best chance at making the world a better place, whether regarding global warming or, say, Jewish engagement, is for us to develop the most effective strategy to improve the situation and then implement it with discipline and consistency.

Adopting a Sabermetrics approach forces us to ask: are we asking the right questions? Perhaps it is not total membership households that defines a congregation’s success, but some other measurable? Or should we even be talking about members anymore – maybe we should instead be categorizing peoples’ involvement and participation in Jewish communal life differently, and measuring it in some novel way that tells us more about how effective our work is?

Another thought: we live in a world of probabilities, and our tikkun olam work, if done well and over time, will shift those probabilities. Trusting that that is true – that the universe is wired that way – goes hand-in-hand with accepting that we can’t control the outcomes. Even if we make it more probable than not that justice will prevail, it’s still possible that injustice will win out in any given situation. Similarly, Sabermetrics is quite reliable at getting baseball teams to finish with a good enough record to get into the playoffs, but it loses its predictive powers in the face of a short series of games.

Sabermetrics and Judaism guide us towards comparable approaches to the work of improving baseball teams and human society, respectively. They say to us: 1) do the research to find out what specific work needs to be done to succeed – understanding that the best strategies may be novel ones; 2) do the best you can do as a team (or as a community) to implement that plan, and 3) accept the uncertainty of the outcome in any given situation but keep on keeping on.

To put it more succinctly: Study. Take action. Accept what happens next. Repeat. Have faith in this process. Play ball and/or Amen.

Rabbi Maurice Harris is associate director of affiliate support for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/ Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pew 2.0: Moneyball Judaism

At this rate, I am not sure I will have new wisdom to add to the blogosphere about the Pew Report. Today I read two responses that I think are critical going forward. I will paraphrase the first from the Forward. They recognize the negatives in the report, but are emphasizing the datum that 94% responded that they are proud to be Jewish and are looking for stories about people in that demographic and their Jewish pride. Well done.

The second arrived via (are any of you still not reading that?) and I reprint it in its entirety below. As always, I urge you to make comments on the eJP site to be part of the larger conversation!

Moneyball Judaism: We’re Not Selling Jeans Here
If an organization wants to argue that it is effective, it must demonstrate that participating with their organization results in an increase of measurable Jewish behaviors that build positive momentum towards a lifetime of Jewish living once the participant is no longer involved with their organization.
by Rabbi Joshua Rabin

My favorite summer pastime is baseball. Every day, I watch baseball, read about baseball, and pray that my beloved Baltimore Orioles will eventually win the World Series (hey, a guy can dream). However, while it has been years since I gave up my dream of ever playing in the major leagues, I still try, every day, to find ways to follow baseball more intelligently so that I might better understand what it takes for a player or a team to be successful. Without question, the single thing that allows me to better understand pathways to baseball success is sabermetrics, unofficially known as Moneyball.”

Moneyball, written by Michael Lewis, tells the story of the Oakland Athletics and their General Manager, Billy Beane, and the strategies Beane employs to position the A’s, with a relatively low payroll, to routinely make the playoffs over other teams with far deeper cash reserves. Beane’s strategies were taken from the sabermetric playbook, where objective data is used to measure baseball performance as a means of helping baseball professionals make their decisions based on evidence, rather than gut instincts. Sabermetrics currently impacts all major sports, Hollywood, and even politics, where Peter Orszag and John Bridgeland recently wrote an article in the The Atlantic Monthly asking, “Can the government play Moneyball?.”

I thought a great deal about Moneyball when I read the results and subsequent reactions to the Pew Forum’s recent report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. On the one hand, I was not surprised to see so many bemoan the overall negative picture the survey paints about the current state of Judaism in America, articularly amongst liberal Judaism. At the same time, I find it ironic that, as a community, we pay far less attention to the data that helps tell us what works than we do the data that tells us what we are doing wrong.

Over the past several months, I read debates about the relative merits of day school versus congregational schools, in-reach versus outreach, whether denominations have a future in Judaism, and a myriad of other big questions that can affect our community’s strategy for taking ownership of our future. However, in most cases, when I read these debates, or even share my own opinion on a question, I see the opinions of myself and others justified by an over-abundance of personal perspective, and a dearth of objective data.

The consequence of this is that the majority of conventional wisdom and conversations in the Jewish community are driven by what we believe to be true, rather than what concrete evidence we can offer to support our claims, in spite of the fact that we do have data that paints a picture of what works in creating meaningful, lasting Jewish experiences. As a result, as I watched the baseball playoffs, and thought about the implications of the Pew Forum’s survey, I wondered what it would take for the Jewish Community to play “Moneyball Judaism.”

Of course, we have organizations in the Jewish Community promoting data-driven decision-making, such as Measuring Success and J-Data, and researchers who use qualitative and quantitative data to measure emerging trends, such as Professors Steven M. Cohen and Leonard Saxe. However, producing data is the easy piece of the puzzle; the hard part is listening to what the data tells us. The Jewish Community lacks a culture that collectively promotes the essential principle behind Moneyball, namely that it matters, “less how much money you have than how well you spend it.”

When you have limited money, finite resources, and a competitive marketplace, you will succeed only through a shrewd understanding of how the marketplace based on objective data, which, if used properly, will challenge conventional wisdom and results in leaner, meaner pathways to success.
By extension, if the Jewish Community is to transform our vicious cycles into virtuous cycles, we must understand how to judge the relative value of organizations and strategies, and recognize our own fallibility as human beings who always bring our assumptions to the big Jewish questions of the day. While I am not a statistician, nor a sabermatician, I would like to suggest three principles as a starting point of enacting a strategy of Moneyball Judaism, each of which apply a major principle of sabermetrics to our Jewish Community:
  1. What matters most is getting on-base: One of the statistics deemed critical by sabermetrics in baseball is On-Base Percentage, otherwise known as OBP. The basic assumption behind the OBP is that getting on-base is more valuable than making an out, one of the reasons why Billy Beane hates when baseball players are asked to bunt, as bunting generally involves a team voluntarily relinquishing one of three precious outs to the other team. In contrast, even if a player draws a walk instead of getting a base hit, each of these acts are of similar value, since drawing a walk also gets the player on base (as an aside, this is the reason why Jonah Hill’s character in the movie Moneyball states several times that current New York Yankee, Kevin Youkilis, is the “Greek god of walks”). Ultimately, moving a player across the diamond is a skill of paramount importance when judging a player’s effectiveness.

    The value of OBP translates into the first principle of Moneyball Judaism, which is that an effective organization increases overall Jewish involvement. If an organization wants to argue that it is effective, it must demonstrate that participating with their organization results in an increase of measurable Jewish behaviors that build positive momentum towards a lifetime of Jewish living once the participant is no longer involved with their organization. If an organization brings participants together for an intensive experience, yet those participants do not or cannot independently engage in Jewish life once the program concludes, it would be difficult to argue that the organization’s program was effective at advancing that individual person’s Jewish involvement. By extension, if we want to compare organizations with one another, we should be able to compare how each succeeds, or fails, at getting Jewish people “on base.” We may not be able to judge the relative value of each act of Jewish living, but we can agree the more active your Jewish life, the more likely you are to be active your entire life.
  2. Measure Best and Worst-Case Scenarios: Before he became famous for predicting the results of political elections, Nate Silver was a baseball writer for Baseball Prospectus, a publication that uses sabermetric analysis to create statistical models to measure all aspects of a baseball player’s performance. Silver’s main contribution to this publication was a statistic called PECOTA, which stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test and was named for former journeyman infielder Bill Pecota. Essentially, PECOTA allows us to measure the best-case, worst-case, and most-likely scenarios of a player’s performance. While you cannot know how a player will perform before choosing to draft him or sign him to a multi-million dollar contract, you can measure the probability of a player being a tremendous success, or have a sense of that player’s value even if they never fulfill their maximum potential.

    The principle behind PECOTA provides a model for thinking about how to judge one Jewish decision versus another. Every Jewish organization showers us with their success stories, individuals for whom participating in their program changed the entire trajectory of their Jewish life. However, we need to ask whether or not those success stories are a typical result, or a statistical aberration. Many organizations provide data about the portrait of their program’s alumni, and how much those alumni engage in Jewish life years after their participation in the program. Based on the data, we can create composite pictures of the best-case, worst-case, and most likely scenarios for how a person’s Jewish life will be impacted by that organization. If a program or organization claims substantial impact, yet the most likely scenario is a mediocre impact, it would be reasonable to conclude that this organization is not a worthy investment.
  3. We’re not selling jeans here” (Or- Value impact over image): Famously, Michael Lewis writes in Moneyball that when scouts at the Oakland Athletics would ignore statistical performance and state that a prospect “has a great body,” Billy Beane would respond “We’re not selling jeans here,” implying that the goal of a successful baseball team is to find players who produce the needed impact, not project a desired image. We might want a certain conclusion to be true, but if the data does not back it up, we need to consider a change in strategy.

    Not surprisingly, this final principle is key for own understanding of what a “Moneyball Judaism” should mean. When we comment upon and promote individual organizations and modes of Jewish engagement, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we are searching for impact, or whether we are “selling jeans,” valuing image over impact. On paper, if one organization closes, and another one receives a $10 million donation, our typical reaction is to assume that the former organization is a failure, while the latter is a success. However, at the moment, we have limited knowledge as to whether or not the organization flush with cash is successful because they have the right members on their Advisory Board, the right marketing strategy, or simply the right aura.

    While Moneyball may be about the numbers, ultimately we reap the benefits of Moneyball when we use data to recognize what works, what doesn’t, and where our own biases hold us back from seeing the difference between the two. Sometimes, the data might confirm what our collective wisdom suggests, and while other items it might challenge a well-established belief. In either case, the more willing we are to use data to identify effective strategies, the more likely we are to pursue the strategies that lead to maximum success.
In his introduction to The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver writes that, “we must think differently about our ideas – and how to test them. We must think more carefully about the assumptions and beliefs that we bring to a problem.” At the present time, the Jewish Community faces a variety of challenges on a number of fronts, yet we cannot stem the tide of declines in almost every measure of Jewish participation unless we are willing to challenge the way we make decisions, analyze the assumptions behind our current strategies, and learn how to ask the right questions about judging talent, value, and performance. Moneyball sparked a movement of thinkers in sports, politics, and business who saw the importance of being smarter about how we determine what assets are valuable in a market with limited resources and fierce competition. If the Jewish Community wants to succeed in stemming the tide of declining involvement, then we must have the courage to embrace “Moneyball Judaism,” and do the same.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Rabbi-in-Residence of the Schechter School of Long Island. You can read more of his writings at