Moneyball: The Computational Turn in Professional Sports Management

In this recent history, I describe how the embrace of computational analytics has transformed the management of professional sports in the 21st century. Sports analytics encompasses a set of data management technologies and mathematical techniques for interpreting observable statistical data about athletes and game play to help general managers, coaches, and players make better decisions and attain a competitive advantage. General managers use analytical information to evaluate players for drafting, trades, and contract-salary negotiations. Coaches and players use analytics to understand competitors’ tendencies, develop in-game strategies, and identify areas for training and improvement. Essentially, analytics is the application of “scientific management” (Taylor, 1911) to sports. Accordingly, the paper situates the twenty-first century Moneyball phenomenon (Lewis, 2004) in the context of a much longer history. Drawing on published primary sources and contemporary news coverage, I trace the evolution and gradual professionalization of the sports analytics community, which emerged from an eclectic group of postwar operations researchers, hobbyists, and fringe freelance journalists. I argue that the computational turn in professional sports has created competitive advantages for certain teams and directly influenced players’ in-game strategies. Moreover, this analytical turn has initiated a shift in epistemological authority in the front office. As professional teams have learned to “trust in numbers” (Porter, 1996), they have increasingly rejected the traditional expertise of former players and scouts and let the statisticians and “computer boys” take over (Ensmenger, 2012), albeit with predictable resistance. Advocates suggest that analytics have made the games fairer and leveled the playing field for teams with smaller payrolls. Meanwhile, critics suggest that analytics have turned players into automatons and robbed the games of individual creativity and spontaneity. Dear program committee: This individual paper could fit well in a panel on applied management, sports, computing, innovation, or STS. Thanks for considering! Eric S. Hintz