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What Can Government Learn from A Baseball Star?

While we generally write about the use of performance measurements in the realm of state and local government, lessons can be learned about their use – and their potential flaws – from a wide variety of sources, including major league baseball.

Over the last twenty years or so, baseball managers have become increasingly convinced that, rather than trust their instincts, they should rely on reams of data that are supposed to help them to improve fielding and hitting in a variety of ways. The practice was jettisoned into public’s awareness when Author Michael Lewis wrote his bestselling book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”

It showed how the Oakland Athletics had used data to put together a strong team, even though it had one of the smallest payrolls in the sport at the time.

Baseball, which has long been a sport full of statistics, seemed like the ideal environment for such a movement just as government (which also thrives on data) is a place where metrics can be powerful tools.

But beyond the common sense of the issue, there are some, in both government and baseball, who feel this reliance can have some downsides, as a recent article in the New York Times pointed out when it quoted record-holding slugger Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees.

The Times reported that “he believes data can ultimately be manipulated to have whatever desired outcome a party is looking for.” Clearly most data aren’t being misused in this way, but Judge makes a good cautionary point for both baseball and government.

The Yankee was quoted saying, “We get a lot of numbers, but I think we might be looking at the wrong ones and maybe should value some other ones that some people might see as having no value.” Another good point for both baseball and government.

Some players told the Times that the over-reliance on data had the perverse effect of removing reliance on instincts that could be beneficial to a player’s game. Reported the newspaper, one player indicated that “there were numerous voices in his ear earlier in the season and it messed with his swing because of all the tinkering the numbers were suggesting.”

Here, too, we can see how government managers might learn something from the comments of these professional athletes. When government employees are inundated with data to rule the way they do their jobs, there can easily be a tendency to believe that their managers already know all the answers, and there’s little need to consider their own instincts. That kind of attitude can rob an organization of the insights that employees might have – beyond those reasons that are based in the analytics. And that’s not a good thing.


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