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Have The Boston Red Sox Relied On Analytics At The Expense Of Insights?

Despite considerable past success, is data

23Mar

The Boston Red Sox have been one of the leading champions of data analytics in the MLB over the past twenty years. However, having placed last in the AL East three out of the past four seasons, it seems they are starting to reconsider their approach. Following his evaluation of last season’s failure, Red Sox owner John Henry even went so far as to say ‘I think we were reliant too heavily on analytics.’

He continued, ’I spent at least two months looking under the hood and I came to the conclusion we needed to make some changes. One of the things we've done — and I'm fully accountable for this — is we have perhaps overly relied on numbers and there were a whole host of things.’

Henry came to the Red Sox having built his fortune making data-driven decisions with hedge funds, and he was quick to apply similar methods to baseball, using the now infamous sabermetrics first put into practice successfully by Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletic. The Red Sox has one of the founders of sabermetrics, Bill James, in their front office, and they have invested heavily in analytics throughout their staff - with significant success. Analytics was the driving force behind their first World Series win in 86 years in 2004, and their two subsequent victories in 2007 and 2013.

Last season was, however, a nightmare. The Red Sox brought in two high-priced free agents before last season — Pablo Sandoval for five years at $95 million and Hanley Ramirez for four years at $88 million - both of whom flopped. According to ESPN, the Red Sox had the 12th worst record in baseball last season, as they went 78-84.

The Red Sox has won the World Series three times using sabermetrics, so to say that it has not served them well would be wrong. Other teams using the system are also still seeing success, so Henry’s statement will clearly not herald a move away from analytics. ESPN’s the Great Analytics Rankings ranked MLB teams by how much they were investing in analytics and placed them in 5 tiers, ranging from All In to Nonbelievers. The 2015 MLB playoff contenders consisted of five teams in the ‘All In’ tier (Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, Yankees, and Astros), four teams in the ‘Believers’ tier (Royals, Blue Jays, Dodgers, and Mets), and one team in the ‘One Foot In’ tier (Rangers).

The continued success of other MLB teams who rely heavily on analytics suggest that it is not suddenly wrong, simply that the Red Sox are using it wrong. Brian Kenny, an MLB Network host who champions the analytics revolution, disagrees with Henry’s appraisal that analytics were responsible.

‘I’m perplexed as to how analytics was a reason for the Red Sox’ problems,’ Kenny said. ‘Sabermetrics is about evidence, not merely data. A proper reading of analytics would tell you that Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were erratic performers and risky investments. A proper reading of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts would tell you they would be good major league players even if not on their desired timetable. I think the enemy of the Red Sox is impatience, not analytics.’

The simple truth is that Red Sox were initially so successful because they were an early adopter. However, other teams are now using the same methods - and they’re using them better. The key is to use analytics in the right way, and not simply keep plugging away with the same working processes because they have worked before. The same is true in business. There needs to be a balance struck between how much you rely on the data in every industry, and finding this balance is one of the deciding factors as to whether you’re successful. The Red Sox have got this right in the past, and they can get it right again. In a relatively young disciple like analytics, with fast evolving tools and new theories arising every day, companies need to constantly update their analytical processes. The Red Sox won’t be abandoning analytics - in fact they’re investing more heavily - but it is likely they will have to completely rethink how they use it and put more of an onus back on using people to make sense of the data, rather than letting the data rule completely. Red Sox President of Baseball Operations, Dave Dombrowski, who was appointed in August 2015, comes from a very traditional scouting worldview, and is therefore likely to assign a different weight to types of information than his predecessor Ben Cherington.

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