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Moneyball and Luis Suárez

14 July 2014

Big data evangelists often champion the Moneyball story. Many of you will know it and perhaps even have seen the movie. It’s about Billy Beane, a mediocre baseball player who went on to have success as manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team.

The headline is that Billy used big data analytics to put together a baseball team that could compete successfully against much richer competitors. The approach didn’t win them the World Series, but it did take Oakland Athletics further than it hoped as the team reached the play-offs in two successive seasons with win ratios of over 63%.

So what’s this got to do with Luis Suárez and his transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona. Do his statistics live up to a £75m transfer fee? Ignoring the less savoury side of the man for a moment, Suárez is a tremendous talent. You don’t get to win player of the year awards without being something of a genius.

And yet, during his time at Liverpool, the team was noticeably more successful in terms of win ratio and average points per game when he wasn’t playing. That’s right, when he wasn’t playing. And given his behaviour, this isn’t a small sample of games.

This throws up a question about the use of data in decision-making.

Baseball lends itself to extensive data analytics to assess the performance of the team members. Yes, it’s a team sport, but essentially it relies on a series of individual actions. It’s much like cricket but with a format that allows a far greater level of statistical comparisons between players.

Football is more complex. Very few moments in the game are about an individual and the most successful teams are those that are set up to most effectively control the space on the pitch. It is the team effort throughout the match that creates the platform for the individual piece of brilliance that grabs the headlines.

So it is with decision-making in life. Few of us can confidently live our lives taking decisions based solely on facts. We have to consider the space we’re in. The best decisions are shaped by an awareness of our landscape and how we fit into it rather than by raw processing of the facts. Genius is more likely to flow from a perception of possibilities than through solid reasoning.

The advantage that Oakland Athletics gained when they started using big data analytics was quickly eroded as other teams started to copy its approach. After all, there is a limited range of outcomes each time a batter steps up to the plate.

It will be the same for companies that rely solely on data analytics. A short-term competitive edge might be there for the taking, but strategies based solely on big data are easily replicated.

What’s more difficult to copy is a creative-led strategy that engages people with a story about your brand. Having control over the space in which your story appears is far more effective than trying to be everywhere at the same time. David Luiz can certainly testify to that.

Football is more difficult to predict than baseball because there are so many possible outcomes. Even Nate Silver came out and said that Germany’s dismantling of Brazil in the recent World Cup semi-final was totally unpredictable.

And what about a prediction on Liverpool’s future without Suárez? Well if you believe the statistics, we should be just fine without him.

Justin Sampson, Chief Executive of BARB