THR Blog   /   July 27, 2016

Hacking Moneyball

What We Can Learn from the Cardinals

Ned O’Gorman

Baseball is the most arcane of modern sports. For a typical fan, it takes years to learn its intricate, often counterintuitive rules and its odd terminology, let alone its statistics and their acronyms—BA, ERA, RBIs, and OBP. It was as if in embracing baseball, Americans made sport out of the statistics, managerial sciences, and bureaucracies that were coming increasingly to characterize their professional and civic lives.

Professional baseball, however, turned up the statistical game several notches during the early 2000s. Sabermetrics, or “Moneyball” as it came to be called, entailed the invention of all sorts of new metrics—BsRs, PERA, WARs, and numerous others—to predict better and more efficiently player performance and team success. Major league baseball front offices started hiring not only MBAs, but also PhDs with expertise in data science, programming, and other areas of statistical wizardry.

However, coming as it does out of a tradition of ritual and loyalty, a certain brand of American wholesomeness, even comic associations ("Who's on first?"), baseball was distinctly uncomfortable with its turn to sabermetrics. Baseball executives lit up at the new profts promised by metrics, but they sheepishly hid the Moneyball operations in the back office.

No team has understood this better than the St. Louis Cardinals, which, while running one of most highly respected (and profitable) sabermetrics operations in baseball, has worked tirelessly to make Cardinals baseball a kind of civic religion in St. Louis, the Midwest, and parts of the south. Unlike the Oakland Athletics, who, long before the Golden State Warriors, advertised the methods of Silicon Valley to sell, as well as run, their teams, the Cardinals have kept their data operations largely hush-hush. Tradition. Loyalty. Ritual. The quasi-myth of the “Cardinal Way” has stood as a kind of evangelical counterpoint to the calculated, and crass, world of Moneyball. The Cardinals adopted Moneyball’s metrics and methods, coyly keeping its operations deep inside the organization, far from prying eyes. Until now.

This month, a judge sentenced a former St. Louis Cardinals baseball team executive to forty-six months in prison for hacking the scouting database of the Houston Astros. Chris Correa, who had been a scouting director for the Cardinals, pleaded guilty to violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, meant to keep rival businesses from sneaking into each other’s computers. Correa hacked the Houston Astros data systems, claiming he was investigating whether or not Astros’s GM, Jeff Luhnow, a former Cardinals executive, had stolen proprietary information from the Cardinals. But Correa admitted that he also gleaned scouting reports and other data from the Astros network.

Remarkably, it is the first successfully pursued hacking case in professional sports. Given widespread doping scandals, the NFL’s apparent misinformation campaigns about concussions, and many other professional sports scandals, it is remarkable that more such hacking cases have not been discovered and prosecuted.

The Cardinals are an extremely disciplined operation, and their response to the hacking scandal has been on-point. Correa has stated that he is “overwhelmed with remorse and regret for my actions.” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. described Correa as a “rogue” and the club has vowed full cooperation with FBI and Major League Baseball investigators.

What I find instructive in all of this is how little the scandal seems to have affected the Cardinals’ image or profits—and I doubt it will have any effect on the team in the future. While it seems highly unlikely that Correa was a “rogue” operator, the Cardinals have somehow managed to keep the “Cardinal Way” pristine and unsullied.

This is exactly what governments, universities, health-care providers, and other civic institutions have failed to do as they, too, have aggressively adopted the managerial equivalents of Moneyball to run their operations.

Decades ago, the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas anticipated the credibility crisis that we are now seeing across the West in institutions such as the European Union, colleges and universities, law enforcement, and healthcare, not to mention the US federal government. Witnessing the intrusion of newfangled data metrics into the very heart of our civic institutions, Habermas cautioned obliquely, “There is no administrative production of meaning.” In other words, you can’t generate social solidarity—let alone trust, loyalty, and duty—out of numbers. In order for civic institutions to remain viable, to survive, they must keep metrics in the “back offices,” so to speak, of their operations, while foregrounding an ethos, an ethic, even if it is quasi-mythical. The latter is not a crass manipulation of the people, for the people must participate in the meaning-making or it will fall short.

In other words, leaders and administrators must learn to use metrics even as they refrain from building organizations around them. There must even be room for making sport of them. Numbers may be able to show us how to do things better, but they cannot show us how to do things.

The credibility crisis in our civic institutions is less, I think, an indication of being scandal prone than a sign of the profound weakening of these institutions. Decades of homage to data-points in institutional leadership have led to the evisceration of institutional credibility. As institutional leaders have ignored cultivating a “way” in which their constituents may participate, they are now finding themselves defenseless, even looking ridiculous, amidst their institutional crises.