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April 13, 2012
The why in the what
By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *

By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *

I have a new favorite movie. It’s Moneyball.

I realize that Moneyball has been out for a while; but, I have to watch a movie several times before I feel comfortable to commit to it at this level. With my restricted budget, this means waiting until a movie is out on DVD so I can afford to watch it a second, third or fourth time. 

However, I knew I would like the movie Moneyball even before I saw it in the cinema, because I loved the book. I knew I would like the book even before I read it, because I loved the review I read of the book. I knew I would like the review of the book before I read it, because I loved a radio show I heard describing the idea that was changing baseball. And, I loved the idea even before I understood it, because it is so brilliant.

The moneyball approach to baseball, aka sabermetrics, uses modern data mining strategies to analyze player value. By crunching large batches of data drawn from game elements that are microscopic in comparison to RBIs and batting averages, sabermetric analysts are able to pinpoint the specific events (player actions) that lead to wins. As it turns out, these events were often missed by the data-naked eye, leaving many players who could contribute significantly to a team’s chance of winning undervalued.

Billy Beane did not invent “moneyball”; he was just the first general manager to recognize that the idea fit the hidden reality of baseball. He realized that sabermetrics explained why the traditional gurus of baseball were so often wrong, especially when they were most confident they were right. Driven by his personal experience as a failed player who the best scouts said should have been a star and by his frustration with being a GM at a low budget club in a high budget market, Beane had the inspired vision to see the value in the data created by sabermetrics and the courage to use it to re-invent baseball. 

This is why Moneyball is about something much larger than baseball and data. It is an example of how one person in a crowd of people looking at the same thing can see something totally different than everyone else. In this case, that one person couldn’t quite put his finger on exactly what he was seeing until another unique observer put the data in front of him to clarify his vision. However, Beane’s success with sabermetrics clearly proves that vision makes data valuable, not vice-versa.

I have to credit much of my ability to see why Moneyball is such a valuable movie to my friend Pip Coburn. Pip is a Billy Beane of investing. He is the author of The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn. He is a market analyst of singular vision when it comes to tech and trends. He also put the word naked with data before I did.

Most recently, Pip has been dedicating his thoughts to what will be the actual impact of our growing access and addiction to data. He has thrown out some rules on the advantages and pitfalls of data mining. Pip’s most brilliant contribution to understanding the growing field of data manipulation is his insistence that human insight—vision—is still king over data.    

Pip is right. Humans are still the best data crunchers. Even if computers can beat us at Jeopardy, they cannot invent games or comprehend the abstract qualities of data. That takes insight—a human with a vision. We still have the upper hand when it comes to seeing the value in data—the why in the what. 

I appreciate Pip’s point about the priority of vision over data aggregation for three reasons. It helps keep perspective on the value of data-hog companies like Facebook. It gives us a way to ride the growing data wave rather than be crushed under its mounting weight. And, it affirms the primacy of God, the source of all true inspiration, in creation.  

Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.
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