‘Moneyball’ author Michael Lewis explains why professional sports teams need to reinvent the role of scouts

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Michael Lewis, author of “Moneyball” and “The Undoing Project.”
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Business Insider

When Michael Lewis published “Moneyball” in 2003, he introduced a general audience to the effect that sabermetrics, a school of baseball statistics, was having on major league baseball.

And by the time the 2011 film adaptation starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane became an Oscar-nominated hit, the word “moneyball” had entered the American lexicon.

The idea of building a baseball team on obscure metrics over star power may have been shocking 15 years ago, but today an analytic approach to team-building is not only generally accepted in MLB, it’s used across professional sports.

Its popularity should compel talent scouts out in the field to behave differently, Lewis believes.

Lewis recently sat down with Business Insider to discuss his new book, “The Undoing Project,” and how the research of its protagonists, cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, made “Moneyball” possible. We talked to him about the “Moneyball” approach in 2016 and onward, and asked him what he thought talent scouts’ roles should be in a world where there are no “Moneyball” secrets.

“I thought about this back when ‘Moneyball’ was published,” Lewis said. “Billy Beane, he didn’t ask for my opinion, but I told him: ‘You’ve got this army of scouts, and they’re not doing what they should be doing. They’re eyeballing the players and judging if they can be big-league players based on small sample sizes, the games they happen to attend. You get a much better picture of their professional potential when you’re dealing with a big body of data.'”

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Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) consults with his assistant, Peter Brand, (Jonah Hill) in the 2011 film “Moneyball.”
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“Moneyball”/Columbia Pictures

As Lewis explains in the first chapter of “The Undoing Project,” scouts can get in the way of an analytics approach taken by the front office simply by doing their jobs.

In this same chapter, however, he points out that a basketball player who looks great with regard to numbers may have a marijuana habit that threatens his performance, and a top college prospect’s surprisingly terrible season may be explained by a spiteful relationship with his coach. This is where scouts should come in, Lewis says.

“What scouts should be doing is figuring out if these players have a drug problem, if they may have a difficult time living away from home, if they have weird problems with their teammates, if they don’t listen to their coach, or if they’re hiding an injury,” he said.

These modern scouts would be like reporters. “What you should do is basically hire a bunch of young journalists to go figure out who these people are, because some of that information will be helpful,” Lewis said.

“The trick is figuring out what the algorithm does well and what people do well.”