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Interests and Incentives in the Moneyball Universe

We’ve talked a lot about data over the years here, but this episode offers a unique take on data-driven decision making. EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomed Bill James, an American writer whose work includes baseball history and statistics, has been extremely well accepted. His application of Sabermetrics and creation of ‘Moneyball theory’ have been transformative in baseball’s landscape. James also worked as a Senior Advisor of Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox for 17 years, earning four World Series rings during his time there.

Roberts and James talk about the shortening of baseball games to save their entertainment value with James concluding there will always be time extending trade-offs with small-scale changes, like the pitch clock. Data and different approaches to winning are always evolving, and James and Roberts provide their take on the intrigue which the universe of baseball provides. Perhaps unlike many other things in life, it may be possible for someone to figure out the closed system of baseball. James stresses the importance of connecting all the dots and favoring science over expertise when making a conclusion, which can be applied well beyond baseball.

We’re glad you’ve joined us in revisiting this episode, and we’d love to hear your thoughts about it today. Share your responses to the prompts below in the Comments, or use them to start your own conversation offline. We’re always happy to continue the conversation.



1- What’s the difference between science and expertise, according to James, and how can science protect against falsehoods brought about and by expertise? Roberts discusses people seeking reassurance and following anything derived from their trust in the credentials of an expert with the example of someone having to agree with F.A. Hayek about the validity of social security. Roberts argues that people have become blinded by the reassurance they seek in treating controversial topics, and that one’s credentials do not necessarily make their words truthful.

What should be the role of expertise? How should ‘followers’ interact with the information they hear from experts in a thoughtful manner?


2- At the time this episode was recorded, Bill James proposed incentives which he believes would more effectively treat the issue of speeding up baseball than the rule changes which are present today. James identifies rule-changes like the pitch-clock as “pulling up the biggest weeds” as opposed to “mowing the lawn,” where the weeds will result in more weeds—more moments of monotony on the diamond.

Is James, right? Would incentives like draft picks, additional television compensation, and home-field advantage be pressing on the team’s self-interest? Do today’s rule changes create more slow-downs, or do they function as agents not only for shorter games, but games with more appealing action?


3-James’ conception of baseball as a mini-universe is particularly striking. He argues that people are drawn to baseball because they can get a sense of figuring it out.

Following James, how does the intrigue for the closed system of baseball and its intricacies relate to issues we all face each day? What other ‘closed systems’ or mini universes spark human interest?


4-James and Roberts discuss the prevalence of narrative building where people connect only the dots which serve their particular point.

What kind of approach should individuals take when spreading information to protect against being ignorant of unlearned knowledge? Why are people so trusting of experts, and how can curiosity help to protect the validity and pursuit of knowledge?


5-James argues that Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame because there were no specific rules against steroids at the time he was using them. Should Barry Bonds get into the baseball Hall of Fame?

Can rules like the current drug policy be retroactive or should Major League Baseball recognize that players had an incentive to use steroids, and that there were no rules against them? When rules are not strictly enforced, and would you agree with Roberts and James that they are not rules, even if later they are enforced?

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime Editor