Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
If Sabermetrics was a religion, Bill James would be the Messiah who was sent to reveal the Truth, Billy Beane his first prophet, and Theo Epstein the current High Priest of the Temple of Baseball. And if you have no idea what the previous sentence means, then permit this humble rabbi to invite you to into the garden of baseball nerdery.
I’ll start with a story: in the 1970s, while working as a night shift security guard, Bill James developed an alternative set of stats for baseball called Sabermetrics – an unorthodox analytical model worthy of Nate Silver. For many years, James’ ideas were only known to a tiny group of extreme baseball junkies. The story of how Sabermetrics was finally embraced by a major league team’s general manager, Billy Beane, is wonderfully told in Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” and the 2011 movie it inspired.
Beane’s dilemma was that the team he was responsible for building, the Oakland A’s, didn’t have the money to compete for the free agents who were the best players. Beane was a Bill James fan with a small budget and nothing to lose. He concluded that if James’ stats were actually better at predicting success than the traditionally used stats, then maybe he could build a winning team by acquiring overlooked players that traditional scouts would miss – players whose Sabermetric stats were cream of the crop. He did, and the A’s went on to become the winningest team in baseball for a good stretch of years.
Finally, there’s Theo Epstein, who’s in the sports headlines these days. He’s the Sabermetrics whiz kid who applied James’ model to the Boston Red Sox, finally ending their long championship drought. He’s spent the last five years doing the same with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.
So what’s spiritual about all this? I promise, we’ll get there, but stay with me a bit longer.
Sabermetrics works by applying probability math to a very large amount of baseball data. It claims to deliver a higher probability of winning games over a long stretch of time. The regular baseball season is 162 games long, and typically the best teams at the season’s end win no more than 60% of their games, and the worst teams no fewer than 40%.
Applied over many seasons, the model has produced impressive results. For the first 10 years the A’s used Sabermetrics, their winning percentage was 52.1%. That may not sound that amazing, but it actually is. Historically, out of 30 major league teams and over 100 years of stats, there are only 3 teams with a higher all-time winning percentage – the Yankees (56.9%), the Giants (53.8%), and the Dodgers (52.5%). The team with the worst overall record throughout its history, the Tampa Bay Rays, still has won over 46% of its games.
Now, finally, we come to the spiritual insight in all this baseball meshugass.
Judaism is an optimistic yet realistic tradition. Every High Holy Days, we’re reminded of the sages’ teaching that we should all think of ourselves as people who probably do roughly the same amount of good deeds and bad, and that by taking a moral inventory and doing teshuvah, we have the power to tip the evenly balanced scales towards the good. We’re also taught that the world is profoundly broken, but that we collectively have the power to improve it. And, at least in liberal Judaism, we tend to believe that the world includes accidents, random events, and uncertainty.
Judaism’s attitude towards the power we have as human beings to improve the world is very sabermetrical. This is true of individuals and it is true of our organizations and congregations. If a group of us works hard to do good in a proven effective way, does that mean good outcomes will happen next week? Who knows? Too small a sample set. But if we stick with it over the long haul, our faith is that the cumulative effect will bend the moral arc towards righteousness.
This isn’t to claim that all the world’s problems can, or should, be addressed with comfortable incrementalism. That would be a misunderstanding of the Judeo-Sabermetric Tradition! Global warming needs dramatic action, for example, in part because we’re reaping the awful harvest of many decades of harm.
No, the faith of the rabbinic Sabermetrician is a faith that accepts the existential fact that even if we do the most good that we could conceivably do to address a great problem, the probability is that we only improve the odds of success by a few percentage points. For those of us worried about climate change, we have to reckon with the possibility that even if the entire world suddenly cooperates with massive clean energy reforms, we may be too late to avert lasting terrible consequences. That said, our best chance at making the world a better place, whether regarding global warming or, say, Jewish engagement, is for us to develop the most effective strategy to improve the situation and then implement it with discipline and consistency.
Adopting a Sabermetrics approach forces us to ask: are we asking the right questions? Perhaps it is not total membership households that defines a congregation’s success, but some other measurable? Or should we even be talking about members anymore – maybe we should instead be categorizing peoples’ involvement and participation in Jewish communal life differently, and measuring it in some novel way that tells us more about how effective our work is?
Another thought: we live in a world of probabilities, and our tikkun olam work, if done well and over time, will shift those probabilities. Trusting that that is true – that the universe is wired that way – goes hand-in-hand with accepting that we can’t control the outcomes. Even if we make it more probable than not that justice will prevail, it’s still possible that injustice will win out in any given situation. Similarly, Sabermetrics is quite reliable at getting baseball teams to finish with a good enough record to get into the playoffs, but it loses its predictive powers in the face of a short series of games.
Sabermetrics and Judaism guide us towards comparable approaches to the work of improving baseball teams and human society, respectively. They say to us: 1) do the research to find out what specific work needs to be done to succeed – understanding that the best strategies may be novel ones; 2) do the best you can do as a team (or as a community) to implement that plan, and 3) accept the uncertainty of the outcome in any given situation but keep on keeping on.
To put it more succinctly: Study. Take action. Accept what happens next. Repeat. Have faith in this process. Play ball and/or Amen.
Rabbi Maurice Harris is associate director of affiliate support for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/ Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.