“We don’t base what we believe on the real world, we base what we believe on the image of the world that’s in our minds. When you change the way that the image enters the mind, you change what you believe to be true.” Bill James, baseball statistician
I always knew that baseball would occupy a special place in my life. I grew up outside of DC with parents who were displaced New Englanders and die-hard Sox fans. When my dad turned 60, my mother gifted him with a trip to Red Sox Fantasy Camp – he still has the uniform, and puts on at least the jersey, number 9, for important Sox games. While I had visited Fenway as a kid during summer vacations – the years of Yaz, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice – perhaps my fondest baseball memory is when my mom and I went to see the Sox play the Orioles the year the beautiful Camden Yards opened in Baltimore. We bought a program, kept score, and I listened as she analyzed the line-up, anticipated who’d have trouble against the pitcher and why. Aside from the striking beauty that is Camden Yards, I think I remember this so vividly because my mother, a woman who was almost entirely directed by her intuition, seemed a little data-driven at the ballpark. And I was a little data-driven everywhere.
I was in grad school at the time, had more than my share of advanced statistics courses, and, somewhere along the way, had happened on Bill James’ Baseball Abstract. It fascinated me (if you’re not familiar, but have seen the film Moneyball, Billy Beane’s radical rethinking of the Oakland A’s roster was based on James’ theories and data analysis). And it was there at Camden Yards that I shared with my mom some of the Jamesean analysis that debunked traditional strategies, including the proposition that stealing bases isn’t worth it in the long run.
“You and your data,” she said. “That’s ridiculous. Stealing third in particular. Runners are more likely to score from third than second, so why not steal if the opportunity is there?” I explained that a player would have to have a crazy high success rate of stealing bases in order for the gain to offset the potential of losing that runner to an out. She scoffed, said something about players trusting their instincts. I said, “I’m just saying…the data indicate that on average, over the long run, there’s no relationship between base stealing and wins.” She responded that it had to be worth it, else they wouldn’t do it.
“There’s a great deal of received wisdom, a great deal of things that people have known for generations….and most of the time…the things that people know are the enemies of what they learn.” This I did not say to my mother. It’s just another classic Bill James quote. And it aligned with everything I was learning in grad school about social cognition. My dear mother was resisting facts that didn’t align with her view of how the game should be played! I pointed that out to her – citing the science to back it up, of course. Appropriately, she scoffed.
And therein lies the communications lesson (you were probably wondering if all this reminiscing was going to lead somewhere productive, eh?) For most people, data do not “change the way the image enters the mind.” We need to start with the meaning of the data, and not assume the data will create the meaning on its own. We need a data-driven story that doesn’t lead with the data, but leads instead with a hook that taps into those long-held, based-on-decades-of-fandom beliefs that people have.
Knowing this, and wanting to share the wealth of information I’d gleaned from the Bill James statistical pile up in my head, I decided to tell my mom a story about Babe Ruth. Or, more accurately, a story that aligned with her seemingly constitutional desire to deride the Yankees. See, in 1919, his last season with the Red Sox, Ruth hit what was seen as an unreachable 29 home runs. But then came 1920, the year Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees (for cash!), the year he hit 54 home runs (no other player had more than 19). To all Red Sox fans, this was a double-whammy – going to the Yankees and smashing his own Boston-based record (which, of course, he’d do again and again until reaching 60 in 1927, a record which held for 34 years, give or take an asterisk, when Roger Maris hit 61). Okay. There I go again with all the data. And I know better.
Anyway, I said to my mom, “You know all that hoopla around Babe Ruth going bananas with homers when he moved to the Yankees? Did you know that he hit 29 homers with the Sox in 1919, and that was considered “unreachable”? Ever thought about why he was able to hit so many more, in a single year?” She looked at me, interested. “Did you know that Fenway was a really tough home run park, and only 9 of his 29 homers were at Fenway?” I could see the wheels turning in her head: Fenway, way tougher home run park than the Polo Grounds, of course! “And, did you know that in 1919 the American League played a shortened schedule, but he played a full schedule with the Yankees in 1920?” “AND…” I continued, “he was still pitching in 1919; in 1920, when he went to the Yankees, he played right field full-time!” “Well, that explains it!” And her eyes lit up in a way that Red Sox fans’ eyes light up when an answer to a question in baseball isn’t “pinstripes.”
Find the meaning in the data. Relay the meaning, and let the data follow.
A final note: My father and I went to a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway last summer and he told me, as I ate my Fenway franks and he, clad in number 9, ate his Italian sausage, that he’d first hitchhiked to a game at the tender age of 11, making this the 8th decade in a row that he’d watched the Red Sox at Fenway (so if you’re wondering where my preoccupation with numbers comes from, well there ya’ go. DNA). During the game, when David Ortiz approached the plate, the Yankees used an infield shift and my dad pointed it out, explaining this modified “Ted Williams shift” to me. I knew what the Ted Williams shift was – it’s where the defense, when facing a typically left-handed hitter who pulls disproportionately to right-field, e.g., Ted Williams, shifts three infield players to the right side of second base – but I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I also knew in some detail the argument that Bill James, now employed by the Red Sox, makes against using the shift. But I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, either. It was something to think he’d seen the actual Ted Williams Shift first deployed by Sox opponents in the late 40s, in decade one of his visits to Fenway. That was enough. THAT was a story.