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Analog prevails over digital in World Series

Posted November. 01, 2019 07:30,   

Updated November. 01, 2019 07:30


Some described this year’s World Series as “fight between silver spoons and scrappers,” but that is wrong. In fact, both Washington and Houston are scrappers in terms of their past records of success, and both are silver spoon clubs when it comes to the sum of the players’ annual salaries.

“Rebellion of analog” is a description from an American media outlet, which is certainly intriguing. Washington being the analog (old-fashioned), and Houston digital (innovative), they say the Nationals’ hand axes conquered the world previously dominated with high-tech digital weapons.

This has a point. Houston has transformed itself through data revolution after Jeff Luhnow, former management consultancy expert, took the helm as general manager in 2013. He fired veteran scouters and immediately replaced them with data analysts. He firmly believed that data offers better insights than humans. Ultra high speed cameras were set up for analysis, coaches were sacked, and Houston’s minor league rosters were streamlined. Players were “measured” rather than “eval‎uated.” Under Luhnow’s leadership, the Astros won more than 100 wins for three consecutive years, and made it to the World Series twice for three years. Other MLB powerhouses such as the Yankees and the Dodgers scrambled to benchmark his team.

This wasn’t the case for the Nationals. Unlike Houston who hired those who graduated from Harvard, Yale, and MIT, Washington had no academic elites. Instead, the club is flanked by 10 scouters and strategists all well over 60. “We gather in the stadium, smoke a cigar, and get something out of it,” they say. It is a typical old-fashioned approach often seen in the 1960s. “Players are humans. You need to have a deep understanding about their passion when you eval‎uate them. Measuring the numbers alone won’t cut it,” says Nationals manager Mike Rizzo.

At the end of the day, Washington were the winners. They were passionate, and they overwhelmed the Astros in Game 7. Having failed to “measure” such passion, Houston floundered. Those who won the most in regular season (107 wins) found themselves kneeling down before the relative underdog with unremarkable regular season records (93 wins) who joined the playoff as wild card. It almost feels like a movie with a dramatic storytelling and the good guys and the bad. It is too uncanny to be true. And in fact, there was some dose of exaggeration about the two teams’ dichotomy theory. The Nationals were also generating their own data with a dedicated team of analysis, and Luhnow says some of his most talents players are judged by gut feelings, instead of numbers.

Then, why is that the American media divided the two in such a dramatic fashion? The answer could be found in the public resistance to Houston’s way of innovation. Admittedly, innovation entails destruction, but critics said Houston’s innovation was too drastic as it denied the faith in the Major League Baseball, a grammar commonly upheld and used by all teams for 130 years. Houston pruned away any factor that is remotely human while turning a blind eye to socially shared values. They had a blind faith in data in paving the way to the right direction. Sometimes the club was a subject of praise, but it was also branded as “an unscrupulous baseball club.”

And it was during the World Series that they found themselves in deep trouble. The issue was fueled after an executive officer shrugged off the history of domestic violence of one of his players. The MLB has no leniency for domestic violence. The club owner issued a public apology and sacked the person in question only after facing public outrage. Critics said that the episode stemmed from Houston’s blind faith in data. Skepticism grew, questioning the meaning of Houston’s way of innovation. This struck a sharp contrast against Washington’s human-focused operation philosophy. It is time that Houston stopped to think about the meaning of innovation.

We live in a society where innovation is touted as the only way to survive. What hampers innovations isn’t always technical issues, however, social conflicts play a fair share of role. Technological development alone cannot guarantee competitive advantage in a digital era. Interaction is key, striking a balance between human and social elements. The 2019 World Series was a reminder of the true meaning of innovation.