Have analytics gone too far? Author argues we're devaluing human creativity

As a magazine storyteller, Chris Jones has written about astronauts, filmmakers, game show winners, magicians, one U.S. presidential nominee, the youngest manager in pro baseball, and Conor McGregor, who put Jones in a rear chokehold at his request. (Certain he could stay conscious, Jones passed out in seconds.)

Jones never profiled Billy Beane, though he tried. When Beane was general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Jones asked to shadow him to learn about his approach to roster-building. Sure, Beane said – just not yet. Another writer was hanging around the A’s front office, but Beane doubted the guy would publish anything.

“And then ‘Moneyball’ comes out,” Jones said over the phone last week, referring to Michael Lewis’ 2003 book. “Then it became a huge bestseller and the movie, and changed the world.”

By spotlighting how Beane ran the A’s, Lewis made analytics popular. Crunching baseball’s voluminous data helped Beane acquire undervalued players, like batters who got on base a lot, for little cost. Everyone began to look for overlooked opportunities. Baseball teams shift a lot nowadays. The NBA ditched the mid-range jumper to shoot threes in bulk. Win probability models spur NFL coaches to go for it more often on fourth down.

Billy Beane (left). Michael Zagaris / Getty Images

Jones enjoyed “Moneyball” but thinks the movement it inspired went too far. His new book – “The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics,” out Tuesday – counters the notion that numbers should drive decision-making in all walks of life, sports included. He’s met a lot of curious, adaptive, empathetic, expert people. What happens, he wonders, when the world discounts what they see and feel?

“I’m worried that people are going to write that the book is an anti-‘Moneyball’ book,” Jones said. “It’s not. I just think data has its limits. And where it has its limits, those are opportunities for people to shine.”

Jones, who’s written for Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN, Grantland, and Netflix, lives near Toronto in Port Hope, Ontario. He spoke to theScore about a range of topics that relate to his book, including Derek Jeter’s defense, the Tampa Bay Rays’ 2020 World Series loss, and the ingenuity of Jason Witten and Mohamed Salah.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris Jones. Courtesy of Twelve Books

theScore: “The Eye Test” covers a lot of ground: sports, policing, Hollywood, the 9/11 victims compensation fund. Everywhere in life, you argue, problem-solving could stand to be more humane and less reliant on algorithms and spreadsheets. What made you want to mount that argument?

Jones: My first sportswriting job was as a baseball beat writer. I covered the Blue Jays for (Canadian newspaper) the National Post. I learned a ton from old baseball guys. Jim Fregosi was the manager of the Jays. Every Sunday we were on the road, he would sit in the dugout with me and teach me something about the game. I still remember one I got on the changeup in Cleveland. It was 20 minutes on this single pitch.

“Moneyball” came out a few years later. When it came out, I was like, “This is super cool.” I think the movie’s fantastic. But then I felt like that movement started going too far, and those old guys who taught me stuff in the late ’90s were exactly the kind of people who were being ridiculed or dismissed as morons, basically – do you know what I mean? – that they didn’t know what they thought they knew.

I think data does provide some useful corrections. I’m not saying I’m anti-data. I’m just saying I think that, like a lot of revolutions, it’s gone too far and the collateral damage is starting to be something that we need to reckon with. I think there are claims being made about analytics that are not true, and if you dare to raise opposition, you’re cast as a heretic or a moron or you believe in fairy dust.

What I’m trying to say is: No. There’s a place for data, but there’s also a place for experience. There’s still a place for multiple perspectives. Nearly 20 years after “Moneyball” has come out, I think a lot of people will, hopefully, agree they’re feeling a little unease about the path that we’re on.

Kevin Cash. Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images

You bring up how Tampa Bay lost the 2020 World Series because of a math decision. Blake Snell was cruising in Game 6, Kevin Cash pulled Snell before the Dodgers batted against him for a third time, and L.A. took the lead. The counterpoint is that the Rays’ analytical approach got them to the World Series in the first place. This got me wondering: Where, to you, is the line at which analytics stop being valuable?

I don’t know that there is a hard line. I would be a moron to make the case fully against analytics. It works for Tampa Bay. It worked for Oakland to get into the playoffs (under Beane). They’re valuable to a point.

But then I think what sometimes happens, human discretion gets cast aside and you always follow the math. There has to be a moment where you trust the guy or you trust your own wisdom. You trust your experience.

Why do we only choose one perspective? Why does analytics become the law? Why can’t it be analytics plus our sense of things? The analytics movement will talk about the pre-“Moneyball” time in sports as being blind, archaic. I feel like we’re trading one kind of blindness for another.

There’s a guy, Ian Graham, who’s a physicist. He’s a backroom architect at Liverpool. He refuses to watch games because he thinks it taints him – that the emotion of it will make him less objective than he needs to be. I’m like, well, you’re just choosing one myopia (over) another. You’re trading the pure eye test for pure analytics. Isn’t there room for both?

The book opens with an Albert Einstein quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” If sports did more to encourage imagination, creativity, and discretion, what effect would that have on the product?

For me, if you get a really smart person working on something using creativity and imagination, that’s now the competitive advantage. There’s no baseball team that isn’t using analytics now. There’s a limit to what they can divine. You might find a new statistic, or you might find a better way to statistically analyze defense. But at some point, you’re all using the same figures.

The pendulum has swung in favor of analytics. Again, I’m not against them. But I do feel like it’s time for a correction, where you bring it back a little bit. That’s your competitive advantage now: It’s in finding the right person for the right role.

Steven Gerrard in 2016. Shaun Clark / Getty Images

About people who’ve spent a lifetime in their sport, you write, “their bones can reveal its truths better than any spreadsheet.” Who’s a person you had in mind when you wrote this?

I did a story (for ESPN The Magazine in 2014) on Mike Jirschele, who was the Kansas City Royals’ third base coach. He spent, like, 36 years in the minors before he finally got to the majors. His son, Justin, is the youngest manager in professional baseball. I spent a lot of time with both of them.

When I was with Justin, I closely watched a baseball game that he was managing. After the game, we broke it down. He was telling me things that I didn’t even see. For him, these were obvious things. I was like, man, you understand this game because you’ve grown up with it. Because you’ve been around this game since you were a baby. And because after every game you’ve ever played or coached or watched, you and your dad have talked about it.

Steven Gerrard was a major player at Liverpool, and then he moved to the LA Galaxy. I got to watch a game with him. He was doing remarkably accurate analyses of players he’d never seen before. He’d be like, “I don’t know who No. 6 is, but blah, blah, blah,” and he’d be bang-on about who that guy was.

The book is not a case for random gut or flipping coins. But when you’re smart – when you’ve earned an understanding of something – those people are so valuable. You might have a super good quant on your side, but if you also have someone like Steven Gerrard on your side? That’s only an advantage.

Derek Jeter. Jim McIsaac / Getty Images

This seems to be where Derek Jeter enters the picture. He won five Gold Gloves, but the metrics show he was a poor fielding shortstop with limited range. Yet he made spectacular plays, like his famous flip in the playoffs against Oakland. To you, what does Jeter represent about the tension between analytics and creativity?

He’s always held up as the reason you can’t trust your eyes. The truth is the eye test and statistics dovetail pretty nicely when it comes to baseball defense. Ordinary fans are pretty good judges of whether someone is good at defense or not.

Jeter is this exception that’s always used as the rule. That’s a narrative sin. That’s what analytical guys always talk about with narrative: “You’re picking and choosing. You can make any argument if you’re selective enough.” That’s what they’re doing with Jeter.