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Why Moneyball is ‘really just the beginning’ of analytics and how it applies beyond sports

A student sitting on the bleachers at a baseball field doing work on his computer

Wei Chen admits he’s a big sports fan. Whether it’s American football or European soccer, he’s not just rooting for his favorite teams—he’s also analyzing the numbers.

“Sports are a fun way for younger people to be introduced to analysis,” says Chen, Assistant Professor at the Graham School of Business at York College of Pennsylvania. “It may be fantasy sports, e-sports, or even their favorite players. When they look at performance, they’re practicing analysis.”

That topic prompted Chen to host a Spartan Speaks lecture titled, “NFL Football: Fantasy, the Draft, and the Games—It’s all about the Numbers!”

The practice goes beyond football, he says. Many students may recognize the practice of data analysis from the popular book and movie Moneyball, which captured the story of the Oakland Athletics’ use of analytics to put together a competitive team despite its small budget.

“Looking at the example of Moneyball, we can see how important analysis is in sports,” Chen says. “But, it’s really just the beginning.”

Combining passion and business

Ryan Potter ’21 has been a sports fan his entire life. The Business Analytics major at York College has followed box scores and statistics as long as he can remember, and when he realized he could do that as part of a profession, he jumped at the opportunity to study analytics and sports.

“I think it’s great that someone can use problem-solving skills to help a team be more competitive,” he says. “It can be a competitive industry, but I’d love to be working in that field someday.”

While Moneyball made the concept popular, there are a lot of ways analysts must stay current when it comes to studying player statistics. For example, Potter says, Wins Above Replacements is not as popular a stat as they were a decade ago. Revolutions Per Minute for pitchers, he says, is now one of the more popular data points. “It comes down to finding stats that matter and discerning what’s of value,” he says. “Just because the data exists doesn’t mean it’s the most helpful.”

Even if he doesn’t end up using his analytic skills in sports, Potter’s family owns Martin’s Potato Chips, and he sees how data analysis makes the business run.

In fact, Chen says, analysis is a skillset many businesses will be looking for in potential hires. “It’s really a job made for this era and into the future,” Chen says. “It applies to so many avenues.”

A career in analytics

It can even be seen with the growing popularity of self-driving cars. The technology that makes that possible relies on data—about street layout, speed, and various other factors—that can then be analyzed to help the machines make the best decisions. That growing field will need people on the business side to run analysis, Chen says.

It’s also found in the pandemic, as pharmaceutical companies test the COVID-19 vaccines and analyze data on how they fight the virus. Much of that work is done with analysis. “It can be seen in so many different areas, that people don’t even realize it,” Chen says. “Sports is just one area. It’s really all around us.”

Watch this Spartan Speaks

Looking to learn more on why it's all about numbers in sport? Watch the lecture here: