Professor Adam Brownlee teaches his “Moneyball” class in Grise Hall on March 25.
Professor Adam Brownlee teaches his “Moneyball” class in Grise Hall on March 25.
Adin Parks

‘Can a baseball team reduce their goals to a math problem?’

This story was originally published in the April 8 newsmagazine.

WKU students now have the chance to explore the world of sports analytics in a unique way: through a class based on ideas from the book and film “Moneyball.”

Adam Brownlee, WKU analytics and information systems professor, helped form the class and confirmed that it is based on the popular baseball movie and book, which are based on a true story.

“The story of Moneyball is rooted in the teachings of Bill James, a destroyer of long held beliefs surrounding the game of baseball,” Brownlee said.

The idea of the “Moneyball” course comes from the 2003 book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis, and the film “Moneyball,” released in 2011. The main concept in the book and film are the novel idea that analytics and math can help a baseball team develop a deeper understanding of players and baseball as a whole.

The 2023-2024 academic year marks the first time the class has been offered as a stand-alone course, but the overarching concepts of the movie have been implemented in Brownlee’s teachings for years.

“‘Moneyball’ has been working its way through my classes for years now,” Brownlee said. “Most students respond well to this pursuit, especially if they have a love for baseball.”

Brownlee said the class still doesn’t stand alone for himself, however, sports management professor Terry Obee began offering the class as a stand-alone this year.

Obee agreed to take on a role in teaching the class to help students use “Moneyball” analytic techniques in deciphering sport trends.

“The reason I agreed to teach the class is because Moneyball has put you in a situation with data analytics to be able to decipher the difference between both,” Obee said. “And if you know that, it gets you directly to the answers.”

Obee and the sports management department worked to form the class SPM 330 Moneyball: Sports Analytics based off the teachings from the movie that Brownlee implemented at WKU.

In bringing over ideas and concepts from the movie, Brownlee also added a bit of his own expertise.

“The idea surfaces from the original story of Moneyball but we’ve built out our own predictive analytic models,” Brownlee said. “Closer to home, my son plays the game so I have a vested interest.”

Brownlee has broken the lessons of “Moneyball” down into three key points for his students:

First, “Data often shows us things that others miss. If you lift the hood of the car, a lot of times you find hidden value.”

Second, “If something has always been done a certain way it probably de- serves to be blown up. Dogma should be fed a steady diet of hand grenades.”

Third, “Believe in yourself first. If you don’t, no one else will.”

These premises are his own, but can be closely tied to the themes of the movie.

In the film, Oakland Athletics owner Billy Beane and analytical mind Peter Brandt are given the challenge of build- ing a successful Major League Baseball franchise in a small market. Brandt, a character based on former Athletics Assistant General Manager Paul Depodesta, introduces analytics into the franchises decisions regarding player signings, resulting in far more success.

The analytical thinking that DePodesta introduced exploded since his time with the A’s in 2002 and even since the release of the film “Moneyball” in 2011. Over the years, teams have realized that data analytics professionals can be extremely helpful in many facets of the game.

In 2015, ESPN released a feature story highlighting how every major league sports team across the four major sports in America felt about and used analytics.

As of 2015, in the MLB for example, only two teams did not believe in using professionals to help evaluate their teams statistics: the Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins.

Brownlee is an Analytics and Information Systems professor in the Gordon Ford College of Business. Brownlee teaches several courses over analytics in Grise Hall alongside the “Moneyball” class. (Adin Parks)

Another prime example of the evolution of “Moneyball” data analytics ideas is featured in the 2022 Forbes article “Moneyball 20 Years Later: A Progress Report On Data And Analytics In Professional Sports” by Randy Bean.

The article includes comments from Zack Scott, who spent 18 seasons with the Boston Red Sox in a variety of influential roles, and breaks down how analytics have evolved in the MLB since the creation of the film.

“‘The growth in the application of data and analytics in baseball during the past 20 years has been extraordinary, as measured by both the levels of investment and the usage of quantitative metrics,’” Scott states in the article. “‘We’ve grown from 10,000 data points to 10 billion data points during this time.’”

The class has been a hit with students to this point. Senior Paul Warrell, recreation administration major, took the class because he was “interested in sports data and what makes good athletes good” and that he “also was interested in projecting success or regression for players.”

Warell added that he has thoroughly enjoyed the class to this point.

“I have liked learning new software for data analytics,” Warrell said. “I would recommend others to take this class.”

While with the A’s, DePodesta and Beane faced many skeptics in introducing these systems of thinking into the MLB. Today, these forms of statistics are extremely popular and are viewed as vital by almost everyone involved in sports.

With the evolution of these thinkings, Brownlee decided incorporating some of these teachings to his classes would be fun and helpful.

“Originally, we set out to recreate the work of Paul DePodesta and the Oakland A’s who asked, ‘can a baseball team reduce their goals to a math problem?’ Yes, they sure can,” Brownlee said.

Another unique aspect of the Moneyball content that Brownlee and Obee offer is that the classes work hand in hand with WKU baseball, the Bowling Green Hot Rods and both South Warren high school and middle school baseball teams. The work done by students in these “Moneyball” classes helps local teams receive analytic information.

“Our partnerships surfaced because of the competitive advantage we infused complete analytics at the local level. The question is, if a competitor has an analytics department and you don’t, are you at a disadvantage? The answer is yes,” Brownlee said.

Brownlee said the work in his class for these teams does exactly what Brandt, also known as DePodesta, did for the A’s, but even goes past what was featured in the movie.

“Through regression analysis DeP- odesta honed in on the variables that were most important to winning ball games and the A’s reached their goal of making the playoffs,” Brownlee said. “We do the same for our teams except we stretch out beyond the original models and deliver on regression analysis, binary response models, impact and response variables, decision trees and wOBA optimization models. All of this simmers to a predictive, competitive analytics boil that lifts teams to more wins. If you can tell us your on base percentage, we can tell you how many games you should win.”

Brownlee confirmed that he will continue offering the course in the future. “Our goal is to touch on the real deal ‘Moneyball’ analytics that Paul DePodesta and the Oakland A’s kicked up,” Brownlee said. “Students should take these classes because in part, it is like walking into the front office of your favorite major league team. You get to contribute and see how things play out. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Sports Reporter Camden Bush can be reached at [email protected].