Since the publication of Moneyball, a book that documents the rise of the Oakland A’s under Billy Beane, the empirical study of sport has seen a notable rise in popularity. The statistical analysis of baseball, referred to as sabermetrics, was pioneered by Bill James and is a topic which the Simpsons writers dedicate an entire episode to in season 22. MoneyBart, written by Tim Long, see’s Lisa apply statistics and probability theory to engineer success for Bart’s struggling little league baseball team, the Springfield Isotot’s.
For me, the episode not only highlights the use of sports statistics but gives a great insight into the lessons of behavioural economics. The central theme of MoneyBart is how intuition and gut reactions often mislead and result in predictions that differ from those produced by cold calculated reason.
The episode refers (perhaps unintentionally) to the psycho-fictitious drama of system 1 and system 2 thinking that behavioural economists use to theorise the brain in a simplied fashion. System 1 is deemed the automatic and quick system that helps us consider space, distance, recognise faces, act emotionally etc., while system 2 is the supervisory system that consistently helps us update our views, learn from experience and engage in conscious reasoning. These two metaphorical systems can often conflict, most often when decisions have consequences at different points in time, leading to time inconsistent preferences or self control problems.
With very little knowledge of baseball Lisa first turns to those expected to have an intuitive understanding of the game, the bar-stoolers in Moe’s. It is in the local tavarn however that she comes across professor Frink who introduces her to the statistical side of baseball and the powers of sabermetrics. Lisa instantly becomes hooked, engaging system 2 and using books such as ‘Schrodinger’s bat’ to devise a strategy for the Springfield Isotots that's based upon the laws of probability. As was the eventual case with Billy Beane's strategy with Oakland A's, Lisa's statistically inspired strategy pushes the team to the top of the league.
It is here however where her system 2 thinking is overcome by the forces of system 1, a role unsurprisingly played by her brother Bart. Contrary to Lisa’s statistically grounded advice to play safe, Bart, believing Lisa is taking the fun out of baseball, smashes a homerun and wins the game for the team.Bart tells Lisa he was on a hot streak, but Lisa informs him that the hot hand is a statistical illusion! For not following the coaches orders Bart is removed from the team (despite his success), only later to be reinstated for the last play of the championship final.
The writers do a great job in presenting a balanced view of opinions on sport and stats. The power of statistical evidence in sport is weighed up against the benefits of taking sport for the emotional roller coaster that it is. Equally the statistical approach in sport is poked fun at as Proffesor Frink reveals the triviality of some statistics. As Homer suggested in an episode many years ago... “people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that.”