Moneyball worked for baseball, but could it work for food?

Have you seen or read Moneyball? Baseball fan or not, it is a must read (and a pretty good watch as well). It is fascinating to hear about how the small market Oakland A’s, with a $40 million payroll, can compete with the $125 Million New York Yankees and come within outs of beating them in the playoffs.

But as I read it, I could not stop thinking about food. It wasn’t hunger but parallels I saw between the conventional wisdom of baseball and our food system. Both seem so rock solid, but once you start looking at data, quickly crumble into myth and folly.

Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane and his assistant Paul DePodesta were able to look at baseball differently and understand what went into winning a baseball game better than the Yankees and everyone else in baseball. They resisted the sirens call to assess baseball talent on the potential of an arm, legs, power, and face, and honed in on the data of what a player had done. Much like a mutual fund, past performance does not guarantee future success. But Billy and Paul felt past performance was a better indicator of baseball success than the hopes and dreams scouts projected on players after gawking at their 95 mph fastball or Ruthian home runs in batting practice.

When you get down to it, the Yankees and the rest of baseball were lazy, profligate spenders, much like Paris Hilton on a shopping spree, not caring how much is spent as long as she got what she wanted. Why? They were blinded by dollars and believed they could judge a player’s value by what a team was willing to pay him. And as is often the case, the market was wrong. It is like buying a Jaguar over a Honda Accord. Everyone looks at the sleek lines, cool hood ornament and price tag and “knows” the Jag is a better car. Except when it is in the shop and craps out on you before 100,000 miles. In baseball, Yankees buy luxury sports cars and the A’s trade in for reliable Accords.

The Yankees budget allowed them the luxury of buying any player they wanted so they did not spend the time truly understanding why they won. However, they won games for the same reason the A’s won games – their players scored more runs than their opponents. The difference was that the A’s were a hell of a lot more efficient than the Yankees at scoring runs. In 2002, the A’s spent $50,000/run ($40,004,167/800), while the Yankees spent $140,000/run ($ 125,928,583/897). In a free market economy, the Yankees are massively inefficient. Or worse, the Yankees were paying their players a subsidy for every run they scored. That is market distorting and potentially socialist.

But baseball is not alone. Apply Moneyball to our food system. While the goal of baseball is to win games, the goal of eating food is to be healthy. To win baseball games, you get on base and score runs. To be healthy you eat calories and deliver nutrients to the body.

American society focuses a lot on calories. We count them, cut them, and read how many of them are in every packaged good we eat (nature hasn’t found a way to print them on the skin of an apple). Much like a baseball manager measuring the success of a player on hits per at bat (or batting average), measuring the health value of Coke Zero on the numbers of calories in the plastic bottle is at best an incomplete picture of the beverage and at worst misleading and inefficient. In baseball, a batting average only tells you the ratio of hits a batter gets compared to his times at bat – ignoring the times he gets on base via walk and error and a host of other factors that can contribute to wins (like the number of pitches he makes the pitcher throw, thus wearing down his arm later in the game). Calories only tell us the units of energy that enter our body. But not every calorie is created equal and there are a lot of other things that enter our mouths when we eat and drink that positively or negatively affect our health, like vitamins, minerals, fat, and toxins. At the end of the day, we want nutrients.

Nutrients are the runs of the food game. You need them to be healthy just as you need runs to win a baseball game. The question is how you get them. Food is just like hits. Some food is a single – gives you calories and not much else. But foods like blueberries are home runs, efficiently delivering nutrients to the body.

The food label tells us that we need 2,000 calories. You can eat McDonalds French Fries to get your recommended 2,000 calories a day but you will gain wait, clog your arteries, raise your blood pressure and greatly increase your chances of an early death. All while not getting many nutrients your body and mind need to be healthy. Americans simply do not know how to win the food game. There is so much data and misinformation out there, that we have become lazy and just focused on calories because we don’t know how to measure nutrients. Worse, the food system is set up in a way that we simply see food as a product you buy and put in our mouths.

Like baseball, food is awash with statistics. When you pick up the Baseball Encyclopedia, it is just rows and rows of data collected on every player since the mid-1850s. The label on a food package is no different. People have lots of numbers but they don’t help them understand. Just as baseball says, “Just spend money, that will equate to wins.” The food industry says, “Just buy our food, it will make you healthy.” What we need is the Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta of food to dive into the data and come up with a new system for winning the food game.

So the question becomes what is the most cost effective way to get nutritious calories into our bodies? Is it a large industrial food system that separated people from food, making it simply a product to buy? Or is there another way?

Our current system says vast monoculture farms of corn, soy beans, wheat, and rice are the place to start. They then send it to a factory or industrial farm where the food inputs are made into the vast majority of processed food items at you local multinational supermarket. This is the New York Yankees approach to food. Only a few large multinational companies along the value chain produce an alarming percentage of our food. Monsanto sells the seeds, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland process “corn, oilseeds, wheat and cocoa into products for food, animal feed, chemical and energy uses,” Nestle, Kraft, and General Mills process and package the food, and Kroger and Safeway sale it to you.

So my question is who are the Billy Bean and Paul DePodesta of food? (In full disclosure, I aspire to be, but haven’t even entered food t-ball yet.) Michael Pollan? No, he is the Michael Lewis of food, the guy that wrote Moneyball. Jamie Oliver? No, but he is definitely on the roster. Joel Salatin, the operator of Polyface farm? Closer, but we cannot all be Joel. The answer is I don’t know. That is why I am writing this. I want this post to be the Bill James Baseball Abstracts of food and have it end up in the hands of the Billy Beane of food, who then revolutionizes the way the country looks at food.

As I wait, I will continue to study and come up with my own theories, hypotheses and equations for a better way for food and showing that we are not dealing with the Yankees of food, but the Cubs of food. Let’s be honest, the Yankees are still winning the run game, albeit expensively. Like the Yankees, the Cubs think spending money on players will make them a winner. Clearly that has not worked for 103 years. (How else you can explain giving Alfanso Soriano an eight-year contract worth $136 million when he was on the eve of his 31st birthday?) But the Cubs don’t win. Their ratio of dollars to runs in 2002 was 107,000/run ($75,690,833/706). In 2011, their payroll would increase to $125 million but they would score 52 LESS runs for a whopping ratio of $191,000/run.

As eaters, we are the Chicago Cubs and are looking at the wrong information when we make our food decisions. We measure “success” by the wrong metrics – corn yields, calories, and low price. If we measure food by a definition that is based on what matters – health – a different model for growing, distributing, and eating food will emerge and revolutionize food as Beane revolutionized baseball. Will the Billy Beane of food please stand up!

Until then, the search continues. Send me comments, arguments, data, counter theses, and thoughts. Batter up!

Deleted paragraph. I like this paragraph but it seemed extraneous, so I share it with you here:
In Moneyball, Bill and Paul could care less if you got on base with a hit, walk, or error. They all got you on base and moved other runners closer to scoring. That is why a player’s on-base percentage (OBP) was so important to them. However, they did not see all hits as being equal. Extra-base hits, measured by slugging percentage, were clearly moved players closer to scoring faster than just a single. But other teams placed too much value on doubles, triples and home runs. When Paul looked at the data, he saw that on-base percentage was three times more important in scoring runs than slugging percentage. So when choices were on the table, the table, the A’s would take the .270 punch and Judy hitter that walked 80 times over the .290 slugger with 40 home runs that struck out 100 times.


7 responses to “Moneyball worked for baseball, but could it work for food?

  1. As a small Inn owner wishing to deliver local, fesh food to our guests, I sure would like to learn the Billy Beane method. Our problem is that in order to serve nutrient laden dishes using fresh local products, we need to spend like we have a bankroll similar to the Yankees. Local, fresh food in my area is expensive. Growing our own food is an answer, but extremely time-consuming when you are running a business. How do we bring the cost of fresh local food down?

    And as a Cubs fan, I am betting on Theo Epsteins’s arrival as a solution to the 103 year old curse. I wonder if he knows anything about food?

    • Theo is no longer the GM he was. The problem is that too many people are using Billy Beane’s techniques so the bargains are harder and harder to find. The Cubs are now not only overpaying for players, they are way over paying for a GM. They would have been better off finding some young Yale grad that studies Beane and Theo for the last 10 years and hired him at a fraction of the price.

      I have a post coming to address the first part of your comment. We have become such a consumer culture that we feel we need to buy everything. But we can replace a lot of costs by doing things ourselves. One issue with that is that no one knows how to do anything for themselves anymore.

      Thank for reading and for the comments. Keep ’em coming!

  2. For me, this is the important part of your piece–“Like baseball, food is awash with statistics.” I would love to read about how you, Mr. Morrison, suggest we change that–is it through school gardens that teach kids that food doesn’t come out of plastic bags, but out of the ground? Is it abolishing lobbyists (something Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson and others have suggested)? Is it creating a stronger health lobby that actually advocates for people’s health? I think the numbers we want to start getting people to think about are–numbers of dinners they’ve had with neighbors, numbers of steps they’ve taken each day rather than driving, numbers of times they visited the farmers market, number of meals they’ve cooked of foods that were locally grown, etc.

    Who’s the next Billy Bean for food? Not Pollan, not Salatin, not Anna Lappe, not Ellen Gustafson (although they’re awesome)–but all of us. That’s the message you need to be sending. We all really can change the food system in our own ways that add up to a bigger revolution.

  3. This is an Interesting concept but unfortunately, the food system is so much more complicated than baseball. First, winning is defined differently by different players. It would be great if the game was to get the most nutritious food to people in the most efficient, socially responsible way, but for so many in the food business, the game is to make the most money period, damn the consequences.

    Further, in baseball, there are some fundamental rules that everyone must play by. There are 3 outs in an inning, there are 9 innings in a game, the team with the most runs wins. In the food industry, certain actors can change the rules in their favor. When the corn industry gets massive subsidies from the federal government, it’s like the Yankees getting to start each game with an automatic 2-run lead.

    And when the dairy industry gets to provide “nutritional information” to kids through our school system, it’s like the Red Sox, masquerading as a trusted 3rd party source, gets every young baseball prospect to start in their player development system.

    All that said, the concept of improving our food system through in a Billy Beane-like fashion makes a lot of sense. There are cheaters in the food system, just like there are cheaters in baseball, but that doesn’t stop some smart, dedicated people from being able to overcome the odds against them to pull off some victories.

  4. Okay, I’m just a tad bit late to the party. Heellllllll, yeah. I’m waiting for you to write the book. You are doing your part in the food revolution. I’m trying. Together, we can make it happen. Right? Let’s hope to God so.

  5. True Steve and great comments. The trick of those with most to loose if conventional wisdom is challenged is to make things seem as complicated as possible. Subsidies and industry led regulation = steroids, stealing signs, and throwing games. No doubt that the big boys have the power and that is a huge challenge. But it doesn’t mean that we have to play by their rules. Breaking the conventional wisdom means beating them at their own game because you play it better and more efficiently. Organics cannot beat industrialized food by becoming more organic. We take pride in the decreased amount of time people spend producing (near zero), preparing and eating food. We shouldn’t. How does food restore itself as one of the centerpieces of our lives. One of my favorite things is coming to your vegan potlucks because it represents not only good food (sans the things that comes packaged) but also the coming together of community and the entertainment it provides. Sure, per unit cost may be more expensive, but the cost is spread across many (buying in bulk good), and I didn’t spend $10 on a movie ticket or $50 drinking beer at the bar. God forbid I actually meet new friends and learn something. To end. we have become so intellectually lazy about what we put in our mouths, I can’t just blame industry (as I love to do). It is about education, community and engaging in the things that matter most to us – health, friends and community. Thank you again for your comment and all of our great talks and debates on food.

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