What baseball can teach us about saving America's failing institutions

Despite his traditional background, Hurdle was convinced that the Pirates’ defensive shifting plan was worth trying. And his old-school background was exactly what was necessary for the plan to be implemented. Hurdle made sure that the Pirates’ analysts who formulated the plan got out of their offices and spent extensive time with the players and coaches, from spring training through the end of the season, eventually even traveling with the team on road trips. He saw that they needed to interact directly with, and gain the respect of, the people who would carry out the plan—otherwise it would never work. And the analysts needed to shed any tendencies to either resort to authority and issue orders, or condescend to non-quants in the manner familiar to anyone who’s had to deal with tech support.

More importantly, each side in this discussion needed to recognize and respect the expertise of the other. The players and coaches needed to recognize that people who’d never played the game could nevertheless have valuable insights, while the analysts needed to recognize that even though most of the players were not quantitative experts, they were not dumb. The Pirates’ staff also recognized that because baseball players have such highly developed visual recognition skills, the players could absorb and act upon huge amounts of information if it was presented in the right visual format. So then, how exactly do you incorporate on-the-ground feedback and adjust accordingly?

The first step is to be open to that feedback. As part of the effort to forge respect between the players and coaches, on the one hand, and the analysts on the other, Hurdle encouraged the analysts to explain as often as necessary the bases for the Pirates’ new plan and the players and coaches to critique the plan as much as they wanted. This was often, given the radical increase in how often the Pirates planned to shift defensively.