Dangers of Moneyball Hiring in Academia:

Political scientist Daniel Drezner has responded to my post praising the use of Moneyball hiring methods in academia. As I noted in the earlier post, Moneyball academic hiring uses statistical and other scientific methods to identify undervalued scholars who are likely to be more productive than the rest of the market (which may rely on impressionistic hiring criteria) expects. In the same way, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane has used statistical methods to identify undervalued baseball players and build a team that routinely outperforms competitors with much higher payrolls. My own school, George Mason University, has been one of the leaders in applying moneyball-like methods to hiring, and their use has been one of the causes of the school's rapid rise in the law school rankings over the last few years.

Drezner sees some merit in the Moneyball approach to academic hiring, but also posits two dangers:

1) In the end, you get poached. All approaches and areas of inquiry become fashionable at some point--even military historians. Once a department has attained a flush of prominence, the old standbys will come with their deep pockets to make lucrative free agent signings. The cream of a department's crop gets poached, leading to a slow decline.

The gain of a short-term boost might be worth the price of long-term backsliding, were it not for the second hazard of a Moneyball approach:

2) The risks of overspecialization. When a department hires a lot in a specialty or methodology that is currently unappreciated, they are essentially letting these scholars run the show. A history department dominated by military historians, a political science department dominated by postmodernists, or a law faculty dominated by critical legal theorists risks appearing unfriendly to good scholars from other traditions.

If departments overspecialize, they risk falling into a trap: they can only successfully recruit people from a particular scholarly tradition, but the best of those people will eventually be lured away to premier institutions. Because the social sciences tend to see cutting-edge scholarship emerge from different approaches over time, a department that specializes in one approach risks acquiring blinders about where the rest of the field is going.

I think that Drezner's points have some validity, but not as much as he suggests. There is most definitely a risk that a school with good scholars will be "poached" by higher-ranking institutions. But that is far better than the alternative of having scholars that higher-ranking institutions don't want to hire. As GMU Law School Dean Dan Polsby once put it: "Nobody wants a faculty that nobody wants!" A school that consistently applies Moneyball methods in its hiring processes should be able to find undervalued younger scholars as replacements for more senior faculty who get poached by higher-ranking schools. In the same way, Billy Beane found good replacements for numerous free agents whom the A's lost to teams with higher payrolls (e.g. - Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Keith Foulke, etc.). In fact, GMU Law School has itself lost quite a few faculty to higher-ranked law schools in recent years, but this has not (at least so far) prevented the school from continuing to improve. And the more a school rises in the rankings thanks to Moneyball methods, the lower the number of remaining higher-ranking schools that can hire its scholars away.

The danger of overspecialization is also a real one. However, the way to combat it is by applying the Moneyball approach more rigorously, not by giving up on it. A Moneyball-oriented school should be on the lookout for undervalued scholars who use a wide variety of methodologies, not just one or two. But if worse comes to worst and a Moneyball school does fall back in the rankings because it becomes overspecialized after an initial meteoric rise, that may still be better than the alternative of never having risen at all in the first place. As retired baseball players can attest, it's better to be a has-been than a never was.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Dangers of Moneyball Hiring in Academia:
  2. Some truly great moments in baseball history:
  3. A Moneyball Victory:
RMCACE (mail):
Is this posted because the A's got swept in the ALCS, which can actually be considered their greatest post-season success?
10.15.2006 3:10am
Kate1999 (mail):
A moneyball-oriented school should be on the lookout for undervalued scholars who use a wide variety of methodologies, not just one or two.

Does this apply to GMU? Looking at GMU's roster, it doesn't appear to have a faculty that uses a wide variety of methodologies.
10.15.2006 3:14am
John Armstrong (mail):
I haven't read Drezner's post, so he may already cover these points.

1) Baseball has salary caps, so a deep-pocketed team can only poach so many players. On the other hand, there's no regulation preventing a school like Yale from buying up whomever it wants. Of course, in practice Yale doesn't like spending a cent it doesn't have to, but the point is still there: Major League Baseball has a regulatory structure absent from the ivory tower.

2) A baseball team cannot function without a balance of different positions. Maybe I notice that people don't pay left fielders as much as the statistics say they're worth, but I can't staff a club with just left fielders. Actually, what you're describing doesn't sound like academic departments are searching for undervalued players so much as undervalued positions, which also serves to break the moneyball analogy.

In short: there are pretty obvious reasons why moneyball works better in MLB than in academics.
10.15.2006 3:37am
Aaron Solem (mail) (www):
John Armstrong wrote:

" Baseball has salary caps, so a deep-pocketed team can only poach so many players."

Actually, Baseball has no salary cap, which makes the A's success (post-season non-withstanding) such a compelling story.
10.15.2006 4:12am
Grateful Alum (mail):
Prof. Somin,

Your analysis is persuasive. The reward from Mason's Moneyball hiring approach is well worth the risks.

To elaborate further on Dean Polsby's comment, the notoriety and success of Mason's approach and the resulting increased possibility of poaching make Mason doubly attractive to potential hires: If one makes it onto the Mason faculty and gets poached, great, but, if not, still great, given the very energetic and creative environment. Smarter faculty applicants will understand this and favor Mason.

Your point that Mason's best response to the risks is to pursue the approach even more rigorously is also a necessary element, because not only does it keep Mason ahead of copycats but it also hastens the day when, due to Mason's ascent to the heights, the relative attractiveness of being part of the dynamic Mason faculty outweighs all but the usual amount of poaching at an elite law school.

When that happens Mason will still have an edge, if it continues to welcome conservative and libertarian faculty, because some of its competitors are so dominated by the hard left that they don't want to hire more than one or two token conservatives or libertarians -- no matter what their scholarly qualifications are. This kind of market-blind foolishness would undermine funding advantages due to longer institutional history.

A final advantage of maintaining the Moneyball approach is the effect it has on prospective applicants who conduct rigorous research into law schools. Although I was a graduate of Columbia and easily could have attended a higher-ranking law school, I saw Mason's potential reputation for the whole of my career, not just the year I applied, and had little difficulty accepting Mason's offer of admission. Once I matriculated, I met many other students in a similar position.

Word of Mason's many advantages has since spread rapidly. As a result, an admissions rate of about 25% when I matriculated (if I recall correctly) has plummeted to as low as 10% since then. I wouldn't want to face those odds today, but, given the superb education I received, I certainly recommend those now in the law school market to try for Mason despite the odds. Who knows but that Mason might identify you as one of those undervalued student gems in the rough?

Grateful Alum
Mason Law '03
10.15.2006 10:36am (mail):
You incorrectly limit the danger of poaching to "higher-ranked" schools. There are plenty of deep-pocketed schools lower in the rankings that are willing to spend good money for name hires to boost their rankings. Even some of the less fortunate schools often have money to make at least one big hire.

Also, I find it amusing that you imply that professors would only leave a school if they are hired by a "higher-ranked" school. Ranked by whom? Could it be U.S. News? I know, I know: professors will protest that they have their own internal ranking system, and it is just mere coincidence that it so uncannily mirrors the U.S. News rankings. Or perhaps they'll claim that they rely on citation rankings, perhaps the stupidest way to measure the educational quality of an institution (although it is a nifty way to incorporate academic reputation into a ranking system while being able to claim simple reputation has nothing to do with it). Not to be too sour, my three years in law school - completed in the last couple years - taught me that professors and administrators are every bit as obsessed with and affected by rankings as any prospective student. Your post just backs that up.
10.15.2006 11:12am
Grumpy Old Man (mail) (www):
This post illustrates the extent to which academic "research" has become a meaningless glass-bead game.

What a useless, corrupt oligopoly our universities have become!
10.15.2006 11:39am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I agree that point 2 is something to watch out for (tho specialization of a department isn't all bad) but point 1 isn't a serious drawback.

Yes, people will get poached but not everyone. Some people will stay because they have families in the area now or just don't want to move again. Thus you should expect to still be better off after both the moneyball hirings and the poachings.

In fact I think this is a very strong argument for making offers to academic couples together. Often you can give lower pay to a top notch academic if you will also hire their academic husband/wife who is often an excellent scholar as well. In many schools they are only filling the positions that are currently open so they won't make offers to both members of a couple meaning a school willing to do so can sneak in and grab them bth.

Secondly a huge factor in how easy it is to hire good faculty is whether you have good faculty there already. Once you get some high powered faculty at your school they will encourage other people in the same discipline to accept your offers, even if they are eventually hired away.

Grumpy Old Man,

No it doesn't. In fact it shows how important it is to actually have good researchers who produce good products. Sure which university has what researcher is just a matter of pride, but this competition is what pays the higher salaries and gives more recognition that drives all the research breathtroughs.

If you have an actual detalied argument about why this is the case it would be interesting to hear.
10.15.2006 1:48pm
frankcross (mail):
Moneyball is trickier in law schools for several reasons.
One is the lack of long term contracts (should law schools use these?) Another is the number of law schools. GMU is subject to poaching from more than there are MLB teams. Another is need. You only need one star position player (some like ARod will switch positions but not many). Lawprofs don't have defined positions that are full.

Of course, it still makes sense for law schools to use it, but it's harder for them to break into the top tier. I think the methodological specialization is a pretty good strategy, it allows law schools to be top tier for that specialization and presumably helps fight poaching because of collaborative colleagues.
10.15.2006 3:58pm
Moneyball wins in July and August, not in October (see the A's). It's a good strategy for improving considerably (see the A's and Mason), but Moneyball alone will not win a World Series or move a law school into the top-tier of schools. If anything can be gleaned from baseball, it's that good managerial skills will go a long way (see Jim Leyland).
10.15.2006 5:18pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):

The salaries are lower in law schools and the professors older than baseball players meaning the cost of relocating is relatively higher.
10.16.2006 2:36am
If "productivity" is the goal, simply get rid of tenure and have every professor on an annual contract, the renewal of which is contingent on the production of a certain number of publications of a given quality per year.
10.16.2006 11:15am
JohnO (mail):

The problem with that is that it will be nearly impossible to recruit quality "free agents" and to keep the ones who blossom without providing the long-term security that other schools are willing to provide. Imagine how a baseball team would do in the free agent market if it unilaterally decided to only sign players to ne year contracts.
10.16.2006 11:37am
HLSbertarian (mail):
Moneyball wins in July and August, not in October (see the A's). It's a good strategy for improving considerably (see the A's and Mason), but Moneyball alone will not win a World Series or move a law school into the top-tier of schools. If anything can be gleaned from baseball, it's that good managerial skills will go a long way (see Jim Leyland).

Do they change the rules in October? I thought this trend where a manger's IQ fluctuates directly with his team's record every year had run its course.

And for what it's worth, the Red Sox WS win had quite a bit of Moneyball thinking behind it. Specifically, the Sox knew that the league undervalued patient hitters and got guys like Mark Bellhorn significant ABs for chump change that year.
10.16.2006 12:15pm
John M. Perkins (mail):
The discussion above focuses on research styles of profs. Moneyball critics focus too much on OBP. When OBP was poached by opponents, the A's switched to defense. And the A's have not neglected trainers and tandem rotations in the minors.

A true Moneyball law school wouldn't be stuck on trendy economic &law researchers, but when poached, would grab the now undervalued socratic methoder, or moot court coach, or legal drafter, or teaching librarian, or exceptional career services guru.
10.16.2006 1:09pm
Jon Black (mail):
The Red Sox played lip service to Moneyball, but when you have the second highest payroll in the league, identifying market inefficiencies isn't why you have more talent than your opponent.

Moneyball, doesn't neccesarily lose in October, but Billy Beane's teams will consistently do so becuase they fail to avail themselves of all opportunities to generate offense. By eradicating the stolen base, the hit &run, and the sacrifice, the Athletics piegon-hole themselves into a spot where they have to generate all thier runs from the batter-box. This works well against the Royals and the Mariners (check this years numbers) but when quality squads with quality arms show up in October, the a's go gently into that goodnight. And they always will.
10.17.2006 2:24am
Eli Rabett (www):
I think you are missing a point, besides Moneyball, a good strategy is to concentrate in an area others have neglected. You can then build an attractive, leading department.

The major mistake is to try and compete head on with a group that has much deeper pockets than you do. They can afford mistakes. As Wee Willie Keeler (Contracts '08) said, hire em where they ain't.
10.17.2006 10:32am
GregC (mail):
Professor Somin,

I'm curious to know whether you've considered Drezner's poaching comment in light of GMUSL's recent loss of Francesco Parisi to the University of Minnesota Law School? Whether or not Parisi was actually "poached" is another question entirely. But, Parisi accounted for the largest number of GMUSL professor SSRN downloads, and I would not be suprised if he also had the largest number of Westlaw citations. Thus, one would expect to see that Parisi's absence from the GMUSL faculty results in a big impact in Brian Leiter's "Faculty Quality Based on Scholarly Impact" rankings, in which GMUSL has, historically, done quite well.

Your thoughts?
10.17.2006 1:37pm