Finding Parallels in Baseball and Drug Development

3/1/13

Consider a candidate.  Selecting that candidate takes thousands of hours of time and research–checking background, verifying data, assessing probabilities, projecting futures.  Once selected, more years of development follow, during which time the odds of success are less than 10 percent.  And if that candidate finally does make it, there’s just a small window of exclusivity before protection expires and that candidates goes out to the broader market.

I’m talking, of course, about baseball players.

So I’m a Mariners fan.  Have been since about 1999 (I moved to Seattle in 1996, so missed the big comeback year and it took me a little time to catch up).  And like all fans, I watch and hope, year after year, looking for signs of improvement, direction, some indication that there’s a plan. I keep looking towards some point in the not too distant future–let’s call it “next year” or even “year after next”–when I’ll once again be able to root for a winning team.

But while the Mariners may still be in what feels like eternal rebuilding, I’ve been able to find a silver lining in my fandom:  I’ve realized drug development seems to be learning from baseball.

Statistics, but the right ones.

There are a lot of parallels between the businesses of baseball and drug development.  Both involve long periods of development followed by limited periods of exclusivity for the product (drugs, players) being developed.  Resources (targets, talent) are rare.  Assets get traded or bought or sold.  There are the juggernauts and the mid-market and the small-market players.  And there’s the always-present need to keep doing more and finding better ways of winning, preferably with less.

One of the more fascinating developments in baseball has been the rise of a new statistical framework around the game.  Baseball has always been the most statistically conscious of sports, but it’s also been the most heavily invested in its own history and mythology.  Ken Burns is not making a 18.5-hour documentary on Arena Football anytime soon.  That reverence for history means there has been a lot of resistance to new ideas.  For almost the entire modern era of baseball, certain statistics (ERA, W-L records, batting average, RBIs) have been the gold standard for performance.  Even though, when it comes down to it, they’re not really the best things to measure if you want to create a winning baseball team.

As Dave Cameron from Fangraphs has discussed on several occasions (like this one), statistics in baseball are how we figure out the the answers to questions.  We might be asking who’s the Most Valuable Player (*cough*Mike Trout*cough*) or what kind of pitcher or hitter a given team should be trying to get through free agency, or whether a player can be expected to sustain his level of performance.  Some statistics like RBIs, venerated for years, are actually not that useful since they partially reflect circumstances outside a hitter’s control but are treated as a direct proxy for ability.  Albert Pujols would have trouble cracking 70 RBIs a year if he were batting 9th.

But okay, drug development.  Better statistics are making their way into drug development, exemplified by … Next Page »

Kyle Serikawa works as a Senior Research Scientist in Genomics for Novo Nordisk. He is a recent graduate and current board member for Leadership Tomorrow in Seattle. The views expressed on this post are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of Novo Nordisk. Follow @

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  • ~

    So, who’s Ichiro?

  • Matt

    Loved the article! I grew up near Seattle and finished undergrad at UW in Biochem. I moved to Baltimore for grad school and articles like this inspire me on what to consider in my future. Also I love Moneyball and the Mariners :D

  • Kyle Serikawa

    For anyone interested, there was a nice interview with the Director of Decision Sciences at the Houston Astros on the distinction between results and good process. http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/qa-sig-mejdal-astros-director-of-decision-sciences/