In Moneyball Oakland changes their draft approach and the movie hones in on how they significantly change their free agent and trade approach. They do not try to replace the lost star players with their full array of talents. Instead Bean and De Podesta seek to replace their totality with a group of players who can get on base and produce runs. This means scanning the horizon for “damaged” players who may not be great all around but manifest the skills at producing on base percentage and runs that the team needs to compete.
This leads to serious conflict with his scouts who cannot and will not understand what he is trying to do. They reflect battles that still occur today in some organizations and certainly in the blog sphere between people committed to evaluate players and teams by statistical approaches that James pioneers and those who reject it in favor of classic personal scouting and broad gauged character analysis.
With the amount of money invested in modern players and with a very limited budget Beane needs higher probability returns than traditional scouting and building upon high school players can provide. He also needs a more granular analysis of particular and unique skill sets that can produce maximum return in runs and game. This is all prelude to the modern game’s obsession with terms based upon value over replacement where players are seen as radically fungible producers of certain necessary skills and outputs.
Oakland's perilous economics and the new market conditions leave with little room for error also requires that Beane act ruthlessly when things do not work out. In this he must essentially usurp the function of his manager in terms of player assessment and team assessment. When Jeremy Giambi does not work out, he trades him. Art Howe, an almost unrecognizable and spot on Philip Seymour Hoffman, plays his imperial manager who gets all the credit for the success and blames Beane for the failure. When Howe refuses to play Beane’s choice for first base, Beane trades Howe’s preferred player. When Howe will not start one of Beane’s projects, he trades the pitcher Howe was using. In essence Beane redefines the role of the manager as a subordinate to a game and team plan that focuses upon maximizing a production function. It also gives the manager a large number of new tools such as a ball by ball breakdown of the probabilities of hits or outs which can open an entirely new world to a thoughtful manager.
The movie demonstrates Beane and De Podesta slowly educating and changing some of the players approach to the bat by explaining to them the reality of what happens when they are 1-0 rather than 0-1 at the plate. Suddenly not overswinging makes concrete sense in terms of how it increases a person’s chance to get a hit or get on base. Players slowly began to change As they educate and change the culture of the players and club house, they are aggressive to remove players that do not fit or disrupt the model.
The team sets a record with a 20 game winning streak after some disastrous starts. More importantly the success comes in the face of an incessant attack by most of the baseball establishment and insiders on Beane and this new approach. If he had failed, it would have set back the cause of analytic assessment of talent by a decade. Instead it jolts the mainstream, and one year later finds one of Beane’s admirers Theo Epstein reconfiguring the Red Sox by Beane’s principles to bring them two world series and end the “curse.”
Notice that I did not mention once that the movie stars Brad Pit who does an intense but winning star turn as Billy Beane. Pitt makes the movie but does not dominate it. For the movie tells a deeper and powerful story—any culture can become closed and blind to its own weakens. It reminds us that outsiders and good data analysis can reveal hidden patterns and important insights that anecdote and insider common knowledge miss. Too often cultures without clarity of analysis about what it is looking for resemble echo chambers repeating wisdom that sort of worked but may be less relevant for new conditions. Beane saw this and Epstein proved what happens when you couple that analysis with real money in the Red Sox success.
The movie works and reminds us that it takes courage and commitment as well as decisiveness to inject data and analysis into a self-referential and closed world. It helps to add some desperation and urgency to adapt to a new world. Serious culture change also takes a willingness to fail and take the slings and arrows of abuse. In Beane’s case it helps to have a daughter to give him perspective and keep him sane.
I find it ironic and hard that after Billy Beane turned down the General manager of the Boston Red Sox, one of his disciples and admirers, a very young Theo Epstein, deployed the same statistical acumen and focus upon run scoring and bat discipline aided by money to win two world championships. Now exhausted after triumphs and living in the intense world of Boston sports, he may be ready to move on for very human reasons.
No one is quite clear what dynamic lead to the implosion of the Red Sox, but they represented in many ways the best the traditional and sabe metric analysis can buy. But in the stretch, the team fell apart and spun into an emotional tail spin that lead the team to come apart at the seam in terms of cohesion and performance. It happened fast, in less than six weeks. Now ugly stories are leaking out and the blame game has started, but we have some sense that levels of discipline, commitment and focus within the team may have changed.
It may be in modern athletics or in any organization, ten years of leading is enough. The Red Sox owner John Henry saw the power of integrating statistical analysis but mused on the human reality of trying to lead a well assembled team. "The fact is that being general manager in Boston, being manager in Boston, is a terrifically tough job." There may be a "shelf life" to leading in such intense crucibles as Joe Torre or Pat Riley and others have illustrated over the years. It may mean that the community has forgotten what it gained. It might mean that the team forgets what brought it success. It might be that the leader no longer has the energy to see through the emotional craziness—although no one claims the Cubs fans are sane. Epstein’s leaving after the collapse of the Red Sox has its own somber logic.
Luck, culture, contagion, momentum all can play their roles. Good leaders can use fine analysis to assemble a team that should work on paper, but the analysis only changes the probability, humans have to do the rest.