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Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game – Book Review – Wendell Santos

by on November 9, 2008

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

Michael Lewis. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co, 2003. 288pp. $16.47 (ISBN: 0-393-05765-8)

Introduction

“How did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games” (p. XI)? With that simple question Michael Lewis begins the story of Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics’ general manger (GM), and his quest to rethink how a baseball team is put together. But Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game also tells the story of how unconventional thinking met with resistance in major league baseball before being embraced by Beane as a way to keep his team competitive.

Before reading Moneyball, I had heard many things about how Oakland achieved success over the last few years. I wanted the complete story. The team’s methods for success had not been used in baseball and I wondered what led them to consider using these unorthodox methods. The issues of dealing with resistance to a change in philosophy, overcoming it and implementing the change are at the heart of any change management initiative. I felt that this could show change management outside of the business arena. I was also hoping to learn about how the change was received throughout the league and whether other teams would buy in to the model that the A’s were using.

Plot Synopsis – Change Ideas Presented

Moneyball uses the backdrop of the 2002 Oakland A’s season to look at how Billy Beane put together the team, the sources of the ideas he used, and the players that were living representations of his ideals even if they didn’t fully understand it. The first chapter looks at how Beane himself had once been considered an elite prospect who never turned into a big league star. He certainly had talent but many scouts made their evaluations using subjective, more traditional methods including the idea that he had “the Good Face” (p. 7) which bases future success on a player’s physical attractiveness.

Looking at this through the context of resistance to change, the first chapter serves as a nice background for chapter two where the reader is brought to the present day during a pre-draft meeting between Beane and his front office staff and scouts. This chapter is perhaps the clearest example of resistance to change in the book. Beane and his right hand man Paul DePodesta had already come to believe in a method of player evaluation where subjective analysis, while not completely removed was now heavily supplemented with statistical analysis. Time and again, Beane and DePodesta are shown bringing up players that the scouts think very little of and vice versa. Many of the scouts in the meeting had been trained in the traditional methods of scouting where things like how good a player looked in his uniform or how fast he ran were considered relevant to projecting future success. During the meeting, Lewis describes how the scouts use gut reactions and catch phrases as a way of illustrating their traditional way of thinking. The scouts are shown as unwilling or perhaps unable to change their way of thinking. This was a form of cultural resistance to the change that Beane was undertaking.

In a later chapter we are introduced to Sandy Alderson. Alderson was the GM prior to Beane and in many ways was the man who first instituted the change in the A’s organization. The question he originally asked that eventually became a way of business for Billy Beane was “what was the efficient way to spend money on baseball players” (p. 58)? Alderson knew that the team’s owners were not willing to spend a lot of money and therefore he had to be as efficient as possible with the money that he had. This in effect became the vision for the organization. After reading revolutionary research by Bill James, an amateur statistician who had published a yearly book with the results of his research, Alderson came to believe that a hitting statistic called on base percentage was the most important factor to a team’s success. With this in mind he instituted an organizational culture where a certain hitting approach was enforced at all levels of the baseball organization. The one weakness to the new way of doing business was that the big league club, the A’s were not run in the same way. The manager still controlled what the team on the field would be like and how they would play. In Alderson’s words this was like “leaving the fate of the organization to a middle manager” (p. 60). Billy Beane’s contribution to this rethinking of how the organization would be run was to hire a field manager that would be an extension of the GM. If Beane was the CEO then the manager’s job was to implement his vision in the day to day operations of the business. In this way the Oakland A’s were the first major league team to be run like a traditional business.

Another central idea was the search for statistics that accurately explain what happens on the baseball field. We are introduced to Bill James as an early pioneer behind the idea that traditional statistics were flawed. Lewis goes so far as to say that this was the reason that “nearly every big league front office preferred their own subjective opinion to …statistics” (p. 240). James turns out to be an important figure throughout the book. He never has direct influence on the Oakland organization but his revolutionary ideas on baseball statistics and research are a key idea behind the methods that Beane uses to construct the team. Lewis gives a brief history of James’ writing career describing him as a visionary writer with a small but devoted audience. James is continually frustrated by major league baseball’s indifference to his research and the reader can see that James failed to build urgency among baseball insiders. Part of this may be attributed to Kotter’s idea of the see-feel-change approach. James’ method is decidedly more like the analysis-think-change approach and it is little wonder that his ideas fall on deaf ears especially in such a tradition based business as baseball. Many years later James’ ideas make their way to Beane and he uses them to isolate those statistics that are most important to a player’s and a team’s success. The first benefit is that such statistics bring objectivity to player evaluation. The other benefit of objective statistics is that a GM can place a value on certain skills. Knowing the value of these skills allows them to see if the market is over or undervaluing them and then exploit any inefficiencies. Now this is something that all good GMs have done in one way or another for years. What ends up differentiating the A’s are their methods for spotting the market inefficiencies. An example of this is when Lewis talks about Scott Hatteberg a career journeyman prior to joining the A’s. His approach to hitting is described and we hear how his old team was “obsessed with outcomes; he with process” (p. 179). When he joins Oakland he is surprised that for the first time an organization is more interested in how he approaches an at bat instead of the actual outcome.

My Reactions

This book is not a classic example of change management as outlined by Kotter. Billy Beane didn’t exactly go about creating a sense of urgency, or a vision and he certainly didn’t communicate for buy in. In fact in chapter two, we see how he runs a meeting to prepare for the upcoming player draft and Lewis mentions that Beane and DePodesta do not tell the scouts about their ideas for evaluating players. They discuss players that the scouts hate without explaining why they are bringing them up. At the end of the year, the scouts end up leaving the team because they don’t understand what Billy Beane is getting at. Instead of achieving buy in, he lets those who don’t agree with him leave and hires people who understand his way of thinking. In this respect his management style strikes me more as “my way or the highway”.

This book becomes very interesting when you consider the context of the last six years since it was written. As the book finished, Lewis talks about how the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox hire general managers who believe in the approach pioneered by Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane. Paul DePodesta eventually became a GM himself for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The results have been decidedly mixed. While the Red Sox have won two World Series titles in that time and Oakland A’s have made the playoffs twice; the Blue Jays and Dodgers have been mediocre. DePodesta was eventually fired from his position.

I’m left with two questions at the end of Moneyball. While Beane definitely changed the way his organization thought about baseball, I couldn’t help but wonder if he simply replaced one type of conventional wisdom with another one. Did Beane in his zeal to take subjectivity out of the process of running a team inadvertently blind himself to methods that are still valid even if they are traditional? The other question focuses on how successful this method can be in the long run. As pointed out, the results over the last several years have been decidedly mixed. Additionally, if other organizations take elements of Oakland’s thinking, will the competitive advantage the A’s enjoyed early on be somewhat neutralized?

Conclusion

I had anticipated this book exploring the change in philosophy that Beane promoted and how the change affected not only the A’s but also the thinking of other teams in baseball. This was not the case. Beane is not trying to lead the change towards a new way of thinking about baseball. In fact, he mentions a couple of times in the book something to the effect that the longer Oakland can retain this advantage the better. In the end I think this book works better as a real world example of economics more than change management. It strikes me as an extended version of one of the short studies in Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics. That said Moneyball is an entertaining read that shows how unconventional thinking can lead to some success.

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