A Lean Guy Watches Moneyball
When it first came out, I was a big fan of Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game about the Oakland A’s major league baseball team and the unorthodox approach they took to building a team (under the leadership of General Manager Billy Beane). Now that the movie, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, is out on DVD, I watched it (as the first movie I downloaded to my Kindle Fire) for general enjoyment and with an eye for “Like Lean” concepts that I had remembered from the book.
I’m not a movie reviewer, so you might want to first read Roger Ebert’s review and summary of the movie and then I’ll give my Lean perspective.
Early on, Beane is frustrated by the conversation of the group of baseball player scouts employed by the team after they lost (as a low payroll team) to the New York Yankees (the highest payroll team) in the 2001 playoffs.
Beane asked, “What’s the problem?” and the scouts threw out a lot of solutions – which players they should sign or promote. Beane kept saying that nobody was framing the problem correctly. The problem is that, with their financial constraints, they couldn’t afford to find a direct single replacement for Jason Giambi or for Johnny Damon after they were signed away by the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The problem wasn’t about what player to sign – it was about how to compete differently. The scouts were portrayed as being stuck in the traditional baseball orthodoxy, including discussions of a player having “a good face” or talking about who had “an ugly girlfriend” as if that was an indicator of their baseball success.
As Toyota had to do after World War II, facing a smaller market and a smaller budget, Beane and the A’s would have to think differently and compete on different terms. For Toyota, that meant things like mistake proofing, quick changeover, and just in time production. For the Oakland A’s, it meant evaluating players on a different basis – relying more on statistics than the traditional approach and valuing some statistics like on base percentage and walks more than baseball traditionally had done.
Needless to say, the baseball traditionalists, including manager Art Howe, didn’t like having their orthodoxy challenged, as that was a threat to their way of doing things and it was a threat to their jobs.
One of the scouts confronted Beane and told him he wasn’t pr0perly respecting the accumulated experience and intuition of the scouts, that baseball couldn’t be run based on pure numbers and science. Do we see this in other industries where we are trying to shake things up with new thinking? Does the old guard say “look, you just don’t understand how things work here”? Beane comments at another point that baseball has “medieval management” – which is something you can use to your advantage if you’re willing to adapt (“adapt or die” being one of the slogans that Beane threw out at the team).
Beane and his stats-driven special assistant (a composite character named Peter Brand, played by Hill) want Howe to play Scott Hatteberg (a poor defensive first baseman who had a high on-base percentage) over Carlos Pena (a promising young player who fit the more traditional mold). Howe refused to listen to Beane, consistently playing Pena.
Out of frustration, Beane made a move that could be considered a “forcing function.” Beane couldn’t directly make Howe play Hatteberg, so he did what he COULD do – he traded Pena to the Detroit Tigers.
As the A’s start winning in 2002, Beane gets more involved in directly coaching the players in this new “Moneyball” approach to the game. Beane tells a group of players in the weight room that “This is a process – it’s a process, it’s a process.” He’s trying to get them to buy into the new process before the results are completely proven (something that should seem familiar to many readers).
This “process” wasn’t just a bunch of rah rah motivational talk (although Beane half heartedly tried some of that earlier, when the team was losing a lot). There were guidelines – “standardized work” if you will, including:
- Take more pitches (wear out the pitchers)
- Walk more (just get on base, a walk is as good as a hit)
- Don’t steal bases (too risky if you get thrown out)
- Never bunt to advance runners (you’re giving away an out for little benefit)
Beane says simply, “get on base, we win.” He had a method and a process, not just a pep talk.
Toward the end of the movie, after the A’s lost again in the 2002 playoffs, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry is attempting to hire Beane away from the A’s and he tells him that when innovative thinkers challenge the powers that be, those who hold the reins, they “go batshit crazy.”
I think Moneyball, while not a perfect movie, was entertaining and interesting enough, especially if you like baseball. But I think the movie is of particular interest to those who are trying to chip away at the conventional wisdom in an industry.
Have you seen the movie? What was your reaction to it? Check out a post by Chad Walters about Moneyball that makes some similar points and he catches a few things I didn’t mention.