The thing you have to know about “Moneyball,” the new Brad Pitt film, is that it’s got nothing to do with baseball. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s got a lot more to do with baseball than did Michael Lewis’ fantastic book(see my review here) on which it’s based. But the story of “Moneyball,” both on screen and on the printed page, revolves around a fundamental question: “…how does a low-budget operation manage to win consistently against the best-funded teams in sports.”
The film does an excellent job dramatizing that struggle, watching the beleagured Billy Beane (Pitt), and his trusty assistant “Peter Brand” (a film amalgamation of real-life assistants Paul DePodesta, J.P. Ricciardi and Dan Feinstein, played ably by comic actor Jonah Hill), battle on-field opponents, baseball’s institutional inertia, and their own self-doubt every step of the way. It makes for great entertainment, while providing a storyline just about any entrepreneur, small business owner or “working-class hero” can relate to.
More important than the story, though, are the lessons within “Moneyball” (and here’s where the book is a better resource than the film). In the years since the book’s release, the team at the center of the story has regressed, moving from a perennial post-season contender, to a middle-of-the-pack mob of outcasts, misfits and outright mistakes.
And many within the baseball (think “business”) and media (think “media”) establishment have pounced, claiming that “Moneyball” (the approach, not the book), has failed. “Stats are overrated,” the critics claim, finding evidence in Billy Beane’s recent struggles.
But the lesson of “Moneyball” (the book and the film) is this:
“…[S]tats were beside the point… The point was understanding.”
In both the book and the film, Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, with limited payroll, used stats that no one else was using define each player’s value and contribution to the team’s success.
For instance, during the 2002 season the film chronicles, the team believed that conventional fielding stats failed to account for a player’s contribution to team wins. As Paul DePodesta recounts to Michael Lewis in the book,
“The variance between the best and worst fielders on the outcome of the game is a lot smaller than the variance between the best hitter and the worst hitters.” The market as a whole failed to grasp this fact, and so placed higher prices than it should on defensive skills. [p. 136—Emphasis mine]
For a team that couldn’t afford high-priced players, this automatically placed great fielders out of its reach. But the team didn’t respond by giving up. Instead, they sought players with skills the market undervalued—and as a consequence fielded a team that, well, couldn’t field.
But they could—and did—win.
The actual stats the team used don’t matter—and, in fact, have become so common within baseball as to require new measures to find undervalued contributors.
It was seeking understanding of what teams valued and didn’t that led Beane’s club to its particular set of stats. In most other industries, we’d call those key performance indicators. Baseball, at the time, called them “heresy.” Then most other teams in baseball adopted those same stats, while bringing larger checkbooks to the table, once they wanted to duplicate the A’s success. The A’s recent struggles don’t reflect a failure of their old mindset, but rather their inability to find the key performance indicators their opponents undervalue now that most teams use the one’s that brought the A’s success in earlier seasons.
Regardless, you don’t have to like baseball movies to enjoy “Moneyball” on the screen. You don’t even have to like sports. But if you’re interested in a classic “David vs. Goliath” tale, you’ll likely enjoy the film and Beane’s journey to success. And, if you’re interested in playing David to someone else’s Goliath, you’ll want to pay attention to the mindset that got him there.
Image credit: nxusco via Flickr
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