Billy Beane made his pop culture debut when Brad Pitt played him in the baseball-meets-analytics movie “Moneyball.” Since then, he’s had a second job talking about his decision to replace intuition and gut with a data-driven approach to building a successful baseball team. It’s a message he is passionate about, and he delivered it to an enthusiastic audience at Bronto Summit 2016.
Beane is the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations for the Oakland A’s, a job he’s held for 19 years. A small market team, he deals with payroll constraints by working with statistics experts to determine what player factors truly impact wins. The team loads up on young, skilled players and is nearly devoid of marquee names because, as Beane put it, “People will follow a winning team. They will not go 81 times to see their favorite player if their team is losing.”
The A’s have succeeded with this approach – they’ve won six American League West Division titles during Beane’s tenure.
While he regaled the attendees with anecdotes from making the movie – the day Brad Pitt came to visit, his wife uncharacteristically woke at dawn to style her hair and his nanny showed up in a prom dress – his message on data is one that marketers can relate to.
As with online commerce, baseball metrics have evolved. When teams began adopting Beane’s approach to paying more for players that could consistently get on base than for more traditional measures such as batting averages, Beane said the A’s had to evolve. “We had to adapt what were doing and stay ahead of the curve.’’
The Oakland A’s have moved beyond looking at the just the stats that were written about in Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball.” Working with his quants, Beane now studies how players are inadvertently rewarded for routine plays and dinged when they fail at something that works most of the time. He didn’t get into the differentiated analytics approach in too much detail, joking with attendees that they could buy a team if they wanted to know more.
But he did share that he fully expects baseball to eventually adopt an IT coach position. This dugout-based person will be equipped with a mobile device to help the manager make probability-based decisions on who to put in or what counsel to give a batter or pitcher under the current circumstances.
Taking Emotion Out of the Game
Beane also shared the pitfalls of relying too much on emotional storylines in building a business – something commerce marketers juggling the need for creative campaigns with the demand for high click-throughs and conversions can appreciate.
He believes his own selection in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft in 1980 was driven by gut reaction to his athleticism. “I looked terrific in a uniform. In reality, my athletic skills would probably have been better used in a different sport.” He did not, by his own admission, have a distinguished career in the major leagues.
As a manager, he saw that scouts devalued skills in comparison to athleticism. One of the A’s statistical discoveries was that players drafted out of college were more likely to succeed and make the majors more quickly than those drafted out of high school. That’s because a college player provides a team with more data. He revamped the A’s draft policies based on that information. The tall, strapping 18-year-old from a tiny town with a fast pitch more likely matches baseball’s rosy-colored notions about itself, rather than the reality of what it takes to succeed in the major leagues.
“We want the romantic small-town kid. Every baseball story is romantic. We want that Disney story,” Beane says.
Beane also took delight in addressing the criticism over his decision to speak with Lewis about the A’s methods. Beane says the information was already out there. “It was all public information. We invented nothing.” He notes that baseball fans and statisticians, such as Bill James, were already studying and writing about different ways to value players.
Bringing New Talent to Baseball
Beane is proud that the movie and book affected not only who baseball hires, but how many businesses look at data. “Big Data wasn’t a term in 2003.” The impact in baseball has been profound. The door is now open to baseball enthusiasts who haven’t played the game at the college or pro level, but bring great analytical skills – and will work for their professional baseball team for a fraction of what they could command in other industries. Beane said he once got a resume from a person finishing a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Oxford.
“The game is now a meritocracy,’’ he said, noting that his staff includes a young man born and raised in Asia, with a Ph.D. in behavioral economics and a passion for baseball. The No. 2 position in scouting is held by a woman with a Harvard degree who worked on Wall Street. “In 10 years, I won’t be smart enough to do my own job,’’ he joked. But it was obvious from listening to him talk that he wouldn’t have it any other way.