I watched Moneyball several weeks ago. Though I’m not a huge baseball nut (I enjoy it on occasion, admittedly); I watched it for the great story (and let’s face it, Brad Pitt being in it didn’t hurt). Besides the great performances in this film, this story has some great lessons on innovating your way out of a rut. That’s not to say that it was easy. As with any innovations that shake things up, being an agent of change can also mean taking some heat from those invested in maintaining the status quo.
The Oakland A’s (circa 2002) were cash-strapped and couldn’t compete with the salaries bigger ball clubs were offering players. Consequently, general manager Billy Beane, played by Pitt, couldn’t attract the same highly paid talent to turn the team’s performance around. Until he met a secret weapon – Peter Brand, an economist turned stats-genius, played by Jonah Hill.
Brand studied player stats and correlated player performance with numerous factors other clubs were overlooking. (Note: Brand was an invention of the film’s writers. The real “Brand” was Paul DePodesta). This field of statistical analysis was termed “sabermetrics” (credited to Bill James) and it shook up baseball. Why? Sabermetrics rejected the traditional metric of “RBI” (runs batted in) as a predictor of player value, and instead focused on deriving individual player “value” based on runs and number of team wins, among other measures.
Based on this underused approach, the A’s found under-valued, under-appreciated players with potential and gave them a chance to reinvent themselves at much lower salaries. The A’s got new players they needed at prices they could afford, and players who were often under-used got chances with a major league club they might otherwise not have had. Eventually, the team started winning, and winning big. Bigger teams took notice. Beane was offered $20 million to work for the Boston Red Sox. He declined.
Oakland couldn’t compete with big ball club salaries, so it changed the game of recruitment and salaries. It experimented with a new, “unproven” system that bucked over 100 years of tradition, and ruffled feathers in Oakland and in the larger baseball world. This method turned the team around. Beane refused to give up on baseball. But he did quit one thing: playing the status quo game that was tipped in favor of richer clubs. He threw out ‘tradition’ and made a bold, ballsy decision to recruit differently, level the playing field (pun intended) and find ways that his team could compete within tight salary constraints. It worked.
Oakland didn’t get the storybook ending in this film – it didn’t win that year’s World Series. Yet, that doesn’t diminish the tremendous contribution Beane and DePodesta made to changing the way teams approach recruitment. Not only did they turn the A’s around, their innovations garnered the attention of large baseball clubs such as Boston that wanted to use Beane’s approach to better manage their teams. Beane and DePodesta, true agents of change, changed the very business of baseball by changing their willingness to play the same old game – a game made to benefit richer clubs.
Want to level the playing field you compete in? Change the game you’re playing by challenging the status quo. Even the smallest innovation can mean significant change.