Exposing The Myth Of Billy Beane
Yesterday I watched the engrossing movie ‘Moneyball’ starring Brad Pitt which tells the story of Billy Beane, the General Manager (GM) of the Oakland Athletics baseball team.
This movie was based on a book of the same name by well-known American writer, Michael Lewis.
Around 2001, Billy Beane introduced a new (statistically based) method of player selection and on-field tactics entitled sabermetrics to the California-based team, despite significant resistance from inside the organization (e.g. half the scouts left in the first year).
Sabermetrics challenged traditional methods and mind-sets in baseball and was credited with improving the team’s performance, spurring them on to a record 20 game winning streak as well as higher win percentages and consistent appearances in the play-off positions since then.
Billy Beane was / is hailed as a visionary ‘change agent’ for daring to challenge the embedded practices of baseball management, and several other teams in the national league have since adopted sabermetrics, mostly with successful results.
However, having watched the movie (although I haven’t yet read Lewis’s book) and having read a number of academic articles (e.g. Wolfe, Wright & Smart, 2006) which give credit to Billy Beane for his success with change management as applied to the Oakland Athletics, I have my own (and contrary) take on the situation.
I think it’s possible that Billy Beane got lucky with his adoption of sabermetrics and subsequent hero status, and if I use the evidence of the movie (accepting that 1. there is bound to be some fictionalization, 2. no one can really know what goes on in Billy Beane’s mind, except himself), here’s why:
1. At the beginning of the movie Billy begs the Athletics owner for more money prior to the new season so as to compete with the richer teams in the league – at this point it is clear that Billy has no intention of changing his management style or the methods of the organization, should he secure the extra funding.
2. Billy is refused extra investment for players and meets with Cleveland Indians‘ boss Mark Shapiro in a desperate attempt to buy and trade for new players but makes very little progress.
3. Through a coincidental meeting with Peter Brand (a part-fictionalized character) Billy takes a massive gamble (a ‘Hail Mary pass‘) in trusting the young economics graduate to implement the sabermetrics program at Oakland. At this point he has nothing to lose as he has very little money and is struggling to procure new players. However, there doesn’t seem to be anything planned or preconceived about this new strategy. It is totally emergent. He is merely ‘taking a punt’. It strikes me as a case of Micawberism -‘something will turn up’ – for Beane – who appears to be almost at his wit’s end (indeed something does turn up, by pure coincidence – sabermetrics).
4. Beane is a strong character in the movie (and, we must assume, in real life) with lots of energy and leadership skills so he rides roughshod over the objections of the traditional selectors and scouts to push on with the sabermetrics revolution. Many leave, as mentioned above. However, this does not mean that he is correct in his new strategy – he could not know it would work without first trying it. And he tries it in desperation.
(Note: I am not doubting the validity or success to date of sabermetrics, although the jury is out on the long term sustainability of using it; especially because competitive advantage may be eroded as other teams adopt and imitate the strategy over time.)
5. At this point in proceedings Beane is totally committed to sabermetrics and even though the new season results are initially disappointing, he must push on with his plans. There is no turning back now even though success is not ‘inevitable’ (how can it be? no one can tell the future). In another meeting with the owner (who is serendipitously, and conveniently liberal in how much free reign he gives the GM), Billy assures him that results will improve. But what else is he supposed to say? That they won’t? His job and his future are at stake and his 12 year daughter is on his mind – she is worried about him. Could we really have expected him to resign from his well-paid job halfway through the season when he is already on a ‘hiding to nothing’?
6. Eventually the results improve and the afore-mentioned winning streak materializes in line with what sabermetrics would claim to predict over a longer series of games. (Again, I am not doubting the effectiveness of sabermetrics – but nor am I asserting it. Such an assertion is beyond the scope of this essay and beyond my capabilities). However, because sabermetrics has ‘done its job’ (at least in the short-term), Billy is now ‘in the clear’ – in fact, according to one academic review, he is a “strategically oriented, analytical chief people officer who is comfortable in the role of change agent” (Pace, 2006).
I dispute that Beane is anything of the sort. Although he undoubtedly possesses knowledge (especially about baseball), energy, good instincts and strong leadership skills, he did not formally study management and I sincerely doubt that he was even aware of the nature and complexities of strategic change management until after the event; notwithstanding the fact that my interpretation is based on what I have seen in the movie, read in several academic reviews and does not include a reading of Lewis’s book or a chance to interview Beane in person (unfortunately).
Beane did not appear to follow any recognized model of change management (e.g. Kotter’s ‘8 Steps of Leading Change‘) when he took action. In fact, he seemed to have navigated the entire process ‘on the hoof’ reacting to whatever effect he was having on entities in the moment as events transpired (e.g. when he fired scouting director Grady Fuson, after Fuson provoked an argument, or when he eventually persuaded the team coach, Art Howe, under duress, to put out the line-up he wanted, despite the fact that Howe was able to field his own team selection for a series of games after sabermetrics was introduced!).
In conclusion, I would posit that theorists and practitioners of change management do themselves a disservice by overly crediting Billy Beane (as genuine, charismatic and interesting a man as he might be) with his visionary status as a change agent.
Instead, the father of sabermetrics (Bill James) or the man who really brought its rigorous analysis to Oakland (Peter Brand in the movie version and, apparently, Paul DePodesta in reality) might deserve the academic and sporting plaudits.