I just finished Michael Lewis’s terrific book about Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager who consistently fields a great team with one of the lowest payrolls in the major leagues. The A’s are baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s particular albatross. Selig harps on the need for more baseball socialism (“revenue-sharing”) because of the alleged “inability of small market teams to compete,” when in fact it is only incompetently managed small market teams who can’t, Selig’s own Milwaukee Brewers prominent among them. Beane must drive him to drink. Now to anyone who has played fantasy baseball and read Bill James, which seems to be half of the male portion of the blogosphere, how to put together a winning baseball team with little money is no secret. You exploit inefficiencies, which is to say, you take advantage of the fact that many baseball executives are stupid. Certain traits are overvalued by other teams, like sculpted physiques or blazing speed or cannon arms. These don’t translate very well into on-field success anyway, and you ignore them. Other, more useful traits, like a deceptive pitching motion or the ability to draw walks, are undervalued, and these are what you look for.
The golden rule is that past performance indicates future performance, and ugly doesn’t count. Essentially you work from the spreadsheet instead of the scouting report. Scouts hate that. So do fans, stat geeks like me excepted, because it slights any knowledge of the game that comes from actually watching it. When I played in a fantasy league I would regularly tell other owners that they watched too much baseball, and that they needed to stop believing their own eyes. I was delighted to note that Beane often tells his scouts the same thing.
Beane himself is a former major-league player and hot prospect of exactly the type that he has trained himself, and his staff, to ignore. He was a high-school “tools” player, the type who looks better playing than he actually plays, and so highly regarded that many scouts and executives wanted to draft him first in his class, ahead of such future luminaries as Darryl Strawberry. But Beane’s tools never translated into major-league success. By his own account, his temper destroyed him as a player: he couldn’t cope with failure, and one bad at-bat would wreck his game, or his week.
In other words, Beane, instead of hiring in his own image, has become a brilliant success by doing the opposite. If there are other executives who have done this, I don’t know who they are.
(Dr. Manhattan reviews the book at greater length.)
(Update: Floyd McWilliams comments.)
(Update: Robert Birnbaum has an interesting interview with Lewis.)