Baseball enthusiasts take great pride in America’s pastime because of its illustrious history and deep-rooted traditions. Baseball is unique amongst American sports for its resistance to change. While video replay and other technological advances have become commonly used in football, basketball, hockey, and other sports, such innovations are used in a very limited capacity in Major League Baseball. Baseball at the professional level has separated itself in another important way as well. The MLB is the only major American sports league that has not instituted a salary cap, meaning spending on players is unrestricted. This naturally gives wealthier teams—the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, etc.—a significant edge over their competition.
Enter Billy Beane. “The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty feet of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game” remarks Beane (played by Brad Pitt) in 2011’s Moneyball. In the early 2000s, Billy Beane, the general manager of the cash-strapped Oakland A’s, changed the way that baseball is now understood today. Beane is known for his development of “moneyball”—evaluating baseball players on truly impactful statistics. Before, players were evaluated based off of basic measurements such as batting average, home runs, and pitching wins/losses. Players were also judged based off of their age, mechanics, and other information that could be misleading. Beane’s contribution to general management in sports was in finding a more precise system of evaluation, based off of statistics, in determining a player’s true value and individual contribution to the team. His new system eschewed market inefficiencies and focused on player value per dollar.
Beane’s work became publicly acknowledged in 2003 after Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game about Beane and his methods. The book was converted to the big screen in 2011, in which Brad Pitt played Beane.
Beane began his life in baseball as a player. He was drafted by the Mets in 1980 but didn’t make the majors until 1984. Between 1984 and 1990 he bounced back and forth between the majors and minors and played for the Mets, Twins, Tigers, and A’s. Despite his disappointing career, Beane became a scout with the A’s after his final season and quickly rose up the ranks, being promoted to assistant GM in 1993 and then being named general manager in 1997. It was during his first few years as GM that Beane fully discovered sabermetrics and came to realize the value of previously overlooked statistical measures such as on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
In 2001, the Oakland Athletics won 102 games and earned a playoff berth, but after the season Oakland lost several key players, including the 2000 MVP Jason Giambi. While Beane admittedly retained a nucleus of strong players including Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, and Barry Zito (a fact mostly ignored in the film), the undervalued players that he and statistician Paul dePodesta picked up or traded for (Scott Hatteberg, Mark Ellis, and Chad Bradford, amongst others) made the difference in producing the wins that lifted the 2002 team to the top of the AL West standings. Oakland would win 88 games or more until 2006, as by then several other teams had adopted Beane’s methods. Theo Epstein, former GM of the Red Sox and currently with the Cubs, used the moneyball technique to win the World Series in 2004 and 2007. After discovering moneyball’s advantages, the Yankees hired 21 statisticians for their management office. A system originally invented to combat payroll inequality is now being used by both rich and poor ballclubs alike.
Beane’s story, from a creativity standpoint, is especially interesting in two ways. Firstly, his technique of statistical analysis has meant that computers now have a much more important role in player evaluation, at the expense of the traditional method of using scouts to assess talent. Beane’s work has accelerated Major League Baseball’s slow evolution, at least in one facet of the game. Secondly, his innovative creation was a result of the constraints of his domain (payroll inequality). This fact reveals how constraints can actually breed creativity, rather than suppress it.
It is also worth noting how Beane used analogy in his creative process. Gentner et. al. explains how eminent artists and scientists oftentimes employ analogy, a system of comparing and inferring structure between two systems of knowledge, to come up with their creations. The authors focus primarily on Johannes Kepler’s use of analogy. Another scientist of note who used the process of analogy in coming up with his findings was Niels Bohr, who derived his sub-atomic model through his understanding of the theory of planetary motion devised by none other than Kepler himself. Beane, on the other hand, had studied economics during his brief time at UC-San Diego before playing professional baseball, and he later put this knowledge to good use. Beane applied basic economic models to the player market and has admitted that Wall Street served as a guide for his work.
Today, moneyball transcends baseball. The kind of statistical analysis made famous by Beane is now used in professional sports leagues all around the world. While Beane’s secret is no longer his own, he can, at the very least, be glad that his beloved A’s have regained the on-the-field success today that made moneyball famous in the early-2000s.
Sources and further information can be found below:
Gentner et al: Gentner et al. (1999). Analogy and creativity in the works of Johannes Kepler. In
T. B. Ward, S. M. Smith, & J. Vaid (Eds.), Creative thought: An investigation of conceptual structures and processes (pp. 403-459). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.