The Lessons you Won't Learn from Moneyball

“Congratulations on Moneyball,” Jon Stewart greeted author Michael Lewis last Wednesday as the guest of the Daily Show. Stewart went on to praise it as a smart and well done film. 

I thought it was going to suck,” Michael Lewis blurted to a surprised host. Lewis explained that he thought it was a terrible idea when the studio approached him seven years ago. “I thought I was going to have to go hide,” but directors Bennett Miller and Brad Pitt took a book that shouldn’t have been a movie and made it into an Oscar buzz-worthy film. 

If you read the book Moneyball, you will discover that Lewis used Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s as a literary device to bring sabermetricsBill James a baseball writer, and a baseball economic commission to life. In Lewis’s defense, it was hardly the source material for riveting drama. Certain liberties were taken to bring Lewis’s book to the silver screen. My intent here is to highlight Talent Management lessons not presented in the film. In no way should my comments be considered criticisms of the movie. 

It takes time to see results

Using Hollywood magic, the movie "Moneyball" is presented as a single season, but the reality is Billy Beane’s approach toward both drafting talent and managing the team is rooted in the late 1990s and continues to evolve. 

The Oakland A’s did not see “instant” results. The movie portrays the time passed as just a few weeks of under-performance. Rather, it took four years of steady improvement from 1997 until 2001 before the A’s were regular title contenders, and, as the detractor’s of "Moneyball" are quick to point out, their “success” was short-lived. Since 2007, the Oakland A’s have not won more than 81 games. 

The talent management lessons for our organizations are to temper expectations, recognize the “low-hanging fruit” results versus the long-term culture shifts and commit to the change. 

It takes a team to create results

A fictional character, Peter Brand, played by actor Jonah Hill, is a composite of a whole team of statisticians. At the urging of Paul DePodesta, the Oakland A’s started their journey by hiring AVM Systems, a consulting firm begun by former stock market analysts Ken Mauriello and Jack Armbruster. Using the lessons learned from AVM systems, DePodesta, the A’s Assistant General Manager, assembled a team including David Forst and Dan Feinstein, among others, to do the hard work of reviewing tape, compiling data and analyzing information. 

The talent management lessons for our organizations are to recognize the investment required to move from managing talent with gut reactions and managerial instincts to a more discipline approach. A team of one, even with a strong sponsor like Billy Beane, cannot build talent management analytics alone.

There is no silver bullet

As noted above, critics of the Oakland A’s experiment are quick to point out shortcomings, such as many of their 2002 draft choices made little impact in the major leagues as well as the most obvious, that Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s have not won a World Series. 

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In my opinion, these critics are disingenuous about their definition of success. While winning the World Series is the penultimate definition of success, it is not the only definition. Michael Lewis sought to answer the question, “how do small market teams compete with larger market (i.e., wealthier) teams?” If you compare Oakland to other small market American League teams, such as the Kansas City Royals or the Detroit Tigers, Oakland’s success is obvious. The Yankees continue to win their division but only with a skyrocketing payroll. Ironically, it was the Detroit Tigers who eliminated the Yankees in the 2011 campaign to the World Series. 

In a 2008 interview, Billy Beane commented on the success and failures of Moneyball. “Are we doing the same things now as we did then?” he said. “No. Things change. Nobody’s invented a template about how to draft in professional baseball. There’s no silver bullet out there. We don’t have it and no one else has it.” 

And that is the final and most important talent management lesson from Moneyball. A silver bullet does not exist, and those trying to sell you a best-in-class talent management solution are either fooling themselves or trying to fool you. Because the markets are ever changing, so must our vigilance for talent management. 

To read more talent management lessons from Moneyball, check out the Half-time Post, "What Moneyball Can Teach Your Organization About Good Talent Management."