Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland A’s, is renowned for being an early proponent of using big data in baseball to predict player performance. He was the subject of Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball, which was made into an Oscar-nominated movie of the same name last year.
Beane, portrayed by Brad Pitt in the film, once turned down an offer to be the Boston Red Sox’s GM because he didn’t want to move east. However, he did accept an invitation to deliver the keynote address to start off Internet Week in New York on Monday. Besides, as he acknowledged, “I try not to watch the games, that’s why I’m here.”
Beane spent most of the time talking about data in baseball and the evolution of his career, and in doing so touched upon universal themes such as innovation, career planning, hiring practices, and changing an industry’s corporate culture.
Of course, Beane’s keynote wouldn’t be complete without references to the Moneyball movie from the man who inspired the story. As for Brad Pitt portraying him, he joked, “they totally nailed it.” He was also quite candid about his own career, and described himself as “an overvalued asset. My batting average was only .213. That’s like Chapter 11 if you’re a baseball player and you need to find a new way to make a living.”
Beane said that changing a corporate culture can be challenging, especially if it’s entrenched. When he retired he entered the front office, and that’s when his fascination with data started. “We robbed the ideas outside our industry from Bill James, who had theories about player performance. I wanted to find a rational way to be objective and apply the numbers, but since it was outside the industry it wasn’t accepted.”
Beane attributes much of his eventual success as a GM to making the right hiring decisions, starting with Paul DePodesta, a math whiz from Harvard (played by Jonah Hill in the movie). DePodesta showed Beane how metrics and data could be used to predict player performance and win games. “Sports is an emotional business, and I learned that on the baseball field you can measure the value of every event,” Beane noted.
The next generation of baseball front offices will have fewer former players and more executives with technological and business acumen, Beane predicts. He also thinks baseball will become more inclusive, and he recently hired a woman to be his scouting director.
As for his forecast regarding using data in sports, Beane said, “the biggest indicator now for sports teams is whether the players stay healthy, and that’s the one area we haven’t figured out.” Given the spike in injuries to New York Yankees’ star pitchers this season, it’s also a priority that GM Brian Cashman would like to solve.