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Breaking the Rules: Moneyball Edition

Most of the book Simple Rules by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt talks about identifying a problem area (or an area ripe for “simple rules”) and then walks you through creating your own set of rules. It’s a useful mental process.

An ideal situation for simple rules is something repetitive, giving you constant feedback so you can course correct as you go. But what if your rules stop working and you need to start over completely?

Simple Rules recounts the well-known Moneyball tale in its examination of this process:

The story begins with Sandy Alderson. Alderson, a former Marine with no baseball background became the A’s general manager in 1983. Unlike baseball traditionalists, Alderson saw scoring runs as a process, not an outcome, and imagined baseball as a factory with a flow of players moving along the bases. This view led Alderson and later his protege and replacement, Billy Beane, to the insight that most teams overvalue batting average (hits only) and miss the relevance of on-base percentage (walks plus hits) to keeping the runners moving. Like many insightful rules, this boundary rule of picking players with a high on base percentage has subtle second – and third-order effects. Hitters with a high on-base percentage are highly disciplined (i.e., patient, with a good eye for strikes). This means they get more walks, and their reputation for discipline encourages pitchers to throw strikes, which are easier to hit. They tire out pitchers by making them throw more pitches overall, and disciplined hitting does not erode much with age. These and other insights are at the heart of what author Michael Lewis famously described as moneyball.

The Oakland A’s did everything right, they had examined the issues, they tried to figure out those areas which would most benefit from a set of simple rules and they had implemented them. The problem was, they were easy rules to copy. 

They were operating in a Red Queen Effect world where everyone around them was co-evolving, where running fast was just enough to get ahead temporarily, but not permanently. The Red Sox were the first and most successful club to copy the A’s:

By 2004, a free-spending team, the Boston Red Sox, co-opted the A’s principles and won the World Series for the first time since 1918. In contrast, the A’s went into decline, and by 2007 the were losing more games than they were winning Moneyball had struck out.

What can we do when the rules stop working? 

We must break them.

***

When the A’s had brought in Sandy Alderson, he was an outsider with no baseball background who could look at the problem in a different and new light. So how could that be replicated?

The team decided to bring in Farhan Zaidi as director of baseball operations in 2009. Zaidi spent most of his life with a pretty healthy obsession for baseball but he had a unique background: a PhD in behavioral economics.

He started on the job of breaking the old rules and crafting new ones. Like Andy Grove did once upon a time with Intel, Zaidi helped the team turn and face a new reality. Sull and Eisenhardt consider this as a key trait:

To respond effectively to major change, it is essential to investigate the new situation actively, and create a reimagined vision that utilizes radically different rules.

The right choice is often to move to the new rules as quickly as possible. Performance will typically decline in the short run, but the transition to the new reality will be faster and more complete in the long run. In contrast, changing slowly often results in an awkward combination of the past and the future with neither fitting the other or working well.

Beane and Zaidi first did some house cleaning: They fired the team’s manager. Then, they began breaking the old Moneyball rules, things like avoiding drafting high-school players. They also decided to pay more attention to physical skills like speed and throwing.

In the short term, the team performed quite poorly as fan attendance showed a steady decline. Yet, once again, against all odds, the A’s finished first in their division in 2012. Their change worked. 

With a new set of Simple Rules, they became a dominant force in their division once again. 

Reflecting their formidable analytic skills, the A’s brass had a new mindset that portrayed baseball as a financial market rife with arbitrage possibilities and simple rules to match.

One was a how-to rule that dictated exploiting players with splits. Simply put, players with splits have substantially different performances in two seemingly similar situations. A common split is when a player hits very well against right-handed pitchers and poorly against left-handed pitchers, or vice versa. Players with spits are mediocre when they play every game, and are low paid. In contrast, most superstars play well regardless of the situation, and are paid handsomely for their versatility. The A’s insight was that when a team has a player who can perform one side of the split well and a different player who excels at the opposite split, the two positives can create a cheap composite player. So the A’s started using a boundary rule to pick players with splits and how-to rule to exploit those splits with platooning – putting different players at the same position to take advantage of their splits against right – or left-handed pitching.

If you’re reading this as a baseball fan, you’re probably thinking that exploiting splits isn’t anything new. So why did it have such an effect on their season? Well, no one had pushed it this hard before, which had some nuanced effects that might not have been immediately apparent.

For example, exploiting these splits keeps players healthier during the long 162-game season because they don’t play every day. The rule keeps everyone motivated because everyone has a role and plays often. It provides versatility when players are injured since players can fill in for each other.

They didn’t stop there. Zaidi and Beane looked at the data and kept rolling out new simple rules that broke with their highly successful Moneyball past.

In 2013 they added a new boundary rule to the player-selection activity: pick fly-ball hitters, meaning hitters who tend to hit the ball in the air and out of the infield (in contrast with ground-ball hitters). Sixty percent of the A’s at-bat were by fly-ball hitters in 2013, the highest percentage in major-league baseball in almost a decade, and the A’s had the highest ratio of fly ball to ground balls, by far. Why fly-ball hitters?

Since one of ten fly balls is a home run, fly-ball hitters hit more home runs: an important factor in winning games. Fly-ball hitters also avoid ground-ball double plays, a rally killer if ever there as one. They are particularly effective against ground-ball pitches because they tend to swing underneath the ball, taking way the advantage of those pitchers. In fact, the A’s fly-ball hitters batted an all-star caliber .302 against ground-ball pitchers in 2013 on their way to their second consecutive division title despite having the fourth-lowest payroll in major-league baseball.

Unfortunately, the new rules had a short-lived effectiveness: In 2014 the A’s fell to 2nd place and have been struggling the last two seasons. Two Cinderella stories is a great achievement, but it’s hard to maintain that edge. 

This wonderful demonstration of the Red Queen Effect in sports can be described as an “arms race.’” As everyone tries to get ahead, a strange equilibrium is created by the simultaneous continual improvement, and those with more limited resources must work even harder as the pack moves ahead one at a time.

Even though they have adapted and created some wonderful “Simple Rules” in the past, the A’s (and all of their competitors) must stay in the race in order to return to the top: No “rule” will allow them to rest on their laurels. Second Level Thinking and a little real world experience shows this to be true: Those that prosper consistently will think deeply, reevaluate, adapt, and continually evolve. That is the nature of a competitive world.