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Best Business Books 2003: Human Capital

A Gifted Team Builder
The selection methods of the Oakland A’s make for some great human interest stories as the new recruits, often astonished by their recognition and selection by a major league club, begin to play. Although getting the right people to begin with is the first requirement of team building, the next, of course, is getting them to play well. Fortunately the Oakland A’s had a coach, Ron Washington, whose secret was a gift for making players want to be better than they were. Many of the new recruits had to be persuaded that they were as good as the statistics suggested they could be.

But some of them weren’t, and Billy could be ruthless. Those players who did not measure up were traded for others. Some were too valuable to keep. As with old wine, it is sometimes sensible to dispose of one of the best in order to acquire three not-so-good ones, and let them mature. On the other hand, these aren’t bottles — they’re human beings. Yes, “there’s a discomfort there,” comments Michael Lewis, but “Billy never lets it affect what he does. That’s why he trades them so well.”

And sometimes he does so spontaneously, which can be confusing for those involved. There is one scene in which the Cleveland Indians are playing the Oakland A’s. Billy has just negotiated a trade in which he acquires a Cleveland player named Ricardo Rincon. Billy leads Ricardo into the clubhouse and tells him to take off his Cleveland uniform and put on the new Oakland one. (The staff has just finished steaming his name onto the back).

The season ends in a mixture of bad news and good. Despite all the new metrics, the team loses to the Minnesota Twins in the playoffs, but Billy accepts a job offer from the Boston Red Sox for a guaranteed $12.5 million over five years, the most anyone has ever been paid to run a baseball team. The next morning he changes his mind. He doesn’t need the money, and now that everyone knows his true value, he doesn’t need the job either. He goes back to his real love — the Oakland A’s.

Why, however, one wonders toward the end of the book, would Billy Beane agree to let his methods be publicized here for all to imitate? Michael Lewis says it’s because Billy feels certain that most of the rest of baseball won’t adopt his methods even though he has been proved right. As Bill James wrote in the preface to his first published set of sabermetrics, “When I started writing I thought if I proved that X was a stupid thing to do that people would stop doing X. I was wrong.” Billy sees the sport as a closed world, self-populating, run by old baseball men who insist on doing things the way they have always been done.

That sounds all too familiar to anyone who has tried to make changes in his or her company, as does the reluctance of the old scouts to contemplate new ways of doing things. In most organizations, too, subjective impressions still play a large part in recruitment and assessment. Might there be a set of metrics somewhere that could give us a better way of measuring human performance? There are subtler messages, too, in this baseball tale: Numbers are valuable, but only if they are the right numbers; the traditional wisdom of an industry is often just hokum; the market may not always give the right signals; and, finally, as Billy discovered, money may not be the final measure of everything. Baseball may be a law unto itself, but the parallels to more familiar worlds of work leap out at you from every chapter of the story.

 
 
 
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