Lessons of ‘Moneyball’ – Finding Potential in Unlikely Places

    “Moneyball” is a story of finding potential in unlikely places. It’s a true story based on how Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, determined to win the World Series but limited by salary constraints, looked for the potential in the players other teams had overlooked.

    Conventional baseball wisdom assumed that stolen bases, RBIs and batting averages were indicative of success. But Beane had a different idea. He wanted to use statistical data to analyze and place value on the players he would pick for his team. He believed that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better indicators of offensive success. The Oakland A’s became convinced that finding players with these qualities would cost the team less to sign than high-priced players who had historically valued qualities such as speed and contact. Beane’s approach flew in the face of what many baseball scouts and executives believed about building a team with a competitive edge.

    According to Joe McIllvaine, former GM of the New York Mets, picking the right player is all about the individual’s make up -“ who the person is at his core. “As a professional sports team, you’re always looking to find an edge. The draft comes down to thousands of players. And when you’re asking, ‘who are we going to pick, who is the best one here,’ of course you talk about talent, eyesight, coordination and lots of other factors. But the most important one is makeup. I asked major-league players, Craig Biggio, Tony Gwynn, Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez -“ ‘What percentage of the game at the major-league level is mental, psychological or emotional?’ And in talking with lots of players, their number was between 75 and 90 percent.”

    Of course athletic ability is part of it, but baseball players, especially, need more than ability alone. Managers and coaches can certainly assess talent. The questions that keep them up at night, though, have to do with the players’ heads and hearts. Will they have the inner fire needed to drive them to overachieve? Will they be good in the clutch? Are they injury prone? Are they too selfish to be team players? Can they be aggressive enough, without fouling out? Will they concentrate on improving their weak areas? And, how coachable are they?

    The difference between those athletes with true competitiveness and those with talent alone is the difference between who makes it in the pros and who doesn’t.

    Take Derek Jeter, for example. The New Mr. 3,000 has more than just talent. He exemplifies the motivation and competitiveness that boosts his athletic ability.

    There are three critical qualities that successful baseball players, such as Jeter, have that give them the upper hand -“ and a kick-start into the Hall of Fame.

    Self-Esteem indicates how the player views him or herself and how easily he or she can rebound from failure. Will the athlete and the team be able to dust off the inevitable setback? With strong self-esteem, setbacks are viewed as just an inevitable part of the game -“ nothing more. On the other hand, if a team or a player lacks self-confidence, that inhibitor will surface during high-pressure situations in a game.

    ESPN Analyst Dave Campbell once said of Jeter, “He really knows how to work the pitcher and work the count. That’s become a trademark of the Yankees and a big reason why they’re so often able to get rid of starters by the fifth inning. That’s ‘professional’ hitting.” Jeter is confident, and knows himself well enough to understand how to play the game -“ and win.

    Competitiveness is probably one of the most overused terms in sports. It’s more than just wanting to win for personal satisfaction; a truly competitive athlete has a burning desire to take that shot at the last second as the buzzer sounds. He or she is diving for the ball, pushing him or herself to the limit and pulling out all the stops to achieve that goal. Competitiveness does not stop at athletic talent -“ it is a drive that pushes them beyond their capabilities.

    Jeter once observed, “If you’re going to play at all, you’re out to win. Baseball, board games, playing Jeopardy, I hate to lose. But at the same time, I don’t think you can do well unless you’re having fun.”

    Self-discipline is an athlete’s ability to rely on his own inner motivation to get things done. It drives the athlete to get to practice early, put in the extra hours for improvement, and push him or herself to perform at a higher level than what they’ve done in the past -“ even if that means training throughout the off-season. They set and achieve these goals because they want to -“ not just because the coach says they have to. When learning a new play, a self-disciplined athlete will practice it until it becomes automatic, and they can typically be relied on to perform consistently.

    When a talented player possesses the physical capabilities that suggest he or she would be a star player, it’s hard for a coach to look past that and delve into what’s below the surface. But it’s critical to determine whether athletes have the mental toughness, willingness to be coached, and inner drive to succeed needed to continually perform at the highest level.

    Just as baseball players need competitiveness, self-discipline, and self-esteem, so do business leaders. They should be judged on what they are capable of doing -“ not what they’ve done -“ and how well they can relate to their team, while driving initiatives forward.

    Ask general managers in baseball, basketball, football, or hockey, and they will tell you how many first-round draft picks who demonstrated all of the talent in the world turned out to be either mediocre of total failures. With all of the talent in the world, lacking the three core attributes I’ve identified here still makes for mediocrity or failure in what appears to be the most promising players.

    Much of Caliper’s work in sports is akin to what you will see in “Moneyball” -“ challenging the preconceived notions on what makes a successful ball player. Beane found a different means of measurement for predicting success, as Caliper has been doing for the past 50 years -“ identifying the core traits that can predict success. Baseball, especially, is about understanding what’s beyond that player’s athletic ability -“ and that can’t be measured by watching them in practice. There’s more to a successful player than batting average and RBIs.

    Herb Greenberg, Ph.D., is the founder & CEO of-¨Caliper, an international management consulting firm, which, for over a-¨half-century, has assessed the potential of more than 3 million applicants and employees for over 25,000 companies around the world. Caliper is based in Princeton, N.J. and Greenberg can be reached at www.calipercorp.com.

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    Richard Blanchard
    Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.