How strategic design changed the old ball game

Strategic design’s starring role in the film “Moneyball”

Introduction

With movie theaters closed, I have been re-watching a lot of my favorite films on streaming services. It just so happens that Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011) is on Netflix in the United Kingdom. Having rewatched it, I realize that the film’s central character uses strategic design to help motivate the film’s plot.

Movie poster for Moneyball

What is strategic design?

Strategic design is a design methodology that uses the designer’s toolkit to tackle systemic problems within a specific field. Strategic design encourages redefining the problem by looking at the bigger picture within the problem space. Once identified, solutions are generated that are both innovative and resilient by design. When applied, the proposed solution can help lead towards a long-term systemic-wide change within that field.

Throughout this post, I will outline how strategic design is used to motivate the film’s plot. With that in mind, there will be spoilers ahead.

What’s the problem

Oakland Athletics’ team logo

Based on true-events, Moneyball centers around Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, commonly referred to as the A’s. The A’s are known to have the smallest budget in Major League Baseball (MLB). At the end of the 2001 season, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, two of the most well-funded teams in MLB, have gutted the A’s of their best players by offering a salary the A’s are unable to beat.

In need of new players and unable to secure extra funding from owner Stephen Schott, Beane re-frames the problem the A’s are facing to his staff. The current model of how baseball operates is unfair. Teams like the A’s are playing on an uneven playing field, especially when competing against well-funded teams that can afford any player to help them get to the World Series. Beane proposes that they must approach the 2002 season differently, or else the A’s will be unable to survive both on and off the field. Unfortunately, his plea was met with deaf ears, both figuratively and literally.

Beane defining the real problem the Oakland A’s are facing

Problem statement

While on business in Cleveland, Beane comes into contact with analyst Peter Brand. During a private conversation with Beane, Brand, an economics graduate from Yale University, declares that baseball’s way of thinking is medieval. According to Brand:

There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening. [As a result,] this leads people who run Major League Baseball teams to misjudge their players and mismanage their teams. (Moneyball, 2011)

Hypothesis

Brand believes it’s possible to design a championship team within the constraints of the A’s budget by adopting statistician Bill James’ sabermetrics. Sabermetric uses quantitative data to analyze a player’s on-field performance. Also, sabermetrics emphasizes that runs win games, and a player’s worth should be based entirely on their ability to help the team score more runs than the opposing team.

Brand’s analysis

The solution

The proposed solution is to recruit players who have been dismissed by the league for their perceived flaws, all the while having a high on-base percentage. There are skeptics within Beane’s staff, including A’s manager, Art Howe. However, being the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) in the room, Beane has placed his bets on this approach, ignoring any doubt his staff may have.

An iterative process

The A’s were already ten games behind the first-place team in the league early in the 2002 season. That gave naysayers within the organization ammunition, stating that Beane’s appetite to change how the A’s play baseball was merely a pipe dream. Outside, the sentiment was no different, with hints that Beane could be out of a job. Even though it appears that everything was crashing right before his eyes Beane still believes in this approach and acknowledges that iterating is necessary. As a result, Beane traded Carlos Peña, Howe’s preferred first-baseman, for cash, forcing Howe to play Scott Hatteberg since the data indicates that the A’s are projected to win more games with Hatteberg on first.

An iterative process

In addition to making changes to the line-up, Beane and Brand had become more direct with the players about their methodology by providing pointers backed by data. Along with having frank discussions with seasoned players to take on a leadership role.

The outcome

Beane’s intervention helped lead the Oakland A’s to win more games, including the impressive 20 game winning streak, a feat not many teams in MLB achieved. For a team with little financial-backing and a line-up made up of players the league had declared defective, the Oakland A’s have achieved the unthinkable. While the team celebrates its winning streak, Beane shares his true-intention to change the game systemically.

Beane’s talk with Brand

After a successful season, the A’s lose to the Minnesota Twins during the first round of the playoffs. As a result, the A’s did not qualify for the World Series, and Bean’s aspiration for changing the game has come to an end.

Its impact

With the 2002 baseball season completed, it was time to start thinking about the following season. Even though Beane’s contract is getting extended, he has decided to take a meeting with John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox. Henry shared his admiration for Beane and recognized the uphill battle he went through in not only making the Oakland A’s a powerhouse on a limited budget but his attempt to systemically change how baseball operates in and out of the field.

Praise from Boston Red Sox owner

Having rejected his offer, Henry went ahead in implementing Beane’s model. In 2004 the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, their first since 1918, using that very model. After the Red Sox’s historic win, more teams within MLB began implementing the model Bean had introduced to the league in 2002. Even though the Oakland A’s did not win the World Series, it’s safe to say that Beane can take credit for being the catalyst to cause a systemic change to how baseball operates and played.

Conclusion

Although strategic design is not explicitly referenced by title, the examples noted above should convey its presence throughout Moneyball. I must admit if it were not for my day-to-day work as an interaction designer in government, I would not have made these connections. Whether or not you agree if strategic design plays a vital role in motivating the plot, in the end, Moneyball is just a great film.

Social introvert from Canada, currently living in England. Interaction designer at Government Digital Service.

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