Baseball's GMs get a lesson in randomness
Cal Tech physics lecturer delivers presentation on final day of meetings
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- The General Managers Meetings ended Friday morning on a particularly academic note.Considering the educational diversity of the crowd that now inhabits baseball operations of practically every one of Major League Baseball's 30 clubs, it may come as no surprise that a Cal Tech lecturer in physics named Len Mlodinow spoke about the random nature of events in life and baseball during the final session. "My director of baseball operations holds a Ph.D. from Cal Berkley and an undergraduate degree at MIT," said Billy Beane, Oakland's president and GM. "That's the nature of the room now. It has really changed. And it's really good. You have really smart people coming into this game. "When a guy who's a teacher at Cal Tech and has a physics degree takes the time to come over, you realize there's a smarter guy in the room than you." Though Beane loves to be self-deprecating, he's as sharp as they come. The story of how he gave up a scholarship to Stanford and signed a contract as a top Draft pick with the Mets is well documented. His playing career was a bust because he couldn't cope with failure, but as he moved up the ranks in baseball ops, Beane studied in Oakland at the progressive altar of Sandy Alderson, now the GM of the Mets. They weren't afraid to incorporate statistics in their player evaluations and that approach begat an entire generation of young executives, including Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein, Paul DePodesta, Jed Hoyer, Jon Daniels and Josh Byrnes -- just to name a few. All of them, including Alderson, were in the room at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort when Dr. Mlodinow told them on Friday that he uses physics and statistics to prove that there really is a lot of luck involved in streaks and success in baseball. "Hard work and talent is what brings you success," Mlodinow said he told the group. "They are two big components of success, but also luck is a big component of success. Players have the talent but are subject to the random fluctuations that happen. You look at a player who's on a hot streak and think that he's seeing the ball better or concentrating better, but a large component of that is randomness." Mlodinow writes about how those theories apply to baseball and other sports in his book, entitled, "The Drunkard's Walk," which was published in 2008. "When we look at extraordinary accomplishments in sports -- or elsewhere -- we should keep in mind that extraordinary events can happen without extraordinary causes," he wrote. "Random events often look like non-random events, and in interpreting human affairs we must take care not to confuse the two." To be certain, this is only one point of view, but when Dan Halem, MLB's senior vice president of labor relations, read the book, he felt that this more erudite group of GMs and their assistants would be open to hearing about it. Thus, Mlodinow was invited to participate in Friday morning's session. It came as no surprise, then, that Beane pursued Mlodinow afterwards to tell him how impressed he was by the presentation. Really, by no choice of his own, Beane is the rock star of MLB's 30 general managers. He earned that mantle -- for good and bad -- after Michael Lewis wrote his book "Moneyball" a decade ago that analyzed how the A's had taken the approach of utilizing statistical analysis to unearth cheaper and heretofore unheralded players. Beane didn't write the book as many in baseball at the time claimed. He didn't produce the movie that came out last year, either. But Lewis chose Beane and the A's as his subject because the man is smart, personable, glib and a heck of baseball analyst. Many of us who have known him for years understand that. One can conduct a discussion with Beane on baseball as readily as English Literature. For example, Beane loves Dickens, Fitzgerald and Tolstoy. His favorite novel is "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo. So when he approached Mlodinow outside the conference room in the resort's conference center, the professor and author was agog, saying that "the reception from the group seemed to be good." "But I was particularly thrilled when Billy Beane came out to talk to me afterwards because he's kind of a sports, statistical hero," Mlodinow said. "He told me he enjoyed the talk and wished I could talk to the managers and tell the same thing." Mlodinow may have that opportunity, although he will be facing a far crustier group. He's just published a new book called, "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior." Imagine how a manager dealing with the complex failures of Alex Rodriguez in the playoffs or Prince Fielder during the World Series would implement some of that. For his part, Beane said the meeting with Mlodinow was his pleasure, not the opposite. "Really, I was more excited to meet him," Beane said. "I found his anecdotes and the experiments he did fascinating. Particularly in our business, which is very emotional, we tend to attach permanence to emotional, one-time events. That sticks in your mind forever and he sort of washed away some of that belief -- the idea that you can control and predict outcomes. In many cases, actually, they were random events based on a small sample size. "It was fun. We all enjoyed it."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.