Outsiderball

October 7th, 2019

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The Oakland Athletics invented Moneyball. The Tampa Bay Rays invented what I call Outsiderball. It’s why, as the A’s, a team with limited financial resources, the Rays are consistent winners.

Few of us on the East Coast stayed up late enough last Wednesday to watch the Tampa Bay Rays win their wild-card game against the Athletics. Not bad, seeing that the Rays opened the season with a budget of about $60 million, the lowest in the majors, yet finished with 96 wins.

Some of Tampa’s success lies in having an outsider. Jonathan Erlichman is a 28-year-old with a math degree from Princeton. His entire playing career consists of T-ball in Canada at the age of 5. Tampa hired him in 2018 as the sport’s first ever “process and analytics coach.” Chaim Bloom, Rays’ senior vice president of baseball operations, calls Erlichman an outsider but “is on the inside in a way that somebody who just happens to be traveling with the club might not be.”

In what way? Erlichman says his role “is to provide a different perspective on the things that we’re doing here.” He asks Why? a lot. Why that stance? Why start a game with a starting pitcher? Why shag a fly ball that way? Why this, why that?

During the game, Erlichman assists manager Kevin Cash with in-game decisions. He provides real-time information to players. He doesn’t tell Cash when a player should bunt. He doesn’t show pitchers how to grip a change-up.

Outfielder Tommy Pham considers Erlichman invaluable. “Other teams’ analytics guys, they just see the numbers from a computer, from a piece of paper. He’s seeing it in-game, in-person, and he can apply what the numbers say on the computer and on paper to what he’s actually seeing.”

This spring, when Pham wanted help with his defensive positioning, he didn’t seek guidance from Kevin Kiermaier, the Rays two-time Gold Glove-winner. He didn’t go to Matt Quatraro, the coach who handles the team’s outfield instruction. Pham sought the perspective of Erlichman. Pham believes Erlichman sees unique angles, what baseball insiders often miss.

The results are impressive. The Rays play half their schedule in St. Petersburg, Florida, the smallest city to host a MLB team. Tropicana Field seats just 25,000 fans in the league’s only fixed-roof ballpark. Tampa has ranked last or second-to-last in attendance the last nine seasons. Yet they keep finding ways to compete, posting a record above .500 eight times since 2008.

The Rays are known as baseball’s most progressive and innovative team, popularizing now-ubiquitous tactics like the defensive shift and the “opener”—the practice of starting a game with a relief pitcher. Its insider/outsider structure is how innovative businesses operate.

Findings from neuroscience confirm this. They indicate organizational insiders only see 40 percent of a situation, or problem. Outsiders can see the rest. This is why Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard, and Lars Bo Jeppesen, a business consultant, say innovative companies have an outsider with “interdisciplinary expertise,” the ability to draw connections between one subject and another. This describes Erlichman.

The best outsiders are borderline experts who approach a problem from an unusual angle. Southwest Airlines is a good example. When the airline sought innovative ways to decrease the time it took to refuel, disembark and board passengers, and unload and load baggage, it did not look inside the airline industry. It went outside, to NASCAR pit crews and drivers.

My sense is that, as the neuroscience behind innovation is better understood, highly effective businesses will operate by it. Some already do. Most don’t, however. This paradigm shift is still in the future for most businesses. If they want to peek into the future, they should ask how a 28-year-old geek with a math degree from Princeton and one year of T-ball in Canada has helped the Tampa Bay Rays be consistent winners. They’d learn a lot.

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One Response to “Outsiderball”

  1. Tim Smick says:

    Tampa Ray’s stadium (Tropicana Park) is the ugliest stadium in baseball from Triple A ball on up. It is located in a seedy part of town, has difficult ingress and egress and as a result, attracts few fans even when they are winning.
    I agree with you that Erlichman provides an excellent example of the value of bringing an outsider’s perspective to your business. Clearly we have blind spots in our less than 20/20 vision that can be picked up by individuals such as this.
    Then again, what happened to my O’s. I left them in your charge about 19 years ago when I moved to Florida. I have faithfully rooted for them each year and they are embarrassing me constantly.
    I think you need to give the organization a call and see if they are open to your help.

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