‘Moneyball’ and how we got where we are now

Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland Athletics, is played by Brad Pitt in the film adap-
tation of Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball.” (Courtesy of www.sanfranmag.com)

For just a minute, forget that you have ever heard the term Moneyball.

Pretend that if you were to hear it right now, the first thing that would come to mind would have something to do with announcing the day’s final lottery number, and nothing whatsoever to do with how to win baseball games. In fact, forget baseball altogether. Instead, think about this idea of finding underrated assets, of compensating for the resources you don’t have by seeking value in places others wouldn’t think to look.

Think about being backed into a corner until you are forced to concede that you won’t be successful doing things the way everyone else does them, and so you’ll just have to start looking at those things differently than everyone else does.

What sorts of associations do these ideas — taken together, without a name attached — conjure up on their own? Finance, possibly? Something related to manufacturing?

Maybe they inspire a vision of a retail corporation that has found a way to cut costs without sacrificing quality. The bottom line: those ideas could apply to just about any scenario involving how an individual or a firm or a company might run more efficiently.

One example of a company happens to be a professional baseball team, and nine years ago Michael Lewis wrote a book suggesting that these broad principles might work for those companies as well. Of course, the name of that book was not something like “Common Theories of Success” or “What Baseball Clubs Can Learn From Other Industries”. The name of that book was “Moneyball”, and here we are.

It is exactly that sheer universality of the core principles in Moneyball that makes so much of the controversy generated maddening to comprehend. Because what Lewis was trying to say throughout the book, and what he has been trying to reinforce ever since it got published, is that these ideas have been around FOR CENTURIES.

These ideas are central to how businesses in every facet of the economy are run, and have been since before baseball was invented: Look for new ways to analyze commodities; find value where others don’t; J.D. Drew is worth every penny that he makes. What Billy Beane and the people running the Oakland Athletics have done, at the most transparent level, is simply apply those principles to their own business. The commodity in question? Players. Their value? Wins.

How to go about finding this value? New and improved ways of analyzing statistics, collectively termed “sabermetrics.” When diluted to the basics, the question of whether Moneyball will work almost becomes ridiculous; it’s like debating whether Henry Ford’s assembly line idea is going to pan out.

So what, then, if Moneyball has been around forever, is all the noise about? There are two general causes. On one level, there is an idea that those who believe in the Moneyball philosophy believe in it as an infallible system, and one that will guarantee success if executed correctly, and when a team using it is unsuccessful, this becomes proof that the whole system doesn’t work. Famously, and to the delight of the detractors, the Oakland Athletics under Billy Beane have almost never won in the playoffs and never reached a World Series.

But Moneyball never claimed to be about perfection. It is a system designed to make up part of the disadvantage that huge gaps in resources create. Does Moneyball promise that high-payroll teams like the Red Sox and Yankees will see their advantages erased? Not at all.

There will never be a time when money isn’t a huge factor, maybe the deciding factor along with luck, in who wins and who loses in the MLB. Oakland has to be dealt the perfect cards to win; New York and Boston can, to a degree, make their own luck. All Oakland has been trying to do is close the gap and give themselves a shot to let the stars align.

Another source of controversy has been the reluctance by people with actual baseball experience — former players, scouts, coaches — to take new insight on the game from those who have no experience. I tend to have more mixed feelings about this criticism of Moneyball. As easy as it is to laugh at people determined not to change at all costs, there’s a part of me that empathizes with that attitude in a way that extends far beyond baseball.

Imagine devoting your entire life to one way of looking at something, only to be told that it’s the wrong way. How would any of us feel about that? Now throw in that the people who are telling you this tend to be about forty-five years younger on averag, and just showed up last year.

Wouldn’t the certainty those people have about how to play a game they never played be just as ridiculous as your traditional beliefs are to them? To go one step further, wouldn’t any setback those people experience bring you just a little bit of joy after they seemed so positive they were the only ones who knew what they were talking about?

In the early days after the release of the film version of “Moneyball”, the strongest sign that it has been a faithful adaptation is that the same groups of people are pissed all over again.

Scouts are once more lashing out at the way they were portrayed: pigheaded, clueless, and more concerned over whether a player has an ugly girlfriend (“no confidence”) than how often he gets on base. Art Howe, the man who managed the Athletics during the 2002 season around which the book is centered, is again denying that he was simply a puppet micromanaged by Beane on everything from the lineup to where he should sit in the dugout. Even Joe Morgan, the great player-turned-broadcaster who has become famous to a new generation for declaring everything in the book to be bullshit*, has resurfaced to declare that everything in the movie is probably bullshit.

*Morgan has spent most of the last decade drawing the ire of the sabermetric community — a community that’s growing fast — by refusing to acknowledge any value in any new method of looking at the game of baseball. He also continues to think that Billy Beane himself wrote the book “Moneyball,” which doesn’t help his cause.

All of those people have a right to be angry if they choose, and if it takes a movie coming out to reignite those feelings, so be it. But to start another back-and-forth about whether “Moneyball” works … well, another thing the movie can do is help us remember just where we are right now in baseball.

We are in a place where there are more metrics used to evaluate players than ever before. Where teams appreciate the potential of young talent and recognize the decline that comes with age better than they ever have. Where tools are available that can help us predict performance more accurately than anyone thought was possible.

Moneyball, or “Moneyball”or even Moneyball with Brad Pitt is not about on-base percentage, the risks of stealing bases and the incompetence of scouts. It is about finding ways to become smarter at what you are doing. It is at once part of a past that predates Billy Beane and a present in which nearly all of baseball has embraced the statistical revolution and its promise.

Most of all, it is the thing that reminds us both how far we have come and how little we had to travel to get here.

Tim is a junior. You can reach him at tbernst1@swarthmore.edu

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