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Morning Digest: Review of Moneyball The Movie Edition



By Mike Silva ~ September 21st, 2011. Filed under: Morning Digest.

Moneyball: It’s entertainment! At least that the message I give in my official review of the film over at Sports Media Watchdog:

Moneyball delivers the goal of any movie: entertainment. There is a little of everything in the film; Baseball, personal struggle, an underdog, and even a family component. The main character, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane, is played by Brad Pitt. The other two characters of interest are Peter Brand (Johan Hill) who is actually Paul Depodesta and the A’s manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

The film goes in three distinct directions. You have the obvious storyline, which is the underdog A’s trying to win a pennant with the lowest payroll in baseball. Then there is the personal struggle by Beane to exorcise the demons from his failed playing days. Winning is not portrayed as the primary objective for Beane, rather s it’s the art of revolutionizing the game that drives him. Finally, there is the family component where Beane has to balance a high profile job along with being a divorced dad. In the end he has to choose between his dream job and his daughter.

I think the key is not to get all crazy about the artistic license they take with the industry. I know that’s hard considering this is recent history and we were present for the events, but there are silver screen adaptations to every film that is “based on a true story.” If you get over the baseball insider violations and take the movie for what it is, you will not be disappointed.

***

One of the players portrayed in the film is Scott HattebergGig Harbor Patch caught up with the former catcher turned first baseman in Oakland.

Chris Pratt played Hatteberg in the film. When they asked the real Hatteberg about his performance he gave it “two thumbs up.”

I don’t know if I’ve fully absorbed it yet, it’s really weird. It’s hard to describe. I can’t really put my finger on it, but it’s definitely weird. You never know how you would be portrayed, but the guy who is playing me, he’s really got my mannerisms down. My kids were kind of amazed at how he looked and acted like me, so kudos to him, he did a good job.

Hatteberg is now a scout for Beane in Oakland.

***

You forget how good an OBP guy Hatteberg was during his time in Oakland. He walked 257 times and struck out 211 during his 4 years in the Bay. His best season was 2004 when he hit .284, walked 74 times, struck out 48, and hit 15 HRs with 82 RBI.

That walk to strikeout ratio isn’t Joe DiMaggio, but it’s pretty damn impressive.

***

What if Billy Beane took John Henry’s $12.5 million dollar contract offer to become the GM of the Boston Red Sox? The course of history could be changed today. Would the Sox have broken the curse in 2004? Would David Ortiz be a Boston folk hero? Would Moneyball be as misunderstood as it is?

You won’t get a complete understanding of Moneyball by watching the movie, but the crux of the premise is on display: exploiting market inefficiencies. Basically this is what every person in every business is doing today. They use technology to exploit vulnerabilities in the marketplace. Heck, Mark Cuban points out at his blog they are doing it with the stock market.

The one aspect of the concept that needs to be addressed is how it’s virtually impossible to win without good starting pitching. It’s a point brought up in the comments section here before, but the reason the 2002 A’s didn’t see a drop-off from 2001 is because of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson. Once Hudson and Mulder became too expensive they complemented Zito with Dan Haren, Rich Harden, and Joe Blanton; certainly not the same caliber of the original big three.

It was, however, good enough to take Oakland to the ALCS versus Detroit in 2006.

The movie focuses on the loss of Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen. In reality, Giambi was the biggest loss of the three. Billy Koch was brought in and did a similar type of job to Isringhausen. Damon had a great postseason series against the Yankees, but his one season in Oakland was one of the worst ones of his career. His regular season numbers (.256/9/49 with 27 stolen bases) were not that hard to replicate.

Basically you were replacing Giambi’s bat, but more importantly, looking to fill out the roster with component parts because they couldn’t spend big dollars on component parts. That’s what kills the small market teams. If they have stars they can’t afford to round out the roster. If they have overpaid component parts they can’t spend on stars.

Even in Boston, where they have used Moneyball principles (with money of course) to fill their roster, it was solid starting pitching (i.e. acquisition of Schilling and Beckett) that have contributed to their run.

Finding undervalued starting pitching might be one of the toughest jobs in today’s game. It was the arms that made Moneyball a contender. If not for those arms this is a story about some undervalued players that were able to make a name for themselves by being given an opportunity.

***

Inspired by this piece by Howard Megdal at the Journal News, which discussed the value of R.A. Dickey who was essentially plucked off the scrapheap by Omar Minaya in December of 2009, and subsequently rewarded by Sandy Alderson with a very team-friendly 2 year/$6.8 million dollar contract the following offseason.

It is easy to look at RA Dickey’s 8-13 record in 2011 and be underwhelmed. Easy, but foolish. Dickey has been the team’s best pitcher, and has essentially kept pace with his revelatory 2010 season. His ERA stands at 3.35, after a 2.84 mark last year. His strikeout rate has actually improved, from 5.4/9 to 5.8/9, while the real secret of his success, command of the knuckleball, has kept his walk rate low-2/4/9 this year, after 2.2/9 last season. His xFIP is a solid 3.96, up just a bit from last year’s 3.75. And he’s already passed 200 innings on the season.

Megdal points out that Dickey’s Wins Above Replacement put him in the top 20 of all starting pitchers in baseball.

Dickey is a great example of a “Moneyball player.” This was an undervalued asset the Mets turned into a top of the rotation starting pitcher. Dickey’s ability to not only throw innings, but also do so at a quality level, is invaluable with the dearth of pitching depth in today’s game.

Actually, Howard pointed out that I wrote about the potential of Dickey on December 27th, 2009, just days after he signed:

The uncertainty of the Mets pitching staff has been a topic of conversation this offseason. To date, we have no idea if the Mets are willing to pay the price for one of the second tier starters on the free agent market. If spring training were to start today the likely rotation would be Santana, Pelfrey, Maine, Perez, and some sort of fifth starter (Nelson Figueroa?). I have said a few times if the Mets beef up their offense, and bullpen, I can live with this group. Back in 2006, the starters pitched less than 1,000 innings leaving the bullpen to pick up almost 37% of the total innings for that season. This isn’t rare in the era of the “six inning starter”, but even this year’s Yankees, whose number five and six starters combined for less than five innings per start, didn’t have that large percentage of bullpen utilization. It’s not crazy to think the 2010 Mets will need three innings a night to navigate a ballgame. Enter R.A Dickey who might benefit from a move to the National League and has the rubber arm to help the situation.

In 2006 the Mets had Darren Oliver to come in when their starters faltered early. I don’t expect Dickey to put up the numbers of Oliver, but if the move to the NL shaves off a half a run I can live with a 4.00 ERA and eating 60+ relief innings. If you break down his 09′ season, a terrible July, where he was eating innings in blowout games, contributed to about 15 earned runs. His final tally is far more respectable 3.45. If you believe in the half run rule of the NL that puts him below 3 earned runs a game.

Keep in mind another value of Dickey. If a pitcher comes up lame you might not have to make emergency roster moves to replace them in the rotation. Last year the Mets lost Darren O’ Day because of a Nelson Figueroa April start. They almost lost Figueroa after that as well when he filed for free agency.

I am not trying to make this signing out to be more than it is. There is a great chance Dickey will be more valuable to the Buffalo Bisons than in New York. Obviously knuckleball pitchers are going to rely on a bit of luck and we haven’t even discussed who is going to catch the darn thing (I am guessing Blanco). Good teams have pitchers that can eat innings on a moment’s notice. The 2000 Mets had Pat Mahomes, in 06′ Darren Oliver was their guy, and in the eighties you had a guy named Terry Leach. This could turn out to be a more important signing than we all think.

I don’t think Omar Minaya was thinking “undervalued asset” when he signed Dickey. It probably was more cheap veteran filler ala what we saw in prior years with Brian Lawrence, Tony Armas Jr., Jose Lima, and Geremi Gonzalez. The difference is Dickey had a better process and splits than the aforementioned scrap heap pickups. That’s the difference between finding an undervalued asset versus hoping to catch lightening in a bottle.

Again, Moneyball is not just about OBP or cheap payroll. It’s about exploiting market inefficiencies. That could change depending on the state of the industry at the time. What is Moneyball in 2002 is not Moneyball in 2011, and may not be Moneyball in 2020.

***

Chris Mad Dog Russo didn’t see value in the R.A. Dickey signing.

The Dog also didn’t see value in Moneyball. Here is what he said on Twitter.

“Brad Pitt’s on the cover of SI? Money ball is a myth. Dont believe the A’s won because Scott Hatteberg could take a walk.” 

Again, did I not say that Moneyball is misunderstood? That is an oversimplification of the concept. Bad job, to quote the Dog.

***

I brought up Moneyball on Sunday when former Mets hitting coach Howard Johnson joined me on the show. HoJo gave his thoughts about Moneyball on Twitter a while back. I asked him to expand on it.

“I’m going to watch it (the movie). I actually read the book when it came out and found it interesting stuff. I had a lot of problems with it from a philosophical standpoint. It makes an interesting storyline, but my view is it’s not the way to go out and build a winner. It’s a way for small market teams to shed payroll and constantly be in a state of rebuilding. It hasn’t been shown to be the ruling philosophy. It’s a snapshot, it’s a way to measure a player’s performance, but it doesn’t translate into to what happens on the field.”

To hear HoJo’s thoughts on Moneyball, memories from his playing career, and his time as the hitting coach of the Mets you can download Sunday’s show here and fast forward to the 35 minute mark

***

The Yankees have some value on their team as well. The organization that is in the opening of the film has been forced to adapt to an industry that was changed partly by the work of Billy Beane.

Instead of signing Carl Crawford to a 7 year/$142 million dollar deal they have Brett Gardner in left. According to Fangraphs, Gardner is giving them $22 million dollars worth of performance this year. His actual salary is 550k. Most of that value is due to his defensive prowess in left, but he is hitting .260 with a .350 OBP and 45 stolen bases. It’s actually a better season than what the Sox are receiving from Crawford.

Bartolo Colon (8-9, 3.81) is giving the Yankees the performance of an $11 million dollar per year pitcher. His actual salary is 900k

Ivan Nova (15-4, 3.81) is a $10 million dollar per year pitcher, while Freddy Garcia (11-8, 3.77) is just a shade under $8 mill per year in value. Combined they won’t make a third of that money.

Whether the Yankees continue to go this route will probably depend on how they fair in the postseason. If they lose, my guess is the fans, media, and Randy Levine faction of the front office will blame the lack of movement by Brian Cashman at the trade deadline. In reality, none of the pitchers they could have acquired, including Ubaldo Jimenez, would have given them much better performance than Nova, Garcia, or Colon. As discussed in the film, you have to look past the star name and more about what the actual player produces.

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Mike Silva has hosted sports shows on 107.1 FM Champions ESPN Radio Long Island ,1240 AM WGBB , Blog Talk Radio and live from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. He’s also built and maintained two popular social media hubs: New York Baseball Digest and Sports Media Watchdog. Mike has broken national and local stories, as well as been mentioned on the YES Network, SNY.tv, WFAN, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NY Daily News, New York Magazine, Journal News and the NY Post. Contact Mike professionally at mikesilvamedia.com

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2 Responses to Morning Digest: Review of Moneyball The Movie Edition

  1. Stu B

    “to exercise the demons from his failed playing days.”

    Muscles are exercised, demons are exorcized…

    And Mad Dog’s at his blithering idiot best in that video!

  2. Frank Russo

    Stu,

    Excellent point. But what if we find out that the late, great, Jack LaLanne is still doing his thing in Heaven? Does this mean that a Ghost can still exercise while they are being exorcized!

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