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Does Anybody Here Know What Moneyball Is?

By Mike Silva ~ September 26th, 2011. Filed under: Morning Digest.

“Can’t anybody here play this game?” Said Casey Stengel when he took over the Mets in 1962. Nearly fifty years later I feel like saying something similar to fans, writers, and some baseball insiders when talking about Moneyball.

The movie had a great weekend as it grossed $20.6 million; only second to Disney’s “The Lion King.” From a business point of view the female turnout was outstanding, as it comprised 49% of the audience. Despite the many and varied positive reviews and turnout, the concept of Moneyball is no closer to being understood by many. As a matter of fact, the one entity responsible for helping the public disseminate that information- the mainstream media- seems to be equally as clueless on the topic. Outside of an article by Tom Verducci in Sports Illustrated, there were more condemnations of Moneyball and its failures than a portrayal of what it is and how it’s impacted the industry.

Moneyball is not a philosophy. There aren’t “Moneyball” teams or “non-Moneyball” teams. Moneyball is simple a term used to describe any process that helps an organization evaluate its operations. When I say operations it could be player personnel, the amateur draft, minor league operations, or even the non-baseball business side. It has nothing to do with OBP, sidearm relievers, or fat catchers that walk a lot. Those were some examples of what the A’s did in 2002 to maximize whatever resources they had in order to compete at the time. Why the confusion? Blame Michael Lewis, the author of the bestselling novel. For as much attention Lewis has brought to the changes in baseball’s front office the last decade, his book has created confusion, anger, and a debate over which method- scouting or statistics- is better used run an organization.

Rick Peterson was the pitching coach for Oakland during the time Lewis was writing his book. Many of Peterson’s methods to keep pitchers healthy and effective fall into the “Moneyball” description. He would sit next to Lewis during rides to the ballpark and talk baseball, as well as pick his brain about the literary industry. “I asked Michael what’s the formula for a best seller, “he said during an appearance on my Sunday radio program. Lewis talked about a process that includes all access, extensive research, and selecting the two or three pieces of the puzzle that make for a best seller. “If I did the whole puzzle,” Lewis told Peterson, “it wouldn’t be a best seller it would be a documentary.”

That is wherein the problem lies. Many people see Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford as the reason why Oakland won 20 games in a row en route to 102 wins and the AL West title in 2002. In reality, they were component pieces that were important, but not the main drivers of that group. A trio of arms named Zito, Hudson, and Mulder were the crux of a team that won 90+ games, 3 division titles, and made 4 playoff appearances between ’00-’04. Peterson understands without his aces that period wouldn’t be viewed the same way. “That wouldn’t have been the best seller that Michael Lewis wanted to write about. He wasn’t dismissing the importance of their value to the team. That didn’t make it the romantic Shakespearian character of Billy Beane for a best seller.”

That resume, although impressive, is often what members of the industry and media point out as reasons for failure. Notice there is no mention of “World Series champion” on Oakland’s or Billy Beane’s resume. In a winning or misery modern society, we often talk about success in absolutes. In New York, the Yankees have a clear mission statement that any season that doesn’t end in a World Series championship is a failure. “If you’re saying it’s a failure because we didn’t win the World Series, you’re absolutely right.” Peterson said. “If you’re saying it’s a failure because we didn’t impact best practices in the industry you’re wrong. You’re absolutely wrong.” I believe using the same logic applied to the “failure” of Moneyball, one could make the argument the Yankees are failures under their obtuse and arrogant mission statement since they haven’t won the World Series about 75% of the time.

Billy Beane might be the one credited with pushing the industry to use new methods of evaluation, but others were doing it at the time. Theo Esptein, regarded as one of the best general managers in the game today, was using analytics while working for the Padres during that period. Beane happened to be the one giving the access and discussing what he was doing. Don’t think it had an impact? When Peterson left Oakland for the Mets in 2004, the organization was so enthralled with Moneyball they bought 100 copies of the book and passed it out throughout the organization and had their employees do book reviews and participate conference calls on the subject. “It’s impacted the industry because people changed what their best practices were,” Peterson added.

Epstein told Tom Verducci in the aforementioned Sports Illustrated article how the Red Sox didn’t have stats on any of their draft prospects before he took over in 2003. Imagine that! Boston was going purely on subjective information to build their operation.  The Sox often used as the example of a sabermetric organization because they employ Bill James, but they do just as much scouting as any other team. They simple add more data and information to their process. The results speak for itself as only the Yankees have made the playoffs more than Boston the last ten years.

Still don’t think Moneyball changed the industry? Bloomberg Sports has an application that provides players with streaming video of their performance on their iPad an hour after the game. Twenty teams use Bloomberg analysis to help make organizational decisions. Peterson runs a company called 3P Sports, which uses technology and data to help improve pitchers performance both mentally and physically, and most important, keep them healthy. Even the World Champion San Francisco Giants use Moneyball, even though they publically disregard it. Executive Tony Siegle was quoted during their champagne celebration last October as saying “so much for Moneyball.” This year, the Giants called on a Ryan Vogelsong, a failed 5th round draft pick they selected in 1998, to fill the void created when Barry Zito went down with an injury. He hadn’t pitched since 2006 and owned a career big league record of 10-22 with a 5.86 ERA. This year he is 12-7 with a 2.81 ERA. Without him, San Francisco doesn’t sniff a pennant race. An undervalued asset making an impact you say? Well, that sounds like Moneyball to me.

The original movie was going to be more of a documentary under the direction of Steven Soderbergh. About 30 players and coaches, Peterson included, were going to play themselves. I am not sure that edition would gross over $20 million at the box office, or attract an audience that is 50% female. Like Lewis, the studio wants a box office hit, not a documentary. As a result, we will get more people misrepresenting the concept of Moneyball, and dismissing the impact Beane and the Athletics had on the industry. Maybe the only way to change that is to create the documentary that Soderbergh originally envisioned. That, however, is more suited for the MLB Network than the silver screen. Until then I guess we all have to continue to channel Casey Stengel and ask if “anyone here knows what Moneyball is.” Right now, I think on a larger than normal scale the answer is no.

Click here to download my Sunday show on Moneyball. 

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4 Responses to Does Anybody Here Know What Moneyball Is?

  1. The Coop

    Though I liked the “Hollywoodization” of Moneyball (starring “Face” Brad Pitt, playing the “Face” former baseball player/GM Billy Beane and the dorky Jonah Hill who is Hollywood gold), I had arguments with people over the same notions you discussed, especially regarding the elimination of the “Big Three” and no mention of RP. My guess is that it was a likeness right, especially with “Peter Brand” being a culmination of the stats guys (namely Paul DP, whom EVERYONE knows was prominent in the book). I think you however underestimate the power of the female demographic who would have liked a documentary. Furthermore, if Moneyball was a docu type, there is NO WAY it would be in the multiplex theaters or have a blockbuster draw. So on one hand, that is a correct assumption - there’s no way it would have drawn as many people, but I think female sports fans would have made it a point to see a documentary on something most of them read about back in 2003 (I know I would).

  2. Chuck Johnson

    “From a business point of view the female turnout was outstanding, as it comprised 49% of the audience.”

    I wonder what the female audience would have looked like if the title character was played by David Spade.

  3. Brien Jackson

    I blame Michael Lewis for this, mostly. The book is actually explicit right up front that the young pitchers (and young players in general) were THE MOST IMPORTANT part of Moneyball, because they’re cost controlled (of course, they also fit into Beane’s newer draft theory, but that’s another matter). But that fact that everyone agrees is central gets short-changed through the rest of the book, because Lewis isn’t writing an article or blog post about baseball, he’s trying to write a best-seller. So he plays up the more interesting things that were going on around the margins (Hatteberg, Bradford, Jeremy Brown) as well as Beane’s personality to add some drama to the book. But yes, all of that is very marginal.

    To the extent there’s a philosophy of moneyball, it’s got two basic tenets:

    1. Information, information, information! The more information you can get the better.

    2. Always challenge your assumptions to the fullest extent possible. This is the one that causes the most controversy, of course, because it means actually testing the hokum that a lot of “baseball people” have built a mythology around, and disproving a not insubstantial amount of it. That’s a real threat to the sort of manager/scout who thinks the root of all wisdom is the unique insight into the game they posses in their gut.

  4. The Coop

    I can assure you, as a female, I did not see the movie for the title character. I went to see it for its baseball theme and because I read the book. It’s very shortsighted to say that most of the female demographic who saw the movie this weekend was b/c of the so-called “eye candy”. I went with my husband and we both had lots to discuss about baseball afterwards.

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