BY: Richard W. Humphrey
The movie “Moneyball” based upon Michael Lewis’s novel of the same name was recently released in Blu-ray and DVD, such that there has been an advertising push in recent days. Originally released in movie theaters last September, the movie is the third highest grossing movie of 2011 behind “The Help” and “War Horse”.
The book is really an expose of how Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and the Oakland organization has utilized statistical analysis in player procurement decisions. Adapting the book was a challenge. Think of trying to make a movie out of a book entitled “How I Made a Bunch of Money in the Stock Market”. They chose to make Beane the centerpiece of of the movie. He is played by Brad Pitt. The movie focuses on the 2002 season in which the Athletics won the American League West with a 103-59 record.
Time limitations of the movie basically precluded presenting the A’s approach to the amateur draft to which a good portion of the book is dedicated. The movie hones in primarily on the procurement of two players that fit the A’s sabermetric mold – reliever Chad Bradford, who throws with an unconventional submarine pitching motion, and first baseman/DH Scott Hatteberg.
The other principal character besides Beane is Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), the sabermetric guru that developed the analysis utilized to put the team together. Brand is actually a fictional character as the real nerdy mathematical guru involved with the Athletics at the time did not sign consent forms to be portrayed.
The movie has a good pace and obviously by the volume of ticket sales has an appeal to non-baseball fans. The baseball action scenes are well done, though it surprised me that they didn’t utilize more film footage of actual events, rather than re-creating them for the movie. Certainly in 2002, almost every game was televised, such that obtaining the footage should have posed little problem.
The book and ultimately the movie presented the mathematical approach as a new invention. Actually, teams have been utilizing sabermetrics in personnel analysis since at least the 1980′s. Beane is presented as utilizing these ideas to very cheaply put a team with a very low salary on equal footing with big spending teams like the Yankees. For a while, the A’s were competitive.
Certainly it is true that Bradford and Hatteberg were sought out because of the team’s sabermetric analysis. Both were on the team and played significant roles. However, the heart and soul of that team really lay in five players, beginning with three outstanding starting pitchers, any one of which could have been a Cy Young Award winner in a given year – Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder. They were not procured on the cheap through sabermetric analysis. Oakland led the American League in team ERA at 3.68 in 2002, with all three pitchers finishing in the top 10 in the league. Their combined record was 57-21, and they tossed 675 innings, approximately 45% of all the innings in the A’s season. Zito’s 23 wins were the most for any A. L. pitcher.
Offensively, the A’s were seeking patient hitters that took a lot of pitches and ran up pitch counts on opposing pitchers. Art Howe managed the A’s in 2002 and was later a coach under Ron Washington. In an interview after he joined the Rangers, Howe told me that most good teams have solid starting pitchers and a good closer that are tough to beat. The way to beat them is to be patient at the plate and run up the starter’s pitch counts to get them out of the game earlier; then beat your opponents middle relievers before the closer gets in the game.
The middle of the A’s batting order in 2002 was shortstop Miguel Tejada and third baseman Eric Chavez. Neither fit the mold, as both were free swingers that didn’t take many pitches. Tejada won the A. L. MVP Award, batting .308 with 34 home runs and 131 RBI’s. Chavez batted .275, but also hit 34 home runs and drove in 109. Those offensive statistics are particularly gaudy with half their games played in the very pitcher friendly Oakland – Alameda Coliseum.
The A’s were unable to retain those five core players when they became free agents, and haven’t been a serious contender since they left. They certainly have had some personnel “finds” in that time frame attributable to their sabermetric approach, but appear to be no closer to contending now than they were in 2007, the first year that all five of the core players were gone. Certainly, all teams are utilizing sabermetric principles in assessing players, much more so than they did a decade ago. However, the movie made baseball scouts look like dinosaurs about to go the way of the Edsel and Oldsmobile, to be surpassed by sabermetric analysis. That simply has not happened. Good scouts are even more valued today than a decade ago.
So enjoy the movie. It’s well worth seeing, but don’t believe everything you see and hear.