Politics & Policy

Beane Ball

A new film dramatizes the exciting world of baseball statistics.

It is no exaggeration to say that Michael Lewis’s 2003 runaway bestseller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, was my (secular) Constantine moment.

Almost overnight, I went from relying on the New York Post’s back page, where columnists frequently informed me that Mets losses were a result of missing grit, passion, and hustle, to engrossing myself in Rob Neyer’s analytical ESPN columns, where, despite having flunked a statistics course in business school, I learned how to better evaluate major-league ballplayers.

I realized that outfielder Roger Cedeno’s speed on the bases was useless since he was no longer drawing walks, southpaw Jerry Koosman had been a valuable commodity in 1978 even though he lost 20 games the previous year, and infielder Edgardo Alfonzo had among the best back-to-back seasons for any position player ever to have donned a New York Mets uniform. (As a sop to New York Yankee fans, I also entertained the possibility, advanced by the dean of sabermetricians, Bill James, that outfielder Roy White had as good a career as Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Jim Rice, if not a better one.)

Newsday baseball columnist Ken Davidoff opined to me that Moneyball ranks in the “top 10 of all time in the baseball world, when you consider how much it has shaped discussions about and within the game.” He says the book “heighten[ed] my awareness of statistical analysis, and it motivated me to look at things more through that lens.”

The book documents how Billy Beane, general manager of the budget-minded Oakland Athletics, much like a successful Wall Street analyst, spotted and took advantage of the inefficiencies embedded in Major League Baseball to stand toe-to-toe with the Yankees, making the postseason in four consecutive seasons and capturing four division titles over seven seasons. From 2000 through 2004, only the Bronx Bombers won more regular-season games than the A’s.

However, the lessons offered extend well beyond bats and balls. One of Lewis’s principal characters, Paul DePodesta, wunderkind assistant to Beane, reportedly said a few years ago that the book belonged in the business sections of bookstores and libraries, not under sports. Sure enough, I realized that in order to grow my nascent public-policy consultancy, I needed to design a business plan that targeted market inefficiencies.

Although the book enjoyed brisk sales, its contents provoked a backlash of cyclonic proportions, principally from the sport’s old guard, who viewed Lewis’s narrative as an assault on their cherished beliefs, which Lewis reviews and often finds wanting. Among the biggest critics was Hall of Fame second baseman and former ESPN broadcaster Joe Morgan, who assumed that Moneyball was an autobiography and got ticked that Beane was ridiculing his view of the value of stolen-base attempts. During a subsequent interview, when asked why he had not yet read the book, Morgan responded incredulously, “Why would I want to read a book about a computer, that gives computer numbers?”

Other critics misinterpreted the larger message, thinking that Moneyball claimed: (1) the only way to win is with position players sporting high on-base percentages; (2) defense does not matter; and (3) first-round draft picks should be used solely on college athletes.

On-base percentage: At the time the book was published, there still were only a handful of teams that targeted players who were particularly skilled at reaching first base, a tool that Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey had emphasized in the late 1940s to considerable success. Consequently, many of these players were available cheaply.

Defense: Lewis references James, who pointed out in his very first Baseball Abstract that traditional defensive calculations — errors and fielding percentage — were misleading. “The statistics were not merely inadequate; they lied.” “Language,” said Lewis, “not numbers, is what interested [James].” As A’s GM, Beane realized that effective defensive measurements were still years away from being available; therefore, it was preferable to focus on offense, since that was quantifiable.

Draft priorities: Beane’s drafts emphasized athletes playing at universities because, as was the case with on-base percentage, most teams were going the high-risk/high-reward route of targeting high-school players and signing them at prices that the A’s simply could not afford.

Moneyball, the movie, opens nationwide this Friday. Bennett Miller directed the screenplay written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Brad Pitt stars as Beane, Jonah Hill as his Yale-educated, stats-obsessed acolyte, Peter Brand (DePodesta asked that his name not be used), Philip Seymour Hoffman as Oakland field manager Art Howe, Robin Wright as Beane’s ex-wife, and Kerris Dorsey as his early-teen daughter, Casey.

Much like The Blind Side, a prior Lewis work adapted for the big screen, Moneyball will appeal to all audiences — from the diehard fan to the sports-averse. There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments, particularly early scenes when Beane’s scouts discuss in front of the beleaguered general manager how to replace departed stars and whom to pick in the upcoming draft (“Who’s Fabio?” asks one bewildered, elderly scout). There are also several touching scenes, including those that reveal Beane’s long battle with the self-doubt that masks his fiercely competitive exterior, and his relationship with Casey — most notably in the film’s climax, as he mulls a lucrative job offer from the Red Sox.

By and large, the play-by-play moments depicted are historically accurate, including catcher-castoff-turned-first-baseman Scott Hatteberg’s magical walk-off home run that marked Oakland’s 20th consecutive win, an American League record, in 2002, although much of the on-field video actually is historical footage.

Other scenes were conjured up in the Land of Make Believe. For example, in real life, Beane did not both stumble upon statistical analysis and meet Brand/DePodesta while on an offseason jaunt to Cleveland to see his Indians counterpart. Beane’s predecessor, Sandy Alderson, increasingly relied on statistical analysis in the mid to late 1980s, while Brand/DePodesta became Beane’s assistant in 1999. Still, the fictitious  elements do not take away from the larger story.

In short, the filmmakers deserve credit for creating an enjoyable viewing experience by adopting the brains embedded in the bestseller and giving the 133-minute adaptation a Hollywood heart.

One question lingers about Beane’s time in Oakland: Why have the A’s, who went to the playoffs in four consecutive seasons (2000–03), not played postseason baseball since 2006?

Even as Lewis was conducting his interviews for the book, several other teams were already incorporating statistical analysis into their front-office operations, most notably the financial behemoths of the American League, Boston (under Theo Epstein) and New York (with Brian Cashman). As Lewis explained in the New York Times in 2005, the “[market inefficiencies] aren’t as great as they were before Oakland began to systematically exploit them.” Today, most clubs have adopted these strategies and are in fierce competition with Beane over remaining inefficiencies.

Another possible explanation is not even addressed in Moneyball. Next spring, the A’s and Toronto Blue Jays will be the only teams still playing in stadiums home to both baseball and football. Only Oakland and the Tampa Bay Rays play their games in aesthetically cold dumps — making it difficult to draw fans — and they have little hope of finding greener pastures anytime soon. (Jonah Keri ably covers that topic in The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.)

So how did the lessons drawn from Moneyball impact my LLC? Over a period of several years, I have managed to identify a number of market inefficiencies, but overall my execution has been less than stellar. Maybe I need to drop in on Hatteberg and offer him a contract. . . .

— Jason Epstein is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC, in Washington, D.C.

Jason Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC. He was a public-relations consultant for the Turkish embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2007.

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