Thinking beyond the Baseball Box

Brad Pitt in “Moneyball”

Sports (and Film) Saturday

One of the more interesting films of 2011 was Moneyball, the real life story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. Running a small market team and finding himself, in 2003, up against the Yankees, the Red Sox, and other big spenders, Beane had to figure out creative ways to stay competitive. Given that the 2012 Oakland Athletics have just captured the American Central Division in stunning fashion, coming back from 13 games back of the Texas Rangers and, nine days before the end of the season, five games back, the film is particularly relevant. But in ways that are more interesting that you may think.

In the film as in real life, Beane has just seen his remarkable team of the year before broken up because the Athletics can’t afford to retain stars like Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi when they enter free agency. He therefore takes a huge gamble. Rather than going for players that are traditionally seen as winners—big hitters and the like—he decides to follow the lead of Bill James, a baseball statistics devotee who argues that certain statistics are overvalued and others undervalued. James believes that power hitters aren’t as effective as hitters who get on base a lot, including through walks. James also believes that, given how hard it is to get on base, base stealing is overrated since what one loses when one is caught stealing far outweighs what one gains when one is successful.

Anyway, in 2003 when Beane applied sabermetrics to his team and started drafting players that others were overlooking, he managed to field a team that, after a slow start, at one point in the season won 20 straight games. The drama in Moneyball is the courage it takes to try a new approach, even though it involves going against prevailing wisdom. Beane is a visionary and we watch the inspiring story of a man who thinks outside the box and who proves the doubters wrong.

Beane (the real one this time) has just pulled off another amazing feat this year, and the film gives us a clue into how he has done it. But the answer is not through applying sabermetrics. That’s because, once others saw Beane’s success, they started applying sabermetrics themselves. Sabermetrics helps explain how Boston won its first World Series championship in 2004, and its new reputation has led to a rather remarkable debate in baseball this year.

The debate is over who deserves the American League MVP.  In past years, there would be no contest. No one would have disputed Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers winning the crown since he is the first triple crown winner since 1967, leading the league in batting average, homeruns, and runs batted in. Then again, Cabrera is a slow runner and has an indifferent glove.

Which opens the door for Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, who has better sabermetrics statistics, especially with regard to on base average. Cabrera might still win the award, especially as the Tigers are in the playoffs and the Angels are not. But the mere fact that baseball is arguing about the two men shows how the culture has changed.

And this is how the point made by the movie relates to real life. According to my son Darien, who pays attention to these things, the Athletics are winning this year not because they’re following sabermetrics. Rather, now that sabermetrics has proved itself so effective that everyone is using it, there are traditional players, once overvalued, who are now undervalued. These are the players, the big hitters, that Beane is now turning to.

The point of Moneyball, after all, is not that sabermetrics is king. It’s that creative people must think beyond convention, including new conventions, if they are to gain a competitive edge.

Beane’s creative team building has once again gotten the Athletics into the playoffs and we’ll see how much further it takes them. I myself, being from Maryland, will be rooting for the Orioles as long as they are in the series. (Last night, their own improbable win streak continued as they beat the mighty Texas Rangers.) But they are eliminated, thanks to the film I’ll be watching the Athletics very closely.

Update: A Slate article that makes a related point only in more detail and with far more expertise can be found here.

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