Sep 6, 2011
Moneyball, the baseball movie starring Brad Pitt, is a classic underdog story. The poor kids in the neighborhood beat the wealthy bullies by beingsmarter. The 2002 Oakland A’s had a radical new method for evaluating players, and predicting their future performance.
Baseball’s entire inner circle – scouts (ex-ballplayers), general managers, broadcasters, and commentators — laughed at sabermetrics, as the new method was called. Now, every team uses it to evaluate players because it’s more accurate than the old statistics teams used since Henry Chadwick invented the box score in 1860,
The Movie’s Other Underdog Story
The underdog story of sabermetrics is just as exciting as the story of the 2002 A’s. A bunch of computer geeks and data bugs disproved practically every entrenced notion of how to predict future performance, and replaced it with something better.
Sabermetrics also changed game strategy in many ways. People who never played the game were telling people who’d been in it all their lives that they knew more about baseball than the “lifers.”
The movie deals with the sabermetric revolution as a back story. A revolution of ideas, especially mathematical ideas, does not lend itself to pictures, action, and dialogue. A baseball season is action, full of fascinating characters, episodes, dialogue, and a satisfying story with a conflict and satisfying ending.
You don’t need to know sabermetrics or baseball to enjoy this movie, but a little background in sabermetrics will help you enjoy the movie more.
Moneyball, the Book
Moneyball, the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, weaves a comprehensive history of sabermetrics into the story of the 2002 A’s. Books can describe the inner workings of a person’s mind better than movies, and the sabermetric revolution took place in people’s minds.
Sabermetrics was invented in 1976 by Bill James, an economics major and baseball fanatic, who was working as a night watchman in Kansas. He began to notice that baseball teams overvalued many traditional baseball statistics, and many others made no sense at all.
He started examining assumptions baseball people had been making about the game for 150 years, to see if they stood up to modern statistical analysis. Time after time, he found that the most basic, universally accepted ideas were contradicted by his computer models.
He began self-publishing his conclusions, and word spread among data bugs who loved baseball. They started doing their own research, sharing their discoveries by e-mail and on websites, and the movement grew, completely out off the radar screens of baseball executives, scouts, broadcasters, and commentators.
As their conclusions attracted more attention, the baseball establishment ignored, then ridiculed, then tried to suppress this movement of people who never played the game, who thought they knew more about it than professionals in a 150-year-old industry.
The first major league baseball team to use sabermetrics to make player and strategy decisions was the 2002 Oakland A’s. General manager Billy Beane [Brad Pitt] worked in a small market, and had only $40 million to spend on players, to compete against big-market teams spending $200 million.
As a player, Beane was an example of the kind of mistakes traditional scouts and baseball lifers make several times a year: a high school phenomenon who could do it all — run, throw, field, hit, and hit for power. He signs for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and fizzles out for reasons no one can fix.
Baseball scouts hovered around Beane like flies; he was one of the hottest prospects in the country. He played seven frustrating years, mostly in the minors, and never learned to hit professional pitching. Something the scouts did not see, and his high school performance did not show, was Beane’s intense fear of failure, and violent rage when he failed. A hitter can’t succeed with that emotional make-up.
A .300 hitter, worth millions in baseball today, fails to get a hit 70 percent of the time. He cannot dwell on his failures. None of Beane’s coaches in pro ball could teach him the right attitude, even though many tried for many years.
Sabermetrics in Action
To assemble a 25-man roster for $40 million to compete with $200 million teams, Beane needed to find bargains, outstanding players who’d been overlooked by everybody else. They would play for less money because only one team wanted to hire them. And he absolutely could not afford any multi-million-dollar disappointments.
Sabermetrics made sense to Beane. Its numbers told stories about baseball players that rang true to him, though he was not a numbers man himself. It also explained, in ways he could understand, what was wrong with the traditional way baseball people made decisions, including their frequent mistakes, including their mistakes about him.
Beane’s assistant GM, named Peter Brand in the movie, (whose real name is Paul DePodesta, and is played by Jonah Hill), was a Harvard-educated sabermetrcs expert, who never played the game. Beane put him to work searching his computer for players whose sabermetric profile showed proven ability, who would be underestimated, or considered “defective,” by traditional baseball lifers.
In 2002, Beane trusted Brand’s computer more than his scouts and conventional baseball wisdom. The A’s won more games than any other team in their division, and got eliminated early in the post-season playoffs. Baseball people are still debating whether sabermetrics is useful in a short post-season series, but all teams now use it to plan for the 162-game season.
A Revolution in Offense
Batting average had always been the most important offensive statistic, for a player and a team. Bill James discovered that a team’s batting average does not predict its standing in the league. Since the object of the game is to score runs and win games, what would be a more reliable predictor of a player and team’s ability to produce runs, he asked?
Three outs make an inning, and 27 outs make a 9-inning game. Any number of runs can score in an inning or a game until somebody makes the last out. So the most important thing to know about a hitter is how likely he is to make an out, James reasoned.
Batting average was an imperfect measure of a player and team’s likelihood to make outs. It does not count walks. A player who walks is just as likely to score as one who gets a single. For 150 years, walks had been considered a mistake by the pitcher that the batter did not contribute to, or get credit for.
Sabermetrics’ most important discovery was On-Base Percentage. OBP is the ratio of hits plus walks to the number of outs. He tested this, and found OBP, and a related number that measured power, really did predict, almost exactly, where a team would finish in the standings, and how valuable to the team a player would be.
OBP led Beane (and all teams today) to pay much more attention to a hitter’s ability to draw walks. OBP led Beane to a decision that flabbergasted all of baseball. Scott Hatteburg (played by Chris Pratt) was a good catcher who lost his ability to throw because of an injury. All of baseball considered him washed up and worthless.
Beane and Brand discovered in their computer that Hatteburg drew a lot of walks, almost never struck out, and looked at a lot of pitches in each at-bat. Though his batting average did not attract attention, he had an excellent OBP, and making pitchers thow lots of pitches wears them out, which helps the whole team produce runs. The A’s picked him up for nothing, and he became a major asset as a hitter.
They made Hatteburg a first baseman, knowing he would be a liability on defense. At first, every ball hit to Hatteburg was an unpredictable adventure, but Hatteburg fooled them again. He worked hard with his infield coach, and by June, he was no longer a liability in the field. For Beane, that was a welcome, totally unexpected, bonus.
How Hatteburg was recovered from the ashes, and, through hard work, greatly exceeded expectations, is great material for a movie. The movie is full of great people stories that work on film.
A Revolution in Defense
At first, there was no way to know how much of a team’s ability to prevent runs was because of the pitcher, or the fielders.
To make a very long story short, a pitcher has no control over a ball after it is put in play.
Only three statistics are completely in a pitcher’s control: home runs, strikeouts, and walks. The number of extra base hits shows how hard batters hit his pitches..
Pitcher Chad Bradford, played by Casey Bond, was another sabermetric coup for the 2002 A’s. Bradford was successful in the high minor leagues, but no big league team ever gave him a real chance. All he could do was get batters out, and make them hit ground balls. He allowed very few home runs because it’s mpossible to jack ground balls out of the park.
Bradford’s personal demon, which he finally overcame, was self-confidence. He believed what the baseball people had always said about him, that he was a fluke who could not succeed for long in the Major Leagues.
Bradford was not a traditional sinker ball pitcher. Sinker ball pitchers throw low in the strike zone, and induce ground balls, but typically have control problems. If they accidentally deliver a pitch high in the strike zone, they often get crushed.
Bradford threw the ball underhand. His knuckles scraped the ground when he delivered. That was the secret of his success, and also the “defect” that kept him out of the major leagues. Baseball people considered it a trick pitch that major league hitters would soon figure out.
He threw 85 mph, often slower, not the 90 or 95 mph fastballs that scouts love. That turned baseball people off, but Beane knew deception was more important than pitchers’ velocity in stopping hitters. Bradford became the most successful middle relief pitcher in baseball for several years.
The 2002 Amateur Draft
The funniest scene in the book is the 2002 amateur draft, watching the scouts’ reactions as Beane and the computer overrule all their observations and conclusions. Before their eyes, the scouts’ jobs were changing permanently or disappearing. A great visual image is these old baseball men with their chewing tobacco and individual cuspidors spitting harder and more often as their frustration grew.
The writer can probe those thoughts in detail. A good character actor and well-written script can only suggest them.
Moneyball is a classic, satisfying underdog story. The A’s are the little guys who beat the big, wealthy bullies by being smarter. It’s also the story of a revolutionary new idea overcoming smug, entrenched institutional ignorance, and computer nerds overcoming jocks.. What film can’t show about the history of the idea battle, the 2003 book, by Michael Lewis, shows in full.
Post Script: In 2002, John Henry, a self-made stock market billionaire with a flair for numbers, bought the Boston Red Sox, and tried to hire Billy Beane for millions of dollars. When Beane said no, Henry hired Theo Epstein, another sabermetrics wizard, as general manager. In 2004, the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.
Epstein moved on to the Cubs for a bigger salary and job title, and his hand-picked manager Terry Francona was fired, after the 2011 season. The one thing you can say for sure about all managers is that they will be fired someday.
BaseballPerspectus.com, the most authoritative sabermetrics website
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.