Friday, September 30, 2011

Moneyball: Baseball, Statistics, and the Pervasive Human Element

"There are rich teams, and there a poor teams. Then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us."

This is how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) explains to his scouts the rationale for moving from a traditional purely physical attributes-based style of scouting to a hybrid style of scouting that takes into consideration the comparative analysis of baseball stats such as walks, hits, and runs (just to name a very few) and how they relate to wins, playoff appearances and, ultimately, World Series Championships.

Moneyball is the story of how a washed up former can't miss 1st round pick outfielder turned GM and a Yale educated economics major Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) effectively "turned the odds on the casino" that is the money based ideology that has run rampant in baseball since the game's professional inception. Whether it's the 1927 New York Yankees (and seemingly every Yankees team since), the 1939 Brooklyn Dodgers, or the 2004 Chicago Cubs the thinking in baseball has always been some variation of idea that the team with the most money can buy the most talent, which will produce the best team and the most wins. The problem with this commonly held belief (and most other generalizations for that matter) is that, more times than not, they prove to be false. The player that costs the most may not necessarily be the most talented and having the greatest collection of players that money can buy does not guarantee that they will produce the outputs that translate into winning. Brand simplifies this concept for Beane when he explains the value of statistical analysis in the development of a Major League team.

"Your goal shouldn't be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. In order to buy wins, you need to buy runs."

Precipitated by the loss of superstar caliber players such as Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon to juggernauts like the Red Sox and Yankees, against the advice of his seasoned scouts (who feel their longstanding jobs slipping out from under them) and with the ire of A's manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who is already put off by Beane's lack of responsiveness to Howe's request for a new contract, Beane sets out to craft a team composed of castoffs from what Brand humorously describes as "an island of misfit toys" to field during the upcoming 2002 season. This search for value in the numbers centers around the recruitment of Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt). The scene opens with Scott Hatteberg sitting on the couch, forlorn and nervous, as New Year's fireworks erupt on a nearby television set. His wife is in the kitchen looking over unpaid bills. Hatteberg's contract has just expired with the Boston Red Sox and the prospects of him getting another shot in the show look slim to none due to nerve damage in his right arm that has made him virtually unable to throw. Hatteberg is a catcher by trade and a catcher who can't throw is an unemployable catcher. Just after midnight Hatteberg receives a call from Billy Beane. Beane wants to know if he has a second to discuss playing for the Oakland Athletics. Scott's ears perk up. Of course he does. Beane them implores Hatteberg to open the front door to let himself and 3rd base coach Ron Washington (Brent Jennings) in.

Beane explains to Hatteberg that the Oakland A's are impressed with his ability to get on base and would like to sign him to a contract, stipulated upon Scott's agreement to play 1st base. This leads to one of the more humorous moments in the movie. Billy Beane: We want you at first base. Scott Hatteberg: I've only ever played catcher. Billy Beane: It's not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash Ron Washington: It's extremely hard. After a few moments of dazed puzzlement by Hatteberg, Beane pulls an envelope from his inside pocket. He explains to Scott that the envelope contains a contract to play for Oakland and that a copy has been sent to his agent. He should discuss it with his wife and get back to Beane. With that Beane and Washington see themselves out of the residence. We are left with the image of a relieved Scott Hatteberg embracing his wife and young daughter.

Beane and Brand go on to fill out the roster with players such as an aging David Justice (Stephen Bishop), whom the Yankees feel is so washed up that they, as Beane so eloquently and directly puts it, "are paying you $3.5 million to play against them". He also signs Jason Giambi's younger brother Jeremy (Nick Porrazzo), who brings a history drug abuse and an affinity for strip clubs along with his hefty on-base percentage. Brand encourages Beane to take a flyer on a young pitcher named Chad Bradford (Casey Bond), who has been vilified in most Major League circles because of his unorthodox "submarine" pitching motion and less than stellar 82 mph fastball. With these pieces in place, Beane and the A's set out for Spring Training and march towards the season opener.

Things do not go as planned (where would the plot go if things turned . The Athletics limp out of the gate and soon find themselves situated comfortably in last place in the American League's West Division. Along with the consistent losing caused in large part by dormant bats and inadequate fielding, Beane finds himself in a veritable standoff with his disgruntled field general Art Howe. Beane has repeatedly requested that Howe put Hatteberg in the line-up at 1st base instead of rookie phenom Carlos Pena but every time Beane peers at the line-up card posted at the end of the A's dugout he sees the physical manifestation of Howe's defiance penciled in. The value of Beane and Brand's radical team building exercise is already in jeopardy due to the check marks in the wins and losses columns. The entire house of cards could come crumbling down if he allows Howe's insubordination to win out. There's more at stake than just his job as GM and Brand's apprenticeship as Assistant GM. Beane could lose out on the opportunity to see his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), whom he shares custody with his estranged wife. It was time for bold, decisive action.

Beane proceeds to trade star 1st baseman Carlos Pena to the Detroit Tigers to free up a spot in the starting line-up for Scott Hatteberg (he also gets an agreement from Tigers' GM Dave Dombroski to stock the clubhouse soda machine for 3 years!). A suddenly emboldened Beane then prances into Art Howe's office and demands that the manager put Hatteberg in the line-up for that night's game. Unaware of the deals that have been covertly arranged, Howe states that he has no intention of going 16 rounds with Beane and that Pena would be in the line-up as usual. With one of the funnier lines in the movie, Beane explains to Howe that putting Pena in the line-up will be a little difficult since he plays for the Tigers now. The look on Howe's face is priceless! Oh, but Beane's not done. He calls Jeremy Giambi into Howe's office and informs Giambi that he's been traded to Philadelphia. He gives Jeremy the Phillies' GM's number and wishes him the best. Beane then turns to Howe and sardonically states "Jeremy's gone too". In a swift coup d'etat, Beane has wrestled control of the team back. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Oakland A's go on to win a Major League record 20 consecutive games before being bounced in the ALDS by another formidable small market team - the Minnesota Twins. Devastated by the early playoff exit, Beane reflects on whether bilking the traditional method of organizational development was worth it if all it got them was 7 games short of the ultimate goal. His answer comes in the form of a meeting with Boston Red Sox owner John Henry at historic Fenway Park. Henry explains how much he admires Beane's bravado and pioneering methods and wants him to bring his talents to historic Yawkey Way. He then slides a piece of paper across the table to Beane. It is not until the closing credits of the movie that we find out what Henry's offer was to Beane - $12,500,000 - which would've made Beane the highest paid GM in the history of sports. Beane turns down the offer. "I made one decision based on money and vowed never to do it again" alluding to Beane's decision to forego college for the riches of a Major League contract.

The Red Sox would go on to win the World Series and break the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 and again for good measure in 2007. The Athletics have gone as far as the ALCS where they lost to Carlos Pena and the Detroit Tigers on a walk-off home run by Magglio Ordonez in 2005.

Moneyball is more than a movie about the merits of statistical analysis in baseball. If anything, the plot of the movie reinforces the human elements that initially made the game America's pass time. No matter what new method hot shot GMs and ivy league educated mathematicians come up with to slice the pie, baseball is still fundamentally about bunting runners over, fielding your position, and throwing. It is about the relationships between the 25 players in the clubhouse and how those relationships ebb and flow over the course of a 162 game season - what we generally describe as "chemistry". Moneyball is about a man tormented by the failure that he experienced in his own Major League career and who is driven by an insatiable desire to somehow live up to the preferment that was conferred upon him. For better or for worse (I lean towards for better), Sabermetrics in the game of baseball is here to stay.

However, baseball is still and will always fundamentally be a game played, officiated, and observed by human beings. Statistics can only measure probability. Nothing can measure or produce certainty. Just ask the 1986 Red Sox, 2003 Cubs and, recently, the 2011 Red Sox and Braves. The uncertainty on the baseball diamond mimics the uncertainty of life and that is why those who love the game can experience otherworldly elation and dire despair in the matter of a few pitches. In baseball as in life, it is not always the richest or most talented that wins but those who persevere to the end and who conduct themselves with humility, respect, and honor for their craft - paying homage to the craftsmen who have proceeded them while setting a dutiful example for those who will soon follow.

As Billy Beane exclaims with awe and reverence throughout the movie, "how can you not be romantic about baseball?"

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