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Moneyball: Boom or Bust? Examining the Legacy of Billy Beane and How It Will Translate Into Film

By Dan Saipher | Think Pieces | June 23, 2011 |

By Dan Saipher | Think Pieces | June 23, 2011 |

The trailers are starting to make the rounds for the digested, regurgitated and over-incubated adaptation of Michael Lewis’ best-selling baseball novel, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Brad Pitt pushed for a film version of the novel, which highlights the change in direction of the Oakland Athletics under General Manager Billy Beane. The San Francisco Bay Area franchise was one of the highest spending clubs in the early parts of the 90s, but after owner Walter Haas died in 1995, the new ownership group slashed payroll and cut operating costs (apparently this sort of behavior isn’t limited to the New York Knights or Charlie Sheen’s Cleveland Indians).

Beane’s strategies expanded upon statistical analysis with objective studies and regressions analysis and all sorts of mathematical approaches, embracing the field of “Sabermetrics”. By developing a different idea about how baseball games were won, and a different idea about which players best projected to major league talent, the A’s went through a half-decade run of regular season success while spending a fraction of their wealthy rivals.

It’s impossible to glean how the movie will examine the character of Billy Beane, a 6’4 idol of number-crunchers and bane of old-world baseball traditionalists. The A’s were certainly successful under Beane, but lately they’ve been a cellar-dwelling, no-drawing cornucopia of over-hyped prospects that couldn’t hit sand in a desert. Moneyball was both boom and bust, and over time it’s become easier to examine these facets as the A’s fortunes wane.

Boom: It’s a big part of the new small-market approach.

The sabermetrics disciples have walked the pilgrim roads to baseball’s cathedrals, knocking on management’s doors with a near-indecipherable book of spreadsheets known as Bill James Baseball Abstract. Ivy League economics graduates can now be found in every organization, greatly widening a team’s understanding of the game. While Beane wasn’t even the first (his predecessor Sandy Alderson began the A’s move towards sabermetrics) or the most successful, his visibility and solid run of winning years opened the door for small market teams to rethink investments and scouting. The reinvigoration of Red Sox Nation, the upstart paupers in Tampa Bay, and others were highly influenced by Moneyball.

Bust: The fabled 2002 Draft.

Beane’s dissection and approach to the 2002 MLB Amateur Draft was akin to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Except only one or two were fairly nice and the rest were finger paintings. Drafting Nick Swisher in the first round was very good (he’s easily in the top 10 of first-round draftees that year), and drafting Mark Teahan was solid with the 39th overall pick.

Yet more time was spent convincing his scouts that Jeremy Brown was the best catching prospect of the year. How did turn out? 11 major league at-bats. For his career. Beane goes on to present a list of prospects that would be his ideal team, and even those results would have been disastrous. His sought-after triumvirate of Joe Blanton/Jeff Francis/Jeremy Guthrie is at best the back end of a mediocre rotation, and only the aforementioned Swisher and Teahan made major league impacts. The guys he passed up in the first 4 rounds? Matt Cain, Zach Greinke, Cole Hamels, Prince Fielder, James Loney, Denard Span, Brian McCann, Joey Votto, Jon Lester, Jonathon Broxton, and Curtis Granderson.

Boom: Billy Beane did find some real gems.

My Red Sox hatred cannot mask an appreciation for Kevin Youkilis, a guy who can absolutely rake. But in college, Youk was seen as a non-prospect because of his lack of a “good body.” What Beane promoted was looking beyond a guy’s physical attributes.

In football and basketball, tons of stock is placed in a guy’s “measurables”: how fast he runs in the 40-yard dash, how long is his wingspan, how many bench press reps before scouts have to change their underwear. But Youkilis and other soft-bodied athletes have ample time in baseball to get themselves into better shape, especially post-college dorm life and under the care of team trainers and nutritional regiments. Beane took a chance on Barry Zito (more on him in a sec) and he won a Cy Young. Beane loved Eric Chavez, and all he did was average 30 home runs with an OPS of .870 and stellar defense from 2000-2004.

Boom: OPS is a worthy standard of evaluation.

Batting average is the simplest standard of evaluation, the first stat on a player’s profile on ESPN, but its grip in professional circuits has been eroded by OPS, a measure of On-Base Percentage (OBP) plus Slugging Percentage (SLG). Players with a high OPS combine batting average with factors such as plate discipline and power. While the stat still favors home-run hitters, it incorporates speed through extra-base hits and elements of OBP such as legging out a grounder, or beating the throw to first on a double play.

Mini-bust: Beane’s draft strategy focused on high-OPS college players. Of the top 10 OPS leaders in either the AL or NL, 50 percent took the college route, 50 percent were high school picks or of the Latino world.

Bust: Walks don’t work in the postseason.

A walk is as good as hit, but not all the time. Despite making the playoffs for four straight years (2000-2003), the A’s couldn’t get over the hump and win the pennant. A huge problem was their offense; their strategy that relied on increasing a starter’s pitches per appearance didn’t create runs. In the playoffs, the A’s faced guys who were too good to give up walks, and managers let them pitch deeper into games while ignoring pitch counts. Walks might eat up journeymen and the Ollie Perez-es of the world, but guys like Cliff Lee and Chris Carpenter built careers on pitching to contact.

Boom: He wasn’t competing against just the Yankees.

Every time someone describes baseball as a game of the “haves” and the “have-nots,” the Yankees are the epitome the former. However, the A’s didn’t have to contend with just the Yankees, as their division (the American League West) was unusually strong for a few of the years that encompass Moneyball.

In the years 2000, 2002, and 2004, three of four teams in the AL West finished above .500. With only four teams in the division total, this puts a higher premium on game-by-game performance with tougher rivals and a need to not be losing ground.

Bust: What you can’t measure.

Two of baseball’s famed “five tools,” speed and arm strength (others included batting average, batting power, and fielding) went largely ignored by Beane. Together, these tools are equivalent to the compositional elements of painting in standardized test result format. Guys who were sculpted Greek statues before graduating high school had all of the tools, and baseball scouts hounded the countryside in rented cars for fenceless fields trying to find “five-tool players”. Beane hated these guys; he hated trying to project an 18 year-old kid who owned backwater counties or California high school ball as a 25 year-old major leaguer.

While some of those famed tools go wasted, they are silent factors that managers keep in their back pocket for big moments, or worse yet, feared elements. Speed can fluster a pitcher and a defense, move a guy into scoring position where a sacrifice will do instead of a hit. Or vice versa; that right fielder with a Howitzer for an arm can prevent a run through reputation alone, or a pituitary human anomaly that makes a bat look like a toothpick might intimidate a green pitcher. The best teams are diverse, not just on the major league roster but through developmental farm systems.

Boom: Pitching > Everything.

Once in a generation, a team magically hits the jackpot with a string of starting pitchers that dramatically alter the franchise’s fate. The Braves had Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. The Dodgers had Koufax and Drysdale. The Orioles had Palmer, Cuellar, Dobson, and McNally.

Billy Beane hit on that same tangent. In drafting Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson, he had 3 Cy Young candidates that averaged a record of 66-33 from 2001 to 2004.

How does that affect the rest of the team? Consider that those averages leave 63 games left to be started by other pitchers. And for any given year in baseball, 90 wins puts you in contention for a wild card spot. That means, in order to get to that magic 90 win total, the other pitchers had to have at least a combined record of 24 wins and 39 losses. That’s a win percentage (38%) worse than all but one team in the majors this year. Give him credit for finding those pitchers, but don’t forget how easy it is when they play to potential, and play injury free.

Minor-Bust: Barry Zito has turned himself into the worst free agent signing in baseball history. How has he dropped off despite leaving tougher AL lineups in the DH-free National League? Sabremetrics has an idea . Zito won 62% of his games from 2001-2006, with an ERA of 3.61. But consider the expanded stats FIP/xFIP. These take into account advantages and disadvantages of ballparks, and Oakland’s home park is exceptionally resistant to the longball. So Zito, who featured an 88-mph fastball that lived high in the strike zone, used the spacious dimensions. His ERA jumps up a run and a half under the parameters of xFIP to a poor 4.69 in his Oakland days.

Boom: Billy Beane has serious mental issues.

I’ve labeled this as a “Boom” factor purely for the movie’s sake. After Steven Soderbergh’s version of the film was put on hold in June of 2009, Aaron Sorkin was given re-write privileges. The hope, looking past the Jerry McGuire-like elements of the trailer, is that he can expose the darker side of Beane, illustrating his imperfections much like those of Marky Mark and the Zuckerbunch.

It would be easy to label the book as a love story in favor of the genius of Billy Beane, but Michael Lewis was expository in regards to Beane’s flaws. The players that he sought out, college players who didn’t have all the tools, or didn’t look good in a pair of jeans but got on base, were the exact opposite of Beane himself. He was a stud prospect, California local legend, a possible number one overall pick destined to play left field for the Mets opposite Lenny Dykstra and Daryl Strawberry.

But boy, did Billy have issues. His inability to deal with failures, on even the smallest of battlefields, manifested in violent outbursts. He broke bats against clubhouse walls, contemplated quitting the game multiple times, and his family pissed away his first big signing bonus on a bad real estate investment. In the trailer scene that depicts Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in direct contrast to the opinions of a smoky room of leather-faced scouts, there’s a light-hearted Ocean’s Eleven mood. But the book describes how Beane “exploded” a chair after hurling it into a wall, despondent that his scouts couldn’t share his obtuse vision. Baseball’s champion of the nerdy, well-educated outsider was in fact, an insider who couldn’t cut it. He bounced around for 6 seasons, a .219 lifetime hitter who never played more than 80 games in a given year, who would have been little more than a footnote in baseball history in that group of young men who “should have been one of the greats.” Freshly divorced, begging for a job in a department that no one in baseball took seriously, Beane worked his way up and turned himself into something he never achieved as a player: Relevancy.

Dan Saipher is a strong advocate of the Twitter stylings of Old Ross Hadbourn .