Sports Nut

More Moneyball, Same Problems

The numbers are good, but the story is still bunk.

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball

A few months back, when I read that the movie version of Michael Lewis’Moneyball had finally been completed, I checked the film’s IMDB page. I was looking for three names in the cast of characters, and I didn’t really expect to find them. Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito were the “big three” starting pitchers who, in 2002, the season covered by Lewis in Moneyball, each pitched more than 200 innings for the Oakland A’s, allowing fewer than 3.5 runs for every 9 of those innings—considerably fewer in the cases of Hudson and Zito. None of the three featured prominently in the book, even though two of them (Hudson and Zito again) were probably the team’s best players, and the third, Mulder, was easily in the top five.

Statistically savvy baseball fans who are familiar with the debates that have taken place in the wake of Moneyball may think they know where I’m going with this. I’m about to say: “The real reason Oakland won all those games from 2001-03 was because they had these three great pitchers, whom everyone knew were going to be good—not just the A’s front office that, thanks to general manager Billy Beane, preferred computers and number-crunchers to professional scouts. Beane isn’t so great,” I’ll conclude, “and statistics don’t tell you much. Just look at the A’s record lately.”

But I’m not going to say that. Not exactly, anyway. For one thing, I love stats: My parents gave me books by Bill James (who popularized sophisticated statistical analysis in baseball, and is another of Moneyball’s heroes) as birthday presents when I was a kid. I loved Moneyball, too, looking forward to its appearance for weeks after a chapter called “The Trading Desk” appeared in the New York Times Magazine. (It’s still one of my all-time favorite magazine pieces.) Most importantly, any smart reader of Moneyball knows that the fundamental principle espoused by the book is that businesses, especially those at a financial disadvantage, need to find market inefficiencies to succeed. In the early 2000s, many scouts overvalued athleticism (and even the “look” of a player) at the expense of actual performance, and many front offices overvalued batting average while ignoring on-base percentage. All of this is true.

But Moneyball doesn’t just espouse principles. It also tells a story. And that story is, well, kind of bullshit. “I wrote this book,” Lewis says in the preface, “because I fell in love with a story. The story,” he continues, “concerned a small group of undervalued professional baseball players and executives, many of whom had been rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned themselves into one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball.” Obviously, the question raised by this story is: How did they do it? The book’s answer, which is echoed in Bennett Miller’s movie: By thinking differently than other teams, relying on numbers instead of scouting, and finding unappreciated gems like Scott Hatteberg (a catcher Oakland converted into a first baseman) and Chad Bradford (a side-arming relief pitcher; he and Hatteberg each get a chapter of their own in Moneyball). Those were smart things to do. And they helped around the edges. Bradford was a solid reliever; Hatteberg acquitted himself well at first base.

But the main reason the A’s were successful in the early 2000s was that four of the high draft picks they were awarded after lousy seasons in the late 1990s all turned fairly quickly into top-notch players. Hudson, Mulder, and Zito I’ve mentioned; the fourth was Eric Chavez, a third baseman who was the 10th player drafted in 1996 (like Hudson, he was signed by Oakland before Beane became general manager), when he had just finished high school and was widely regarded as one of the best prospects in the country. Oakland got another big boost from Miguel Tejada, a Dominican player signed by, yes, a scout, when he was 17. (Tejada, meanwhile, got a boost from performance-enhancing drugs, and he wasn’t the only one.) In 2002, those were Oakland’s five best players—according to advanced statistical analysis (specifically, Wins Above Replacement). Oakland could afford these five because Major League Baseball’s salary structure severely limits how much young players can make. It’s the same reason the Minnesota Twins, in those same years, were able to build a contender: They scouted well and drafted wisely and so had good, young, cheap players. Their payroll in 2002 was $220,000 more than Oakland’s. At the end of the season chronicled by Moneyball, Minnesota booted Oakland from the playoffs.

Oakland got back to the playoffs in 2003 and returned there in 2006. Since then, the A’s haven’t had a winning season. Some (including Michael Lewis, quoted in a new profile of Beane) have suggested this happened because the inefficiencies Beane was exploiting have disappeared: Everyone is playing “moneyball” now. That probably doesn’t help, but the real problem is that the five great players on those early aughts Oakland teams have never adequately been replaced. Beane has continued to acquire above-average pitchers, but none quite so good as his former “big three” (nor has he found any magic formula for keeping those pitchers healthy). And his hitters have mostly been terrible. Much is made in Moneyball of the way Beane replaced Jason Giambi, a slugging first baseman who’d become too expensive, with solid on-base percentage guys like Scott Hatteberg. But in the years after the book appeared, Chavez passed his prime and Tejada left for Baltimore, and no amount of filling in around the edges has managed to close the resulting offensive sinkhole.

None of this invalidates Lewis’ fundamental arguments about rational methods and market inefficiency. Nor does it change the fact that all major league teams now rely to varying degrees on the sort of analysis championed in Moneyball. Some of them, as the movie points out in its last act, have combined those principles with big bucks to build perennial contenders. (The movie ends with Billy Beane choosing not to join the Boston Red Sox. A title card reveals that the Sox won the World Series two years later using Oakland’s principles.)

But the book’s elisions do help explain why Moneyball continues to be “misunderstood.” Sure, some of its critics simply haven’t read it. But others can see the exaggerations and omissions in Lewis’ careful crafting of a Little Engine That Could storyline. Lewis did some terrific reporting for the book and gathered great material about how, as he says, “an unscientific culture responds, or fails to respond, to the scientific method.” Then he decided to present that reporting in the gripping tale of a triumphant underdog. But the triumph of this particular underdog had less to do with the scientific method than with such unremarkable things as luck, patience, and good scouting. (Beane himself has apparently granted as much.)

One could even argue that Lewis, having fallen in love with one story, missed a second, possibly more interesting one, in which the Little Engine That Could grows wings and flies too close to the sun (or something). Having grabbed the reins of his team, Beane mostly ignored his scouts in the 2002 draft and took a bunch of hitters based on their numbers alone. Moneyball ends with a short, dramatic chapter about Beane’s most outlandish pick from that year, a short, overweight catcher named Jeremy Brown. The book’s final image is Jeremy Brown hitting a home run. In the years after Moneyball was published, Brown got a few disappointing cups of coffee in the majors, then retired in 2008. At least he made the majors: Of the seven other hitters in that draft who, according to Beane’s righthand man Paul DePodesta (renamed Peter Brand, he’s played by Jonah Hill in the movie) shared “certain qualities” with Brown, six never have. The other (John Baker) is a serviceable, 30-year-old catcher for the Florida Marlins. (Of course, the draft is always a bit of a crapshoot.)

Jeremy Brown’s home run appears at the end of Hollywood’s version, too. Hudson, Zito, and Mulder, on the other hand, make no significant appearances—and though Chavez and Tejada do (unlike the three aces) show up on the IMDB page, they barely register as characters. Scott Hatteberg, on the other hand, is played by Chris Pratt, from Parks and Recreation. Mrs. Hatteberg is played by Tammy Blanchard.

If the movie fails to win over the remaining skeptics, I won’t be surprised. Statistically minded sports fans like to point out that the sports world’s great narratives are almost always a bit dubious. There’s a battle between clear-eyed observation and narrative cliché in sportswriting, and Moneyball has a foot in both camps. It provides ammunition for the former side with its intelligent insights about how rational outsiders can sometimes see things more clearly than well-trained insiders. As a gripping read, however, the book largely operates according to the other side’s rules. It’s no wonder, then, that sports fans who prefer narratives to numbers can see that Moneyball got its overarching storyline—how did Oakland succeed where many teams failed?—wrong. That, I suspect, is why many of them still don’t see that it got an even bigger story—the steady rise of smart statistical analysis—right.