Why baseball is different: Moneyball

By Charlie Stanton

I watched Moneyball a few weeks ago. As a baseball fanatic, I failed because I waited months to see the film. I’ll cut myself some slack because I was at college when it came out, but I still waited four weeks after being home to watch it. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Moneyball. Lately, it seems most movie trailers are about the world ending. It’s safe to say that watching a movie about a group of baseball nerds plotting to beat the Yankees was a refreshing change of pace and a bit more up my alley. Director Bennett Miller stayed true to Michael Lewis’ masterpiece book on the Oakland A’s even though Brad Pitt and Billy Beane don’t resemble each other, and Jonah Hill and Paul DePodesta aren’t exactly spitting images of each other either. Billy Beane, Art Howe and Peter Brand (based on DePodesta) were imperfect people trying to run a perfect operation. Miller made it clear that “Moneyball” was a very difficult, risky, imperfect operation. Beane and Howe clashed. Beane and his scouts clashed. Beane and his players clashed. Beane’s failed quest to be a successful ballplayer (the underlying story throughout the film) ultimately gave him the cojones (look it up) to take risks in a risky business. Beane eloquently told his scouts: “There are rich teams. There are poor teams. Then there’s fifty feet of crap… Then there’s us.” Beane and DePodesta had a plan. They used statistics, with on-base percentage as the groundwork, to get past the fifty feet of crap and the poor teams. The story of Moneyball pounded a concept into my head: Baseball is truly different than any other major sport. One explanation is that baseball is more of an individual game that involves statistics such as errors, batting average and ERA. Baseball statistics are attributable to one player, not the whole team. There is a reason why Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Amherst and Wesleyan (you get the point) grads are getting jobs as general managers in Major League Baseball. Since Beane started the revolution, baseball has become more and more of a numbers game. An understanding of economics and statistics is becoming necessary for the job especially in small markets or for teams like the Cubs. Jonah Keri recently wrote a book about the Tampa Bay Rays and how they are beating the system, too. It’s a trend. It’s a whole different ballgame in other sports. NBA general managers can acquire specific players who grab more offensive rebounds. NFL general managers can try to build their running games or bolster their secondary. Weaknesses are more obvious in basketball and football. The NBA and NFL drafts aren’t as risky compared to baseball because the college games in football and basketball are analyzed to a pulp and televised every night. The third overall pick in the NBA draft will pan out almost 90 percent of the time (e.g. Al Horford, OJ Mayo, James Harden, Derrick Favors) The most recent third overall picks in the MLB draft are Manny Machado (‘08), Donavan Tate (‘09) and Eric Hosmer (‘10). Hosmer is doing okay. The other two? Ehh…I guess they still have time. Let’s say Harrison Barnes goes third in the NBA draft. He is going to be very good. Everyone knows that. There isn’t a numbers formula in basketball and football for individual players. Just watching them play usually justifies front office decisions. Sure, having a great point guard is crucial. Having a great quarterback is almost necessary to win a Super Bowl. The salary caps in those leagues certainly stabilize teams as well, but baseball is in a league of its own (I love stupid baseball clichés) when it comes to assembling a team. General managers in baseball working with low payrolls ultimately have a harder job than any other GM in professional sports. They need to be patient, find loopholes and use statistics (more than other GMs) like Beane did to gain an upper hand. Having a great first baseman is not crucial in having a playoff caliber team like having a great point guard. The 2002 A’s didn’t win the World Series, but they were pretty damn good. Scott Hatteberg was their first baseman. He got on base a lot, but wouldn’t dream of making an All-Star team. Once Beane’s strategic cat was out of the bag, the rest of league caught on and the rich got richer. Theo Epstein used Beane’s strategy to develop the 2004 Red Sox. Moneyball gave me a true appreciation for GMs, owners, managers and players in Oakland (Beane is still GM), San Diego, Tampa Bay and other small market teams. Moneyball also hit a home run (sorry, I couldn’t resist) in pleasing the baseball geeks like me. Bennett Miller made a point of including the players who Lewis mentioned in the book. One of those players is my all-time-hero Ray Durham. The day he was traded to the A’s from the White Sox on July 26th, 2002, (I didn’t need to search that date online) was a sad day. Yes, I cried. He was the batter who made the last out against the Yankees in the 2002 playoffs. Seeing “DURHAM” on the back of that jersey made my week. Names like Jason Grimsley, David Justice, and Mark Mulder were players from the early 2000s that I remember watching. It pleased me that Miller stayed true to them. The characters worked. The movie worked. Moneyball works.