Friday, October 7, 2011

Money Ball

Rick and I went to see the new movie Moneyball this week. For those of you who do not know its story, here is a short synopsis: Bill Beane, the Athletics GM, is forced to go out and gather a competitive Athletics team on the year following an ALCS appearance. When asking for more money to secure his big name players, Beane is told by Stephen Schott, the new A’s owner, that no more money is forthcoming. Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen are now too expensive to sign. They are gone. He has to find a way to be competitive with the same money. The focus of the movie is all about how to win in an unfair game.

To win, Billy Beane turns his attention to a new and little used set of statistics called Sabermetrics (Society of American Baseball Research), to find undervalued players who can get on base. This system was developed and promoted by Bill James and others. Large market teams, like the Yankees and the Red Sox, can just buy the players they want. Small market teams claim they cannot compete with that kind of cash needed to buy big name free agents. What Billy Beane does is to find others who can contribute to the team for less money. He finds undervalued, but solid, players who can get on base by walk or hit (OBP) and make the opposing pitcher use lots of pitches to do it. For pitchers, Beane looks for those who throw first pitch strikes and have a low WHIP (Walk and Hits per Inning Pitched). It’s not so much about saving money as spending what you have where you need it. All of us who follow baseball closely now rely on these types of stats. Pitchers with a low WHIP are effective and hitters with a high OBP are going to get on a lot, ninety feet at a time. With certainty, so Beane says, "We try to create a situation where we're the casino. It's like how an actuary would set insurance rates. Predictability, predictability, predictability.” It’s boring, but apparently effective.

In the movie, the Athletics have just lost in the ALDS to the Yankees in 2001. Beane steals a guy from the Indians who is the fictitious Peter Brand. Brand, in the movie, is the stats guru. In reality, the character is Paul DePodesta, who actually played baseball in school and indeed did graduate from Harvard with an economics degree. He was already with the Athletics in 1999. The Brand character is the one who has the ready information on each player that Beane chooses. The move to sabermetrics creates conflict with everyone on the staff who has traditional baseball values in mind. This new style of scouting players is totally different than the traditional way. These conflicts get to the heart of the matter in the movie and heads roll as the plans Beane has are not put into action as he wanted by the unbelievers. But things change and the famous 20-game win streak (after a very poor start) is the highlight of this drama.

The Athletics have yet to win a World Series using sabermetrics. They have a positive win/loss record but have not been over .500 since 2006. It could be said that increased use of sabermetrics by other clubs has significantly reduced the number of undervalued players out there. If everyone is doing the same thing, well, then you have to do something else. I wonder what will figure in the statistics next? What will it take to equalize all the money to make the game fair?

This premise for a movie is pretty dry (dealing with statistics) and could have been. With Brad Pitt and a good script, the movie has plenty of drama and the time just flies by as this true story unfolds. There was lots of real baseball talk and action. It was fun to watch and relevant to baseball today. Go see it!

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