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My View: "Moneyball" and the place of stats in baseball

June 21, 2011

Sports Editor Brian Smith

Finally America gets what it has been pining for: a movie about baseball statistics.

Heh.

“Moneyball”, Michael Lewis’  sports book that to people under 35 is a seminal reading the same way “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton  or

“The Boys of Summer” by Roger Kahn were to previous baseball-loving generations, comes to big screen in late September — just as baseball will be winding down its regular season and in time for Joe Buck to sneer at it on a Fox baseball broadcast.

All of those books cut open the wall and allowed fans to look inside the game in new ways.

The book is an odd choice for a movie, but the system it describes of finding market inefficiencies through statistics and building a team based on them is an undeniable reality of the modern game.

Baseball is smarter because of Oakland A’s general manger Billy Beane, who will be portrayed by Brad Pitt in the film.

Beane, a hyperactive vain savant, is doubtlessly secretly pleased to be portrayed by Pitt on the silver screen. The dashing once-wunderkind general manager’s Oakland Athletics have long since dismantled the original Team That Statistics Built. Oakland since turned to new defensive metrics as a way to get a jump on the competition. The results have not followed from this tact. Oakland hasn’t been a contender in the AL West in half a decade.

But teams like the Boston Red Sox took Beane’s original 1990s ideas on building a team with players who get on base at above-average levels that eschew giving up outs via bunts and stolen bases, mixed it with a giant payroll and some traditional scouting to build a model franchise.

I suspect the ‘Moneyball’ movie will be judged by baseball fans along ideological lines. If you hate where number crunchers are taking the game, the movie will seem trite, much like Michael Lewis’ book that spoke of  Beane in glowing terms while old timer baseball scouts were painted in satirical  tones as backwards and regressive.

If sabermetrics excite you, it will be a retelling of the revolution Bill James started in 1977 by publishing the Bill James Baseball Abstract from his home in Boston.

We’d all be better off viewing sabermetrics as the cilantro of baseball. Mix it in the dish expertly and statistics flavor baseball wonderfully, concisely pointing out things overlooked by conventional wisdom. Start going crazy with that cilantro and you’ve got something that tastes like soap — a bookish, emotionless game of baseball that seems more like a punishment than a joy to experience.

Baseball is better for Beane; Beane is better for having learned from mellowing time.

Most of us know that traditional scouting is as useful as it has always been, especially in the post-steroid age.  Beane scrapped his mid-1990s rule about only drafting college, majors-ready pitchers without much upside when it became clear that drafting big powerful upside high school arms and molding them into aces is sometimes more effective. His A’s now boast the best young rotation in the American League.

Beane has changed. Baseball has changed. Statistics seem to have found their rightful place in the game. ESPN gives on-base percentage on its at-bat scroll while baseball has returned to a defensive, pitching oriented game.

All for the best.

As for the movie, there’d better be a Bob Uecker appearance to save itself from becoming the cinematic version of Nytol.

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