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Column: “Moneyball” not what it seems
Baseball’s regular season was supposed to end Wednesday, with the Oakland A’s once again mired in mediocrity in the AL West. Not exactly the best time to glorify the concept of “Moneyball,” but Hollywood waits for no team.
As baseball movies go, one based on complicated statistical formulas was a tough sell to begin with. “Bull Durham” this isn’t, not with the female lead a precocious 12-year-old who tells her father on the way to the airport one day that she’s worried that he might get fired.
If you haven’t seen “Moneyball” already, go without fear that your eyes will glaze over at the mention of OBP, OPS or even OOPS. The equations are simplified, the plot isn’t complicated, and the portrayal of scouts as bumbling old relics of the past is worth the price of admission by itself.
Basically, the concept behind the movie _ and the book before it _ boils it down to this: If a batter has a high on-base percentage _ whether through hits or walks _ he’s worth more than the other teams think. The nerdy stat guy who majored in economics at Yale convinces Beane of this, and it’s off to the races for the 2002 A’s.
If you’re looking for a Hollywood ending, there is none. The A’s win a record 20 in a row _ capped by the obligatory home run by the one guy the nerdy stat guy really wanted _ only to fall short once again in the playoffs. By then, even the nerdy stat guy seems to be figuring out that numbers aren’t everything, even in baseball.
Unfortunately for Beane and the A’s, life continues to parallel art in Oakland. The A’s have made the playoffs only twice since that 103-win season, and haven’t had a winning record the last five years. The wonders of OBP notwithstanding, they scored nearly 20 percent fewer runs this season than they did during that magical year.
Not all of that is the fault of the nerdy stat guy (based on current New York Mets vice president Paul DePodesta and played brilliantly by Jonah Hill). Other teams _ the Red Sox in particular _ adopted some of the same concepts, and suddenly there was competition in the market for the kind of undervalued role players who served the A’s so well.
But while the “Moneyball” story line is compelling, the real story in Oakland at the time had less to do with Scott Hatteberg and his .374 OBP than the serious stock of talent the A’s put on the field. Yes, they lost Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi from the season to the hated Red Sox and Yankees, but Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez both hit 34 home runs, and Barry Zito won 23 games for a deep pitching staff that included Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder.
And, if on-base percentage really means that much, how did the A’s finish fifth in that category in 2002 and still tie the Yankees for the most wins in baseball? If OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) is the greatest discovery in baseball since chewing tobacco, why were the A’s sixth in the league and still able to win 103 games?
I would tell you, but my baseball calculator quit working a long time ago. Get past batting average and ERA, and I’m pretty much lost.
Numbers, of course, have been a part of baseball even longer than some of the bumbling old school scouts who help make “Moneyball” so much fun. It wasn’t until Bill James got hold of them and turned them into sabermetrics, though, that the numbers went past the rudimentary batting and earned run averages into territory where the scouts fear to tread.
The numbers have their place, though I can’t recall having a serious discussion with anyone at any ballpark about VORP (value over replacement player) or other newly minted stats. I’d rather talk about the way Prince Fielder can go opposite field, or how Clayton Kershaw’s curveball is so wicked that Dodger announcer Vin Scully labeled it “Public Enemy No. 1.”
And they can only show so much because they are, after all, just numbers. I believe WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is a good measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness, but it doesn’t measure the heart of a pitcher who always looks for help from the bullpen before walking to the mound in the seventh inning. And I’m sure Kirk Gibson had a great OPS in 1988, but that doesn’t tell you how he somehow managed to limp to the plate in the ninth inning to hit one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history.
Bottom line is small market teams can’t win consistently, no matter how many numbers they crunch. The deck is stacked against them by the most important numbers in baseball _ the size of a team’s payroll.
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