Pras on World Films: MONEYBALL

Based on a true story and adapted from Michael Lewis’ bestseller MONEYBALL-Winning An Unfair Game (see book-review below), Moneyball stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland As and the guy who assembles the team, who has an epiphany: all of baseball’s conventional wisdom is wrong. Forced to reinvent his team on a tight budget, Beane will have to outsmart the richer clubs. The onetime jock teams with Ivy League grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) in an unlikely partnership, recruiting bargain players that the scouts call flawed, but all of whom have an ability to get on base, score runs, and win games. It’s more than baseball, it’s a revolution – one that challenges old school traditions and puts Beane in the crosshairs of those who say he’s tearing out the heart and soul of the game.

 

MONEYBALL – The Book:    Billy Beane, general manager of MLB’s Oakland A’s and protagonist of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, had a problem: how to win in the Major Leagues with a budget that’s smaller than that of nearly every other team. Conventional wisdom long held that big name, highly athletic hitters and young pitchers with rocket arms were the ticket to success. But Beane and his staff, buoyed by massive amounts of carefully interpreted statistical data, believed that wins could be had by more affordable methods such as hitters with high on-base percentage and pitchers who get lots of ground outs. Given this information and a tight budget, Beane defied tradition and his own scouting department to build winning teams of young affordable players and inexpensive castoff veterans.  Lewis was in the room with the A’s top management as they spent the summer of  2002 adding and subtracting players and he provides outstanding play-by-play. In  the June player draft, Beane acquired nearly every prospect he coveted (few of whom were coveted by other teams) and at the July trading deadline he engaged in  a tense battle of nerves to acquire a lefty reliever. Besides being one of the  most insider accounts ever written about baseball, Moneyball is populated  with fascinating characters. We meet Jeremy Brown, an overweight college catcher  who most teams project to be a 15th round draft pick (Beane takes him in the first). Sidearm pitcher Chad Bradford is plucked from the White Sox triple-A  club to be a key set-up man and catcher Scott Hatteberg is rebuilt as a first  baseman. But the most interesting character is Beane himself. A speedy athletic  can’t-miss prospect who somehow missed, Beane reinvents himself as a  front-office guru, relying on players completely unlike, say, Billy Beane. 

Lewis, one of the top nonfiction writers of his era (Liar’s Poker, The New New Thing), offers highly accessible explanations of baseball stats and his roadmap of Beane’s
economic approach makes Moneyball an appealing reading experience for  business people and sports fans alike.

Book Review
MONEYBALL: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game
by Dan Ackman, Forbes Magazine
Michael Lewis has a gift: He can walk into an area already mined by hundreds of writers and find gems there all along but somehow missed by his predecessors. Lewis did this  in the The New New Thing, his book on the Internet and the new economy.
Now he does it with Major League Baseball in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an  Unfair Game (W.W. Norton, $23.95). (Lewis did it even more famously in Liar’s Poker, but that time he was writing bout himself, so he had an edge.)

Of all the thousands of baseball books (Amazon.com lists more than 300 published or to be published this year alone), there are none, so far as I know, like this one, about the remarkable recent history of the Oakland Athletics and the team’s general manager, Billy  Beane.

For decades now, Major League Baseball has been divided between big-market teams such as the New York Yankees and small-market teams such as the Minnesota Twins. Big-market teams have money to pay free agents and wind up with payrolls as much as three times that of small-market teams. Teams like the Yankees and the Atlanta Braves (backed by cable television revenue) have tended to be successful. But the A’s have been very successful as well, which leads to the question that animates the book: “[H]ow did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games?”

At the opening of the 2002 season, the Yankees had a payroll of $126 million, and the A’s had a payroll of about $40 million. Despite the disparity, the two teams tied for the best record in baseball, each winning 103 games, though both lost in the playoffs. The A’s,
as it happened, lost to the Twins, who paid their players just a smidgeon more than the A’s.  It has long been an article of faith among fans and team owners–especially small-market owners–that the poorer teams could not compete with the richer teams, at least not for long. The A’s have defied this logic and embarrassed the economic determinists, including  Bud Selig, baseball’s commissioner, who happens to own the small-market and underperforming Milwaukee Brewers.

Oakland won its division two out of the last three years, and made the playoffs in all
three, even as some of its best players have signed with richer squads. Indeed, after the 2001 season, Jason Giambi, the A’s first baseman and the American League’s Most Valuable Player, signed a $120 million contract with the Yankees. His defection should have doomed his old team, but amazingly it didn’t. Lewis asks why. The answer is that the A’s have taken advantage of the statistical analysis developed over the last 25 years or so by Bill James, author of the Baseball Abstract, and an army of fellow statisticians. Many in baseball focus only on traditional statistics such as batting average and runs batted in. But Beane is a devotee of James and his fellow abermetricians, nearly all of them unpaid amateurs, who collectively have revolutionized the ways in which a ballplayer’s performance can be measured.

Beane’s front office team, having absorbed James, understands that on-base percentage (including walks) and total bases are far more determinative of a team’s success than the traditional measures. Perhaps even more important is the shift to a reliance on objective
statistics, as opposed to more subjective measures of performance such as the strength of a player’s arm, his speed afoot or the beauty of his swing.   These insights have dramatic implications for how amateur players are drafted, who is promoted to the majors and in the trading and signing of veteran players. Getting on base-that is, not making an out–is systemically undervalued. Being a slick outfielder and stolen bases are overvalued. Lewis shows how Beane built a winning club by drafting and trading  for cheap traits and refusing to sign overvalued types. Along the way, Lewis offers wonderful vignettes about odd duck players such as Jeremy Brown, a short, fat, slow catcher from Alabama who, according to Lewis, no one else wanted, but who is progressing rapidly in the A’s minor league system. These sections of the book are terrific, and the stuff on James and the movement he inspired is compelling. If the book has a fault, it is that Beane, Lewis’ main character, just isn’t very interesting. In his youth, Beane was a ballplayer from Southern California with all the “tools.” He was so fast, so good-looking in his uniform and had such a strong arm that, even in high school, scouts pegged him as a sure Major League all-star. But after a few years as a marginal big leaguer, Beane quit and got himself a job as a scout instead. He then learned to appreciate players who were his polar opposite: solid performers who know how to hit, however artless.

Lewis presents Beane’s decision to quit playing as stunning, unimaginable. But despite
unfettered access to Beane, he never solves this particular riddle. He does, however, lavish Beane with praise. “It was hard to know which of Billy’s qualities was most important to his team’s success: his energy, his resourcefulness, his intelligence or his ability to scare…very large professional baseball players,” Lewis writes.
Lewis overstates the case. After all, the foundation of the team’s success is three star pitchers. Tim Hudson, a slight right-hander, may have been a bit of a sleeper, having been drafted in the sixth round of the amateur draft–but that was before Beane became GM. The other two, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, were both early first-round picks out of top college programs, the kind of players any GM would have taken. Nor are the A’s the only small-market team to win with a modest payroll. In 2001, the Seattle Mariners won 116 games, a modern record, after losing superstars like Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson. Seattle spent more than the A’s, but a lot less than the Yankees. The Anaheim Angels won the World Series with a mid-level payroll. While no one can quarrel
with the A’s triumphs over the last three years, the team has–dare I say it–a winning tradition, having won four World Series titles since moving to Oakland, including one in 1989 during the free agent era. And Beane, for all his success as GM, has yet to win a pennant, let alone a World Series.

It’s when Lewis gets away from Beane that he takes us places we’ve never been, and, as always, is an illuminating guide. Anyone interested in baseball, or even in the broader subject of human performance–finding the right person for the right job–should enjoy the ride.

 

Billy Beane of ‘Moneyball’ Has Given Up on His Own Hollywood Ending

By ADAM STERNBERGH

Billy Beane has a wonderful story. At 18 he was a strapping young baseball prospect, raised in San Diego by a Naval-officer dad and drafted fresh out of high school in the first round by the New York Mets. He was a sure star — until he suddenly wasn’t, his playing career faltering for reasons few could understand, least of all him. Then, at 27, a journeyman outfielder with a lifetime average of .219 who’d bounced from the Mets to the Twins to the Tigers to the A’s, he walked out of the dugout and into the team’s front office, looking for a job. He became a scout, and eight years later, he was promoted to general manager of a losing team. Under his watch, the A’s, a small-market underdog with a minuscule payroll, made the playoffs five times in the next eight seasons.

Let’s call that Chapter 1.

Then in 2003, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” was published. The book, by Michael Lewis, dissected Beane’s success and lionized him as an innovative visionary in a field clogged with myopic traditionalists. It explained how he boldly discarded conventional wisdom and embraced the advanced statistical analysis preached by a small band of radical baseball outsiders, inspired by the self-educated statistician Bill James. The book was a monumental best seller. And now, in what seems like the crowning chapter to this saga, “Moneyball” has just been released as a movie. The starring role of Billy Beane is played by Brad Pitt.

Let’s call that Chapter 2.

If you were going to pitch this story as a movie, you would pitch it as David and Goliath meets “The Bad News Bears” meets “The Tipping Point” — a perfect confluence of sports-underdog drama and the allure of contrarian thinking. In fact, the only thing lacking in this Hollywood tale is a classic Hollywood ending. Because, as it turned out, those miraculous A’s never did manage to topple the bloated Goliaths of the league — their sling always came up one stone short. And when, after the 2002 season, Beane was courted to take over the storied Boston Red Sox (if you can’t beat ’em, etc.), he accepted — then abruptly declined. The jilted Sox instead promoted Theo Epstein, a 28-year-old wunderkind in the Beane mold. The Sox have since won the World Series twice.

The A’s, meanwhile, have tumbled back to mediocrity: the team is on its way to a losing season this year, after compiling a record of 231 wins and 254 losses over the previous three seasons. Most of the innovations introduced or popularized by Beane have been freely adopted by other organizations, thus eliminating whatever stealth advantages he once enjoyed. The Moneyball philosophy ultimately triumphed, but Billy Beane never quite did.

“Moneyball,” the movie, struggles with this inconvenient reality; certainly it’s odd to watch a sports movie that doesn’t — that can’t — end with that rousing ninth-inning game-winner, with Roy Hobbs launching his pennant-winning shot into the lights. (Of course, in the Bernard Malamud novel that “The Natural” was based on — spoiler alert — the aged Roy Hobbs strikes out.) As Pitt-as-Beane says in “Moneyball,” it ultimately doesn’t matter how many games you win if you lose the last game of the season. The film ends with a black title card, announcing elegiacally and somewhat euphemistically that Beane is still waiting to win that last game.

Back in real-life Oakland, the real-life Beane is still playing an unfair game, but he’s no longer winning. He’s also spending a lot of time thinking about what exactly should happen in Chapter 3.

The home field of the A’s was originally called Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, then was renamed Network Associates Coliseum, then McAfee Coliseum, then Overstock.com Coliseum, and is now called, simply and awkwardly, O.co Coliseum, though the temporary signage on the brutal concrete structure suggests that this name, too, is provisional. The team’s marketing motto this year, announced on large banners and billboards all over Oakland, is “Green Collar Baseball,” which is presumably meant to evoke the gritty nature of a team largely free of big-name stars but which also unfortunately conjures the vision of a really unreliable Laundromat. The cover of the team’s media guide features a quartet of promising, if baby-faced, starting pitchers, not one of whom you will have heard of unless you are a fantasy-baseball fanatic or the mother of one of the pitchers. Or Billy Beane.

The team’s administrative offices are located in nearby Oracle Arena, the home of the Golden State Warriors basketball team. With their pale wood doors and cluttered quarters, the offices feel something like the administrative wing of an underfinanced suburban high school. This would make Beane the beleaguered but affable principal. His desk is piled high with papers, stacks of CDs (he’s waiting to get around to the new Beastie Boys album), pictures of his daughters (he has three, from two marriages) and an army of Oakland A’s bobblehead dolls. Beane, on this morning in late August at least, seemed laid back and even slightly goofy — more a West Coast dude than the fidgety tobacco-chomping operator portrayed by Pitt. He’s 6-foot-4 and nearly 50, and he sat slightly slumped in his leather chair, wearing a white polo shirt. ESPN played on a large flat-screen just overhead, drawing his habitual glances.

His cellphone buzzed. He held up his hand to pause the conversation and answered.

A crusty beat reporter, sniffing out a scoop? A rival G.M., looking to horse-trade? Would I now be seeing the legendary Billy Beane in action?

“Sorry,” he said, covering the receiver. “I’m at war with insects in my yard.”

Billy Beane has beetle troubles.

“Well, you know, I’ve got a large tree. I’ve got fruit trees,” he said, after hanging up. “I’ve got this great pear tree, and the leaves are dying. I’ve got this service that comes out to check on stuff, and he leaves me this dire note. He says the trees are covered with ‘shot-hole-boring insects.’ ”

Neither of us knew what this meant, but we agreed: “Shot-hole-boring” sounded ominous.

“Anyway, he’s on the case,” Beane said.

It was a Thursday; the evening promised a game against Toronto, another team, like Oakland, long out of the playoff hunt. The previous night, the A’s beat the Orioles — another also-ran — to bring its record to 55 wins and 68 losses. The team was in third place in its division and going nowhere; 123 games down, 39 to go.

Still, the season wasn’t entirely over. There were a few meaningful games left on the schedule, to be played against the Yankees and Red Sox — meaningful to the Yankees and Red Sox, at least. Both teams were positioned to once again make the playoffs and were battling for first place in their division. “Next week we roll into New York and Boston,” Beane said. “You go into a place like that in August, and they’re fighting each other out, and you become sort of — it can be a little bit overwhelming.” The A’s had become an afterthought, a speed bump on someone else’s road to glory.

So I asked him about the movie. He saw a rough cut, and he liked it — it made him feel a bit nostalgic. “I’d see a scene in the locker room with a player’s name on a jersey and think, Oh, yeah, I forgot he was on that team,” he said. “You know, it was almost 10 years ago, which is a long time in sports.” In the movie, Pitt portrays Beane as an obsessed firebrand, smashing chairs and spinning doughnuts with his truck in the parking lot. I asked him if he has mellowed out since those days.

“Well, naturally age is going to do that to anybody,” he said, and laughed. “As you get old, you get a bit more perspective, you get more experience and you’ve seen things play out. Probably the simple word for that is ‘mellowed out.’ ”

As for that ultimate personal vindication — a championship — he shrugged and said, “It’s not quite — I’m not some Javert, you know, pursuing the loaf of bread that was stolen.”

He still likes Oakland. He likes the small-town feel. He likes the loyal band of associates he has assembled, including the assistant G.M., David Forst, a Harvard grad and Beane’s presumed successor. And it’s not as if he doesn’t have anything to look forward to. “If I can just get through the next few months,” he said, “then I can go fly-fishing.”

This year, the Yankees, who have the highest payroll in baseball, will make the playoffs for the 16th time in the last 17 seasons. The A’s, by contrast, have not made the playoffs since 2006; in fact, the team has made the playoffs 15 times since it became the Oakland A’s in 1968.

A five-year dry spell actually places the A’s among the more fortunate have-not franchises in baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays have not made the playoffs since 1993. The Pittsburgh Pirates have not made the playoffs since 1992. The Kansas City Royals have not made the playoffs since 1985.

Each year, a small-market team with a midrange payroll, like the Milwaukee Brewers or the Tampa Bay Rays, does make the playoffs, usually thanks to a few canny personnel moves, the judicious allocation of limited funds and, most crucially, a stockpile of young talent, collected through high draft picks that are a result of years and years of being absolutely terrible. Such a team has a few seasons to compete with the big boys — the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, primarily — before its young talent matures and bolts for big money, offered up by the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, primarily.

These occasional breakthroughs by midmarket teams allow those who defend the inherent competitive imbalance in baseball to point and say: “See? It’s not impossible.” Conversely, when a free-spending team like the Los Angeles Angels does not make the playoffs, those same people can say: “See? Money doesn’t guarantee wins.” (These people are, more often than not, Yankees fans.)

Ironically, no team did more to perpetuate this perception than Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s of the early aughts. Those teams made the playoffs five times despite having payrolls that were in the bottom third of major-league teams. They did this, in part, by finding overlooked players who excelled in undervalued facets of the game, like drawing walks. Beane didn’t invent — and has never taken credit for — the advanced statistical analysis he utilized; in fact, he didn’t even introduce it to the Oakland A’s. (That was his predecessor, Sandy Alderson, to whom Beane was a protégé.) Still, Beane’s success with the A’s presaged a leaguewide revolution in player evaluation. It also temporarily changed the story line of baseball. The entire premise of “Moneyball” was that a smart operator could thwart the system. In the book, Beane is repeatedly compared to a card-counter at a casino, outsmarting the odds.

The book arrived in 2003, a few years after Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point,” another book that valorizes unorthodox thinkers and offers the titillating prospect of new and radical ways to understand the inner workings of the world. Despite their disparate subjects, both books became unlikely bibles to the business world and sacred texts in a growing canon: the Library of Contrarian Wisdom. The world says, “Zig”; you say, “Zag.” The world says, “Think long and hard before making decisions”; you say, “Blink!” The world says, “A team can’t compete with the Yankees while spending one-third the money on players”; you say, “Have you heard of a statistic called O.P.S.?” As a result, Beane (like Gladwell before him) took on a messianic stature outside his field. Within baseball, many old-timers scoffed at his theories and criticized him for arrogance. Outside baseball, he was viewed as a kind of maverick wizard.

“How do you routinely trump competitors that have twice the budget you do? Billy Beane can show you how,” promised the promotional blurb for Beane on the Web site for the agency that, until recently, handled his corporate speaking engagements. “Beane uses the powerful metaphor of baseball, but his genius lies in his ability to draw striking parallels to almost any industry (health care, insurance, finance, etc.).” In 2008, Beane shared a byline with Newt Gingrich and John Kerry on an Op-Ed article about health care reform in The Times. The argued approach was, essentially, Health-Care-Ball: the application of smarter statistical analysis in order to lower health care costs. “America’s health care system behaves like a hidebound, tradition-based ballclub,” the article said. “The best way to start improving quality and lowering costs is to study the stats.”

Back on the diamond, though, Beane is having less success. He told me baseball is moving “back to an efficient market — albeit one with some random events that don’t offer perfect efficiency — where whatever you spend, that’s where you’re going to finish.” In short, the Yankees spend a lot and make the playoffs pretty much every year. The Pirates don’t, and they don’t. There are aberrations to this pattern, but the pattern itself is unmistakable.

But the more efficient baseball becomes as a market, I asked him, the worse it is for you, right?

“Oh, yeah!” he said, and laughed. He imagines a future for baseball, perhaps not too far off, when the haves — the Yankees, Red Sox, maybe the Dodgers — could split off into their own division, becoming “superfranchises, similar to what you have in soccer,” he said. In European professional soccer, which Beane has become increasingly obsessed with, you have the Champions League, which is loaded with superpowers like Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid, who slug it out in a kind of tournament of the gods. “I think in baseball we’re headed that way,” he said. “Where you have superfranchises that are just getting huge. Where that leaves a lot of the other teams, we’ll see.” It goes without saying, though, that the A’s wouldn’t be asked to join that league of superteams.

After he agreed to stay with the A’s rather then depart to Boston, Beane signed a series of contract extensions that granted him a small ownership stake in the team. His current contract is up in 2014. “I’ve always been somewhat intellectually curious about other things,” he told me, speaking of his future in, or out of, baseball. “Do I have a lot of interests? Yeah. Do I have an idea of what I want to do? Yeah. Am I going to say it right now? No.”

But is it safe to say these will be nonbaseball-related activities?

“Some yes, some no,” he said.

He has no regrets, he said, about turning down the Red Sox job, even though it’s easy to think, in hindsight, that by combining his insights with that team’s resources, he might have been the one to make history there. “I have a wife and kids and parents who all live out here,” he said. “If it was strictly driven by the desire to just win games, and if that was the end-all for me, then yes. But this is the type of environment I like and enjoy.” Or, as Bennett Miller, the director of “Moneyball,” put it: “He would have died in Boston. It wouldn’t have been his show. He likes to be the guerrilla in the mountains in combat fatigues.”

There has also been recent talk of moving the A’s to nearby San Jose or Fremont, which would theoretically boost revenues and payroll. But by then Beane might be done with baseball altogether. He long ago turned his eye to other interests: soccer, for example, another hidebound sport that seems ripe for radical rethinking. He persuaded the A’s ownership to buy a Major League Soccer team, the San Jose Earthquakes, in 2007. He consults informally for Liverpool, the English soccer club that is now owned by the principal owner of the Red Sox. Michael Lewis, who has stayed friendly with Beane, says: “If I had to guess the fantasy for Billy, my guess is the A’s move to San Jose and double the payroll. He hands the team to David Forst, and then they acquire a European soccer team that he could start running.”

But why should Beane limit himself to sports? He also sits on several corporate boards, including that of the software company NetSuite. It’s not hard — in fact, it is exceedingly easy — to imagine him simply walking away from baseball to start, say, a free-ranging consultancy. Billy Beane Associates. The powerful metaphor of baseball. Better results from limited resources.

In that case, there would be no tightfisted owners to haggle with; no sportswriters questioning your allegiance to a philosophy that you introduced them to; no old-timers claiming you’re a huckster fraud. There would be no Yankees to try to topple and no calcified system that keeps them propped up. In that case, you would be the Yankees.

“There are two avenues of escape, once you recognize the predicament that you’re basically doomed if you’re Oakland,” Lewis says. “One is to become the San Jose A’s — to try and go from a small-market team to a big-market team. The second avenue of escape is to find another industry where those kind of inefficiencies still exist.”

For now, though, for Beane, there is this small office in Oakland next to a concrete coliseum. On the wall, there is a whiteboard, covered in cryptic scribbles that he can’t quite bring himself to erase. Part of it holds a chart, drawn up during a recent visit by Beane’s pal who works for Liverpool, to sketch out the statistical advantages of acquiring soccer players at different ages. Lower down on the board, though, are remnants of 2002, the year Lewis tailed him and “Moneyball” came into being. The board reads “39, ZIE” and, under that, “40, PAP BON.” This was a list of players from the 2002 draft — the one Lewis chronicled in his book — that the A’s had yet to sign. “ZIE” was Brad Ziegler, a pitcher who later wound up with the team; “We just traded him,” Beane said. And “PAP BON” was Jonathan Papelbon, the team’s 40th pick in that year’s draft, a long shot who spurned the team when it couldn’t afford his signing-bonus demands. He went back into the draft the following season, was picked by the Red Sox and became a star — a bigger success in the major leagues than any of the 39 players the frugal A’s drafted before him. Papelbon is less an example of the value of Moneyball than of the value of good old-fashioned money.

Beane considered the whiteboard. “It’s not really a board to use anymore,” he said. “It’s more of a time capsule now.” It’s like the Billy Beane of that era was sending a scrawled message to the Beane of this era: Enjoy this streak because it won’t last forever. Once the casino catches on to your card-counting tricks, you can’t prosper at the table for long. And like any good card-counter, you need to know when to cash out and walk away.

Adam Sternbergh (a.sternbergh-MagGroup@nytimes.com) is the culture editor of the magazine.

 

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