Thursday 8 December 2016

One man's perfect game unleashes new set of values

Tommy Conlon

Published 04/12/2011 | 05:00

It's in cinemas at the moment and, as they always say about good films in this genre, you don't have to like sport to like this movie.

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But it's particularly true in the case of Moneyball. It's a baseball film but it's got precious little on-field action. Instead it reaches for more universal themes and uses baseball as the vehicle for these themes; essentially it's another dramatisation involving our old friend, sport as metaphor.

It is based on the book of the same name, published in 2003 and written by Michael Lewis. The film is a very smart, very understated piece of work. But of necessity it can only tell a fraction of the story that Lewis revealed in the original book.

Lewis spent the 2002 season tracking one of major league baseball's smaller clubs, the California-based Oakland Athletics. He wanted to find out how a club with a modest budget had been surpassing all expectations in the previous few seasons.

The answer lay with Oakland's general manager, Billy Beane. Brad Pitt plays Beane in the film. In real life Beane was that rarest of creatures in any sport: a product of the system, a former pro player, who had retained enough intellectual independence to question the system. And when he became GM at Oakland he had the courage to back up his unorthodox thinking with unorthodox moves in the transfer market. He signed players who he believed had been neglected, rejected or undervalued by the market; and he released star players who he believed were overvalued and overpaid. He based his assessments of these players on a singular interpretation of the game's statistics.

Beane's contention, among others, was that baseball had been misusing its stats for over 100 years. The all-important box score, which had been the mathematical bible of the sport since the 1850s, was incomplete and unreliable. It didn't tell the whole story of a player's contribution to a game, to a season; sometimes it said too much, sometimes it said too little.

But players were being hired for fortunes based on certain stats; and other players were languishing in the minor leagues when their stats were telling Beane they should be in the major leagues. Beane basically believed that the whole baseball industry was in thrall to decades of received wisdom and bogus truisms when it came to the use of stats. In fact, they all too often ignored what the stats were telling them, preferring to rely on time-honoured abstractions such as gut instinct and feel.

Beane became general manager before the 1998 season. The A's won 91 games in 2000 and what Lewis calls "an astonishing" 102 games in 2001. In both seasons they made the play-offs and were beaten on both occasions by the New York Yankees. The Yankees had a player payroll of some €126m in 2001; Oakland's was about €40m. In the 2001 post-season the big franchises came asset-stripping; Oakland lost its three top players. Jason Giambi was bought by the Yankees for €120m. The A's were written off for 2002. But Beane and his trusty stats man, Paul DePodesta, a Harvard graduate in economics, went shopping for bargains again and found them. They finished the 2002 season with 103 wins. It included a 20-game winning streak that had never been done before in the 102-year history of the American League.

And yet Beane, DePodesta and their ideas were surrounded by constant scepticism in the baseball establishment, from the Commissioner down to many of the journalists who covered the sport. "He (Beane) never said it," writes Lewis, "but it was nonetheless evident that he couldn't quite believe how little appreciation there was for what he'd done." The establishment was threatened. "What was threatening (to it) was cold, hard intelligence."

It took an outsider to appreciate Beane's achievements and at the end of the 2002 season the billionaire owner of the Boston Red Sox offered him an unprecedented contract to take over as general manager at Fenway Park. The owner was John Henry, now also the owner of Liverpool Football Club. Henry had made his fortune in the financial markets.

"Inefficiencies in the financial markets had made Henry a billionaire," writes Lewis, "and he saw some familiar idiocies in the market for baseball players."

Beane's unorthodox thought processes chimed perfectly with John Henry's. But Beane turned him down anyway to stay with the Oakland A's.

The new approach to baseball stats eventually became known as Sabermetrics. The man who Lewis describes as "the spiritual father" of the new paradigm was not Beane but a baseball obsessive named Bill James. As far back as 1977, James was challenging orthodox thinking with his "heresy". No one was listening. It would be another 20 years before his ideas infiltrated the mainstream, via Billy Beane.

Bill James receives only a fleeting mention in the film. But Lewis accords him his proper due in the book. And he sees how James, in passing, arrived at a deeper and more universal truth.

"There was but one question he left unasked, and it vibrated between his lines: if gross miscalculations of a person's value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of 30,000, and a television audience of millions more, what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over- or undervalued, who couldn't?"

thecouch@independent.ie

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