Michael Lewis's book-turned-movie made a legend out of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane. But does his record match the hype?
The film Moneyball is—just like the 2003 bestseller by Michael Lewis it's based on—an idealized version of what happened with Billy Beane and the Oakland A's in the early part of the last decade. Beane is credited with adapting baseball analyst Bill James's statistical concepts into practical application. James, a lucid and witty writer with a refreshingly iconoclastic view of baseball history, had argued for years that on-base percentage (OBP, which measure a batter's ability to reach base by hit or walk) was much more significant than mere batting average (BA, which only measures hits). James also stressed the relative value of slugging average (SLG, which measures a batter's total bases per at-bat) and dismissed the more traditional baseball stats such as stolen bases and bunts.
James long ago won over the smart guys, in whose ranks this writer regards himself. The cult of professional statisticians that followed in James's wake came to be known as "sabermatricians" as nearly all of them are members of SABR, the Society for American Baseball research. But a myth has built up around Moneyball the book, a myth largely propagated by the smart guys who want to see their most cherished beliefs about baseball transformed into hard reality. The myth says Beane single-handedly changed the game by recognizing the value of sabermetrics. But the myth doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
So popular has Moneyball proved since its publication that few have bothered to notice some of its very fundamental flaws. Throughout the book, Lewis makes it clear that he doesn't understand baseball.
His first important error is his misunderstanding of the competitiveness of the sport by the end of the 20th century. In the preface to Moneyball he writes, "For more than a decade, the people who run professional baseball have argued that the game was ceasing to be an athletic competition and becoming a financial one. The gap between rich and poor in baseball was far greater than in any other professional sport and widening rapidly." Lewis is correct if he's talking about the salaries paid by the richest and poorest teams, but he's not correct if he's talking about the competition in the ballparks.
At the opening of the 2002 season [the year Lewis's focus is on in Moneyball] the richest team, the New York Yankees, had a payroll of $140 million while the two poorest teams, the Oakland A's and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, had payrolls less than a third of that, about $40 million. A decade before the highest payroll team, the New York Mets, had spent about $44 million on baseball players, and the lowest based payroll team, the Cleveland Indians, a bit more than $8 million. The growing disparity meant that only the rich teams could afford the best players. A poor team could afford only the maimed and the inept, and was almost certain to fail. Or so argued the people who ran baseball.
And I was inclined to concede the point. The people with the most money often win.
From an historical standpoint, Lewis is, well, way off base. By the end of the 20th century baseball had achieved a greater level of competitive balance than at any time in the game's history. As I noted in my 2002 book, Clearing The Bases, "In the year 2000, for the first time ever, not a single team in baseball history finished above .600 or below .400 ... as the twentieth century went on, the difference between the best teams in baseball and the worst teams narrowed, and by the year 2000 it was smaller than at any other time in baseball history."
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Simply put, in 2000 the average difference between the worst and best teams was 20 percentage points; ten points plus or minus is all that was needed to close the gap between the team with the best record in baseball, the San Francisco Giants at 97-65 for a won-lost percentage of .599, and the worst, the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs, tied at 65-97 for a .401 mark. In a bit of irony that Lewis did not notice, the team with the best record in 2000 was a small-market team, the Giants, who were right across the Bay from Oakland, and the two teams with the worst record were from huge markets, Philadelphia and Chicago. (By the way, the small-market Giants won the World Series last year.)
Competition looked uneven by the year 2000 because the Yankees, an organization shrewdly built on both developing players and buying free agents, had won four World Series from 1996 through 2000. But the Yankees had pretty much dominated baseball since the 1920s. The point is that by the year 2000 many more teams had a chance to make the playoffs, and, as Billy Beane himself was fond of saying, "The postseason is a crapshoot."
But Moneyball doesn't just get the state of present-day baseball wrong; it also misrepresents the history of the sport. Baseball didn't become a game of "moneyball" in 2002—it has always been a game about, for, and dictated by money.
Moneyball doesn't give you a picture of what baseball in general and the Oakland A's in particular were like before the game entered the era of free agency and before Billy Beane is said to have changed the game. As I wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal last week, "In the 26 seasons before Beane became general manager of the A's in 1998, Oakland was the biggest winner in baseball, with six pennants and four World Series victories. The Yankees, by comparison, won five pennants and three World Series over that span."
Three of those Oakland pennants—1972, 1973, and 1974—came when the irascible Charles O. Finley was the A's owner. Finley had few resources but was an amazingly shrewd judge of talent; Marvin Miller, founder of the player's union, called Finley "absolutely the best judge of baseball talent I've ever seen." Part of Finley's wisdom was investing whatever money he had in his farm system, particularly the Birmingham A's of the 1960s, who produced Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Bert Campaneris, and other mainstays of his later big-league championship teams. Finley whipped the big boys with patience and smarts, beefing up his minor league affiliates at a time when the richer, arrogant Yankees allowed theirs to decay. It can be argued that Finley thrived before the era of free agency, which drove up salaries and made it more difficult for small-market owners to compete. The problem with that is that the A's had another three-year dynasty after the advent of free agency, from 1988-1990, in which they dominated the American League, going to the World Series for three straight seasons.
The point is that in baseball there have always been factors that mitigate domination by the richest teams. There's no denying that the Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox, with the highest payrolls in baseball, have definite advantages. But the Phillies, though they are the largest single-market team in baseball and don't share their territory with another major league team (as do the Yankees with the Mets, the Cubs with the White Sox, and the Dodgers with the Angels) were the worst team in either league until the last few years. (When Philadelphia won the World Series in 1980, they were the last of the original 16 teams to win the championship. When they won in 2008 it was only for the second time in the franchise's history.)
Injuries, bad luck, front-office stupidity, sentimental weaknesses that result in signing older players to multi-year contracts, and just plain dumb luck have always been among the reasons why just pouring money into a major-league team doesn't automatically result winning a pennant. And while baseball doesn't have a salary cap and a fair revenue-sharing program like the National Football League, contrary to Lewis, its free market has produced a fairer system in terms of giving most teams a chance to win than the other major sports.
However far back you want to take the comparison, from the first Super Bowl in 1967 to the present, or just from the start of the new millennium, baseball has had more different playoff teams and more different champions than professional football.