The Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies are out. Was Billy Beane right about small-market teams?
At first glance, baseball's post-season this year would seem to dovetail nicely with the theme of the recently released Brad Pitt movie Moneyball, based on the Michael Lewis bestseller of the same name. The big money teams--the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies--are out, and the networks are left to contemplate a World Series in Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, or Dallas--a field of decidedly less-lucrative baseball television markets.
But just because the big dollar teams are out doesn't necessarily mean that the success of those smaller-market teams is due to the kind of statistical maneuvering Lewis stressed in Moneyball. Not that managers don't look at statistics. Or that smaller-market teams don't have to get more creative in how they compete against teams with payrolls almost twice their size. It's just that writers, looking for a hook that will sell a book, sometimes focus overmuch on "the thing" or "the answer," when the reality is more complex than that.
Yes, the Oakland A's, the team Lewis profiled in Moneyball, made the playoffs five times in the early 00's--a record Lewis attributed to their rogue statistical approach to baseball. But as a couple of recent articles have pointed out, they never won a championship, and they haven't even made the playoffs since 2006. So--despite the fact that the philosophy highlighted in Moneyball has achieved guru-status fame in the business world--how powerful was that approach, really?
I found an interesting take on that question from--appropriately enough--a former MLB ballplayer who now coaches in the Rangers' farm team system. Casey Candaele might not be a household name, although he played nine years in the majors (Montreal Expos, Houston Astros, and Cleveland Indians) before joining the Rangers' coaching staff. But Candaele comes from memorable baseball stock. His mom was Helen Callaghan--the woman portrayed by Geena Davis in the hit movie A League of Their Own. After leading the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in batting average, homers, hits, doubles, and total bases in 1945, Callaghan got married and had five sons. All five played baseball, growing up, but Casey was the only one who went pro.
In an interview with his brother (writer and filmmaker Kelly Candaele) last week, Casey weighed in on the Moneyball philosophy. An excerpt here:
Question: Billy Beane and the people who agreed with his philosophy operated under the assumption that the old way of analyzing ball-players was mostly about a lot of talking and guessing and that they had a more scientific way of going about this. What was your sense of this?
CC: "I retired in 2000, so the Moneyball approach started a bit later. The thing that struck me about the movie is that the A's were actually pretty good. They had Eric Chavez, a young third baseman who had been playing for a number of years. Miguel Tejada had over 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs that year, I think. Jemaine Dye was on that team and had a great year. They also had Terrance Long, who was in the running for Rookie of the Year the year before.
But most importantly, and this is the film's major problem, I think--the A's had a great pitching staff. They had Tim Hudson, who led the league in ERA and wins a number of years in a row. They had Mark Mulder, who won 19 games, and Barry Zito, who won 23 and was on the top of his game. The pitching was outstanding, but the movie doesn't even mention those guys. So this team was not like the Bad News Bears.
In terms of the Moneyball philosophy, I guess it makes sense to combine people on the team who can get on base consistently with guys who can drive them in. And as it said at the end of the movie, the Red Sox used this philosophy and went on to win the World Series. The Sox had many great players at the time and they are not a small market team, so they spend money. So I don't think it is a matter of assembling a team of all players that have a high On Base Percentage, which is what the movie portrayed. You have to have some people who can drive those guys in quickly."
Question: What was realistic about the film?
CC: "What was realistic was that Beane made a decision about how to re-create the process of how to win in a small baseball market. In that respect, it was unique, as they were trying to find a way to compete, and they had a good year. But, as I said, they had a really good team those years."
other words, the simple, win-by-numbers revolutionary secret that made Moneyball
such a phenomenon ("You, too, can beat the Yankees (or any other
competition) at just half the cost!") appears, on closer inspection, to be
not quite so simple. That's true of most easy, secret formulas for success, of
course. But in baseball, as opposed to business, happiness, health, or other
fields where sure-fire strategies for success abound, I think we're actually
half glad to discover that truth.
On the one hand, we don't want to think that money decides everything. So the idea of an outsider like Beane being able to beat the monetary odds and win appeals to us. On the other hand, we don't really want Beane's underdog success to be the result of some impersonal and predictable accountant's formula.
One of the reasons baseball retains such national appeal is its unspoken parallels to life and human attempts at achievement, in general. It is not only a product of our heartland sandlots, but also a metaphor--a microcosm of human striving, individual and collective effort and achievement, disappointment, defeat, comeback, redemption and ... sometimes ... unexpected victory.
If the game's outcome could be reduced to predictable, formulaic numbers, it would cease to resonate as a metaphor and salve for our own sometimes-frustrating and often unpredictable lives. It would also lose all its poetry. For poetry comes from those moments of perfection, discovery, alchemy and victory that catch our hearts and attention--and are so achingly and unforgettably sweet and magical--precisely because they defy expectation. Poetry is perfection stumbled upon, not perfection engineered.
One of the most perfect moments of baseball poetry I ever witnessed, in fact, occurred not in a traditional baseball stadium, but in the streets of lower Manhattan. And it involved a Candaele. Not Casey, but his brother Kelly.
Kelly had often said that he'd wished he'd inherited his mother's baseball swing. It was, he said, a thing of beauty; a seamless movement of power and grace that led to her success at the plate. He didn't, of course. Casey was the one who got the swing. Kelly went on to other pursuits of writing and film production. But the longing and legacy were still there, underneath it all.
One fall day a number of years ago, as baseball moved, once again, into its post-season games, I met Kelly for a late lunch in New York. After the meal, we wandered the streets of the East Village, taking the long route back the subway to enjoy the fall afternoon. A couple of blocks north of Houston Street, we came across a group of tough-looking teenagers playing stickball in the street. And with bravado I'd never have attempted, Kelly walked up to the guy at bat and asked if he might have a turn.
The response from the group was half-ridiculing, half-menacing. But it was clear they had no interest in the proposal. Tough street kids in New York do not let 40-ish, academic-looking old guys in on their stickball games. But Kelly persisted. He pulled out a $20 bill and offered it to the group in exchange for a single swing. The group laughed. Not only was this guy old, he was a sucker, too. But, hey. If he wanted to throw away his money, well, that was okay with them. They exchanged glances, nodded, and the batter took the money and handed Kelly the stick.
Kelly got in his stance, and the pitcher wound up and delivered the ball across the "plate." Kelly tensed his muscles, swung--and connected with nothing but thin air. The teenagers laughed, guffawed, and swaggered their ridicule all the way down the block. Watching from the sidewalk, I cringed in vicarious embarrassment. But Kelly was undeterred. He asked for another swing. The stickball players scoffed, reminding him that he'd paid for a single swing. I thought, for a moment, that it might turn ugly. But Kelly persisted, cajoling and friendly, until they agreed to give him one more try.
I shook my head, wishing he'd just quit and get us the hell out of there. But there he was, instead, calmly loosening up his shoulders, pulling the stick through a couple of practice swings, then poising it just above his shoulder, waiting for the pitch. The pitcher wound up, released the ball, and I braced for the humiliation that was surely going to follow.
But then, something magical happened. Kelly set the stick in motion, and there it was, out of the past--a swing that resonated with power, grace, and athletic perfection. His mother's swing. And it aligned perfectly with the fast ball delivered down the alley. There was a loud crack as stick and ball connected, and then all heads turned to follow the ball as it arced high and straight above the pavement ... right out of the ballpark. It cleared the blocks north of Houston, cleared the wide, multiple lanes of Houston Street itself, and finally descended back to Earth, bouncing off the pavement halfway down the block on the other side.
The stickball players stood, motionless, suddenly bereft of all taunts, menace, or cockiness, arms limp at their sides and jaws hanging open in stunned, wordless awe. Kelly himself was dazed for a moment, then just smiled, handed the stick back to the batter he'd supplanted, called out a cheerful thanks to the other players, and walked away.
No rational formula would have predicted that outcome. But that's what made it so poetic. And the possibility of victories like that, defying all the numbers, is a big part of what gives baseball its appeal. It might be harder to market that appeal to business audiences looking for a sure-fire edge, of course. But the truth is, what gives us hope, in the long history of human struggle, is that sometimes, we are more than the numerical sum of our parts. Yes, strategy matters. But so do intangibles like heart, will, and the magic that is created, sometimes, when the parts of a person, or the parts of a team, somehow click in ways stat sheets can't predict.
Whether it's the magic of the 1973 Mets, who went from the bottom of their division to the World Series in a matter of weeks on the strength of a relief pitcher's cry of "You Gotta Believe!" or the magic of a middle-aged man finding a perfect swing on a New York City street ... it's those moments in which we find not only only poetry, but a measure of hope, redemption and belief in possibility that helps us get through all the rest. And the fact that that kind of alchemy and magic is impossible to quantify, package and sell is precisely what makes it not only so powerful, but so valuable, as well.
Some fans are complaining that Zack Snyder’s envisioning of the Man of Steel is too grim—but it’s less a departure than a return to the superhero’s roots.
Since the official teaser trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice debuted online in April, fans and critics alike have been discussing the kind of Superman Zack Snyder is going to depict in his Man of Steel sequel. The controversy stems from Snyder’s decision to cast Superman as a brooding, Dark Knight-like character, who cares more about beating up bad guys than saving people. The casting split has proved divisive among Superman fans: Some love the new incarnation, citing him as an edgier, more realistic version of the character.
But Snyder’s is a different Superman than the one fans grew up with, and many have no problem expressing their outrage over it. Even Mark Waid, the author of Superman: Birthright (one of the comics the original film is based on), voiced his concern about Man of Steel’s turn toward bleakness when it came out in 2013:
New research confirms what they say about nice guys.
Smile at the customer. Bake cookies for your colleagues. Sing your subordinates’ praises. Share credit. Listen. Empathize. Don’t drive the last dollar out of a deal. Leave the last doughnut for someone else.
Sneer at the customer. Keep your colleagues on edge. Claim credit. Speak first. Put your feet on the table. Withhold approval. Instill fear. Interrupt. Ask for more. And by all means, take that last doughnut. You deserve it.
Follow one of those paths, the success literature tells us, and you’ll go far. Follow the other, and you’ll die powerless and broke. The only question is, which is which?
Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
19 Kids and Counting built its reputation on preaching family values, but the mass-media platforms that made the family famous might also be their undoing.
On Thursday, news broke that Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the Duggar family's 19 children, had, as a teenager, allegedly molested five underage girls. Four of them, allegedly, were his sisters.
The information came to light because, in 2006—two years before 17 Kids and Counting first aired on TLC, and thus two years before the Duggars became reality-TV celebrities—the family recorded an appearance on TheOprah Winfrey Show. Before the taping, an anonymous source sent an email to Harpo warning the production company Josh’s alleged molestation. Harpo forwarded the email to authorities, triggering a police investigation (the Oprah appearance never aired). The news was reported this week by In Touch Weekly—after the magazine filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the police report on the case—and then confirmed by the Duggars in a statement posted on Facebook.
The brilliant mathematician, who died in a car accident on Sunday, was best known for his struggle with mental illness.
John Nash, a Nobel laureate and mathematical genius whose struggle with mental illness was documented in the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind, was killed in a car accident on Saturday. He was 86. The accident, which occurred when the taxi Nash was traveling in collided with another car on the New Jersey Turnpike, also claimed the life of his 82-year-old wife, Alicia. Neither of the two drivers involved in the accident sustained life-threatening injuries.
Born in West Virginia in 1928, Nash displayed an acuity for mathematics early in life, independently proving Fermat’s little theorem before graduating from high school. By the time he turned 30 in 1958, he was a bona fide academic celebrity. At Princeton, Nash published a 27-page thesis that upended the field of game theory and led to applications in economics, international politics, and evolutionary biology. His signature solution—known as a “Nash Equilibrium”—found that competition among two opponents is not necessarily governed by zero-sum logic. Two opponents can, for instance, each achieve their maximum objectives through cooperating with the other, or gain nothing at all by refusing to cooperate. This intuitive, deceptively simple understanding is now regarded as one of the most important social science ideas in the 20th century, and a testament to his almost singular intellectual gifts.
Advocates say that a guaranteed basic income can lead to more creative, fulfilling work. The question is how to fund it.
Scott Santens has been thinking a lot about fish lately. Specifically, he’s been reflecting on the aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” What Santens wants to know is this: “If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”
Santens is 37 years old, and he’s a leader in the basic income movement—a worldwide network of thousands of advocates (26,000 on Reddit alone) who believe that governments should provide every citizen with a monthly stipend big enough to cover life’s basic necessities. The idea of a basic income has been around for decades, and it once drew support from leaders as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. But rather than waiting for governments to act, Santens has started crowdfunding his own basic income of $1,000 per month. He’s nearly halfway to his his goal.
In an interview, the U.S. president ties his legacy to a pact with Tehran, argues ISIS is not winning, warns Saudi Arabia not to pursue a nuclear-weapons program, and anguishes about Israel.
On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry. “A majority of American Jews want to support the Iran deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxiety-ridden about this, as am I.” Like many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews—I believe that it is prudent to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-Semitic regimes. Obama, who earlier in the discussion had explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite, responded with an argument I had not heard him make before.
“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, referring to the apparently almost-finished nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
Why agriculture may someday take place in towers, not fields
A couple of Octobers ago, I found myself standing on a 5,000-acre cotton crop in the outskirts of Lubbock, Texas, shoulder-to-shoulder with a third-generation cotton farmer. He swept his arm across the flat, brown horizon of his field, which was at that moment being plowed by an industrial-sized picker—a toothy machine as tall as a house and operated by one man. The picker’s yields were being dropped into a giant pod to be delivered late that night to the local gin. And far beneath our feet, the Ogallala aquifer dwindled away at its frighteningly swift pace. When asked about this, the farmer spoke of reverse osmosis—the process of desalinating water—which he seemed to put his faith in, and which kept him unafraid of famine and permanent drought.
People who wear and design prosthetics are rethinking the form of our species.
When Elizabeth Wright smacks her right leg on a table, she says “ow.” That’s only interesting if you know one more thing: that her right leg is made out of carbon fiber and metal. It’s also part of her. “It is my right leg, just as my left leg is my left leg, and just as your right leg is your right leg.”
Wright was born with something called congenital limb deficiency—neither her right arm or right leg grew to their full length in the womb. At 2 years old, she was fitted with a prosthetic leg, something she describes as “a revelation.” Around the time she was 6 years old the doctors decided it was time for her to try a prosthetic arm. That didn’t go as well. “This was in the 80s,” Wright says, “before the fancy hands you can use to pick up eggs and not break them. The arm that I got it was purely for aesthetic reasons, it just hung there like some kind of weird dead arm, and I couldn’t do anything with it. I could actually do less. So I think it lasted two or three days and then it got relegated to the cupboard. I refused to wear it.” And it stayed there. Today, Wright still uses a prosthetic leg, one that is wholly hers, entirely a part of her identity, and she still rejects the use of a prosthetic arm. She says she’s learned how to do things without it.