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.