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.
The real problem with Moneyball, however, is not Lewis's failure to understand baseball history. It's his failure to see what was going on right in front of his and Beane's eyes in 2002. In their book, The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball, Sheldon Hirsch and Alan Hirsch point out perhaps the biggest hole in Lewis's analysis. They write that Moneyball
distorts the reason for Oakland's success. The team thrived primarily because of superb pitching. During its turn of post-season appearances, the A's were second to third in the league in fewest runs allowed, whereas in some of these seasons, they finished in the bottom half in runs scored. At the heart of the pitching staff were three dominant starters: Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. All three wee early-round draft picks, highly scouted, and well regarded—Mulder and Zito were selected in the top ten of their respective drafts. This was hardly a case of Beane's spotting sleepers ... because of nuanced numbers. Indeed, Michael Lewis does not suggest that sabermetrics had anything to do with Beane drafting the three studs who led Oakland to greatness. Indeed, he virtually ignores them. Lewis devoted a few paragraphs to the Big Three (making the strained claim that Beane appreciated them for quirky reasons), quickly dropping them and transitioning to an entire chapter on ... Chad Bradford.
Bradford was indeed one of Billy Beane's quirkiest pitchers and one of his most unusual finds. If you saw him pitch, you'd never forget him—his right-handed delivery was so sidearm that some called it "underarm." Some swore that his knuckles actually grazed the ground. Few teams took Bradford seriously because of his unorthodox delivery, but he proved to be a pretty good relief pitcher with an ERA of 3.26 for 12 seasons.
"One can understand," the Hirsches write, "why Lewis, ever the gifted storyteller, devotes more than 40 pages to this relatively anonymous relief pitcher. Which is fine, except that Moneyball implies that Bradford played a crucial role in Oakland's success. In a typical season, Zito, Mulder and Hudson gave the team more than 650 quality innings and roughly 50 wins, whereas Chad Bradford never won more than seven games and topped at 77 innings. What about saves? Bradford recorded hardly any because Oakland never trusted him to be their closer. In a book ostensibly written to explain a team's success, Michael Lewis treats three dominant pitchers as an afterthought and obsesses about a pretty good middle-reliever."
Alan and Sheldon Hirsch highlight an unfortunate truth about Moneyball, namely that what does not fit Lewis's narrative—that Billy Beane's revolutionary use of baseball statistics changed the game—tends to be left out entirely.
At the beginning of the hoopla for Moneyball the movie a week or so ago, a former Phillies relief pitcher, Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams, identified something else Lewis overlooked on MLB.com: "What Oakland won they didn't win because of sabermetrics. They won because of Mulder, Hudson, Zito and Tejada."
Shortstop Miguel Tejada more or less slips through the pages of Moneyball with little notice; you'd scarcely know that he batted .308 that season with 34 home runs and 131 RBIs. He simply wasn't Billy Beane's kind of player. Though his OBP was a respectable .354, you get the feeling that he just didn't reach base the right way—the "moneyball" way. In one passage, Beane dismisses him altogether. "Oh, great," he says with real disgust, "Here comes Mister Swing-At-Everything." Mister Swing-At-Everything did reach base 204 times with hits, but that's not the Billy Beane way.
Tejada and third baseman Eric Chavez drove in 240 runs between them, but Moneyball glosses over that fact as if the A's would have found a way to get those 240 runners home anyway. Runners like catcher-turned-first baseman Scott Hatteberg. No doubt making a strong contribution to the A's division championship, Hatteberg batted .280 with 15 home runs. His .374 OBP was 20 points higher than Tejada's and 26 higher than Chavez. But his OBS—on-base percentage plus slugging average, a useful stat which measures not only how often a hitter gets on base but his power as reflected in extra base hits—was 54 points lower than Tejada's and 53 lower than Chavez's. But Hatteburg reached base the Beane way by walking 68 times, so he gets the lion's share of the ink in Moneyball.
As the movie implies, Hatteberg's story is something of a Cinderella tale, and Beane deserves all the credit for recognizing his usefulness. He had posted on OBP of .367 in 2001 with the Red Sox, but neither the book or the movie tells the whole story. As Sheldon and Alan Hirsch put it,
A large part of Beane's genius, and Lewis's telling, concerned knowing when to obtain and release players; he buys low and sells high. But the opposite was the case with Hatteberg. Beane signed him for $900,000, but after three seasons had to pay him $2,450,000. Beane lost interest in him, and Cincinnati signed him to a one-year contract for the bargain basement price of $750,000. Moneyball claims Beane succeeded on a low budget because of mega-efficiency, but Hatteberg reflects Beane at his least efficient; at Cincinnati, Hatteberg's productivity per-dollar was astronomically higher than at Oakland.
By the way, The Beauty of Short Hops, though it punctures gaping holes in Moneyball, has all but been ignored by the baseball sports establishment, just as the truth of the numerous Bill James-derived statistics that Beane used were previously ignored by the old baseball establishment.
Moneyball ends with the story of Jeremy Brown, one of eight players who Beane was obsessed with at the time Lewis was writing the book. Brown, an overweight catcher for the University of Alabama, couldn't run or field his position very well but had a remarkable talent, at least at the college level, of getting on base, often by drawing walks. Beane chose Brown with the 35th pick in the amateur draft. In 2008, after accumulating just 10 at-bats in the major leagues, Brown gave it up and retired.
"It turned out the scouts were right," write the Hirsches, "to compare Jeremy Brown to Babe Ruth because both were fat and walked a lot was like comparing Manute Bol to Wilt Chamberlain because both were tall and blocked shots .. Michael Lewis, caught up in a theory and a story, found their merger in this improbable spectacle. If Jeremy Brown didn't exist, Beane and Lewis would have invented him. In fact, that's exactly what they did."
None of Beane's other 2008 draft picks panned out, either.
Perhaps the bitterest irony, one that still hasn't gotten across with most of the sports media, is who sabermetrics actually did end up helping. The subtitle of Moneyball is "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game." As a long, feel-good story in the September 26 Sports Illustrated details, the team that seems to have benefited most from the study of sabermetrics is the Boston Red Sox, who hired Bill James as an advisor in 2004. It was, of course, long overdue that major league front offices should recognize James's genius, but surely Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, a James aficionado, would have made use of his talents with or without Billy Beane's relative success in Oakland. And it certainly must be acknowledged that the Red Sox, with enormous resources at their disposal, had the money to pursue and sign high-pried free agents who the A's and other low budgets teams could not.
With James on board, the Red Sox finally broke the so-called "Curse of the Bambino" and won two World Series in 2004 and 2007—though they won in 2004 in the most improbable of ways, coming back from a 0-3 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS, just as they had lost the ALCS to the Yankees in the most improbable fashion the previous season when their ace, Pedro Martinez, melted down and lost a sizeable lead in the deciding game.
So while baseball is left to sort out for itself exactly what the true impact of sabermetrics is, it's always good to remember that no set of statistics has ever been invented that predicts the future so well as it predicts the past. As I write this, the Red Sox—2011 payroll estimated at $161.7 million—are a horrendous 6-18 in September and are in a fight for their lives for the wild card spot in the AL playoffs with the same Tampa Bay Rays—payroll approximately $41.1 million—that Michael Lewis thought back in 2002 could no longer afford to be contenders.
Lewis's misunderstanding of baseball has led a legion of sportswriters and fans to revere Billy Beane. But does the record support the hype? To answer that question, we have to confront the A's dismal post-season performance—a factor Beane (and Lewis) prefer we dismiss.
"Anyone," Beane told an ESPN reporter years ago after an A's loss in the 2003 postseason, "who wants to diminish our accomplishments by focusing on the playoffs is foolish and ignorant. That's not respectful to the players on this team." Well, yes and yes. Most veteran baseball observers would agree that it's the regular season that shows a team's true strengths (and weaknesses) and that postseason success in baseball is not so certain as in football or basketball, where, generally, the team that's supposed to win does win. But even in a crapshoot—and Lewis, as well as Beane, uses the term to define the postseason—the dice should eventually roll your way. Is there anything to be said about the repeated postseason flubs of Billy Beane's best Oakland teams?
Let's review. From 2000-2003, the A's lost in the first round of the playoffs, the American League Division Series, each year. Their collective record for those four series was 8-12. Even more stunning, given their success during the regular season, the A's were an eye-popping 0-9 in potential clinchers—games that would have won the series and sent them on to the next round of playoffs.
Some of their errors and miscues are among the most famous in 21st century major league baseball. In 2000, the A's won 91 games over the season to the Yankees' 87 but lost in the final game of the ALDS when Terrence Long, not known for his defensive skills, misplayed a long fly ball in the first inning, allowing the Yankees to clear the bases and blow the game open. The next season, the A's once again outplayed the far richer eastern devils, winning 102 games to the Yanks' 95. One of the key plays in the series came in game three when Derek Jeter streaked all the way across the field to snag a weak throw down the first base line and flip it to Jorge Posada, who tagged an unbelievably lazy Jeremy Giambi, who had forgotten to slide. In game five, the A's led 2-0 in the bottom of the second when three Oakland errors led to two unearned runs that were the difference in the 5-3 win; one of the errors was by Jason Giambi at first base. Giambi was probably one of the worst fielding first basemen in baseball; the only reason he was playing the position that day was because he couldn't play DH because his brother, the even worse fielding Jeremy, was in that slot.
In 2002, the A's faced the equally small market Minnesota Twins in the ALDS. Oakland was easily the better team, winning 103 games to the Twins' 94. But in game four, the A's fielding unraveled with two errors leading to five unearned runs in an ugly defeat. One error was committed by the normally sure-handed Miguel Tejada, but the other was by the usually unsurehanded Scott Hattesberg who was in the lineup because Beane loved his ability to get on base, not for his fielding skills. (As Lewis puts it, infield coach Ron Washington "was the one coach in baseball who could be certain that his general manager wouldn't be wasting any money on fielding ability.")
The next season the A's won three more games (96-93) than the big market Boston Red Sox. But in game three, perhaps the worst in Beane's career, they committed four errors, capped off by Tejada and Eric Byrnes taking the team out of scoring opportunities with bone-headed base running. (Base running is low on Beane's list of priorities.)
What's interesting about these four series is that three of them were against much larger-market teams. Each year Oakland demonstrated that they had the talent to win more games than the big guys, but each time they couldn't play the "small ball" required to clench the key games that would have given them the series. You can call it a crapshoot, but all this is reflective of talents that Beane was largely indifferent to, namely fielding and base running, the kind of small things that get overlooked when a general manager is obsessed with large concepts like on-base percentage. And yet they are skills that don't require a great deal of money to work on.
Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci wrote in 2003 that "There are real reasons why the Athletics don't get it down in October, and they have nothing to do with shooting craps. Beane's teams don't catch the ball well enough ... and, as one Oakland source put it, 'We're the worst base running team in the league.'"
Crap shoot? Perhaps, but the first front office official in baseball to studybaseball statistics had, perhaps, a better explanation: "Luck," said the legendary Branch Rickey, a full half-century before Beane, "is the residue of design."
Curiously, Beane has been given a free pass by baseball writers for his team's wretched postseason performance. Even more curious is another problem with Beane's Oakland A's that has gone almost complete unnoted. Front offices all over the major leagues have been sharply criticized for wearing blinders on the subject of performance enhancing drugs, yet drug use by the A's in the Moneyball era has drawn practically no attention from anyone, especially Michael Lewis.
We now know now that their best player and the 2002 American League MVP, Miguel Tejada, was on steroids from 2001-2003—he's admitted it. We don't know if Jeremy Giambi was doing anything more potent than marijuana at this time, though he later said he used anabolic steroids similar to those his brother Jason admitted to using in both Oakland and New York. We know that reserve outfielder/third baseman Adam Piatt dealt drugs when he was with Oakland from 2000-2003 (there even copies of two checks Tejada wrote him for the PEDs).
It certainly isn't as if there no red flags for Beane to notice. The leaders of the A's 1988-1990 AL pennant winning teams, Jose Canseco, the self-proclaimed godfather of steroids, and Mark McGwire were rumored to taking some kind of steroids for years. Canseco was back on the A's in 1997 while Beane was an assistant GM. Perhaps in 2002, when Lewis was writing Moneyball, too little was known about PEDs, but why is there nothing concerning the revelations of drug abuse on the team in subsequent editions?
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart patiently tells a reporter the real story about his legend: he didn't really do what he was famous for doing. The reporter says with a shrug, "This is the West. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend." Michael Lewis took fact and molded it into a legend. And now, lucky Billy Beane, with Brad Pitt playing him in the highly regarded film version of Moneyball, looks even better on the big screen than he did on the printed page.
But while Hollywood can create legend, it can't change the facts. And the fact is that first baseball analysts, then sportswriters, and now Hollywood have bought into the legend.
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