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Not everyone in baseball bought into 'Moneyball'

Book about how Billy Beane relied heavily on stats to build the Oakland A's into contenders for several seasons is being released as a movie, creating an opportunity to discuss the system's merits.

September 11, 2011|By Bill Shaikin
  • Actors Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill attend a press conference for "Moneyball" at theToronto International Film Festival.
Actors Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill attend a press conference for "Moneyball"… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

The champagne flowed easily, and so did the toasts. The San Francisco Giants had just won the World Series, and the shouts came from all corners of the clubhouse.

To Willie Mays! To Tim Lincecum! To Aubrey Huff's rally thong!

And this, from around a corner, from Giants executive Tony Siegle: "So much for 'Moneyball.' "

The book that polarized an industry hits the big screen next week, with Brad Pitt starring as Billy Beane, the maverick general manager of the Oakland Athletics.

The book was published in 2003, as the A's made their fourth consecutive playoff appearance. The movie comes out as the A's hover uncomfortably close to last place in the American League West, en route to their fifth consecutive season without a winning record.

Those recent struggles are met with barely concealed glee in some clubhouses and front offices, in an industry that did not appreciate the perception that Beane was a Space Age genius among Stone Age thinkers.

"Everybody is a good general manager when you have [bleeping] [Tim] Hudson, [Barry] Zito and [Mark] Mulder," Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen said. "It's easy to be a GM like that. It's not a [bleeping] secret."

What offended veteran baseball types took away from the book was that Beane had somehow invented a championship roster out of computer printouts, on-base percentage and bargain shopping.

That was a caricature, but what were the old-school baseball men supposed to think? The book jacket included this tease: "Even the box score misleads us by ignoring the crucial importance of the humble base on balls. This information has been around for years, and nobody inside Major League Baseball paid it any mind. And then came Billy Beane."

Let's just say that Gene Mauch did not use Brian Downing as the Angels' leadoff hitter three decades ago because of Downing's speed.

"The book overplayed the statistical analysis side of things. It underplayed the scouting side of things," said Bill Stoneman, the former Angels general manager whose team won the World Series in 2002, in the heyday of the "Moneyball" era.

"What you're looking for in a player isn't just what he's done. We can all measure what he's done or how he's trending. The most important question is, what is he going to do? That's a scout's job."

Stoneman is not talking about how a minor league performance might translate at the major league level, or how batting average on balls in play can suggest whether a hitter or pitcher is successful at an unsustainable level.

He is talking about the ability to project a lanky teenager as a beefy slugger, or to determine if a kid with a 95-mph fastball can master the two or three other pitches necessary to start in the major leagues.

Stoneman read the book. Siegle, the Giants executive, said he did not read it but heard more than enough about what he perceived as its worship of numbers.

"Statistics are very important. They're not the be-all and end-all," said Siegle, who has worked for 23 general managers in his five decades as a major league executive.

"Nothing is going to supplant good scouting, good player development and a good general manager."

It would be unfortunate if the release of the "Moneyball" movie were to spawn a revival of the statistics-versus-scouts debate, since no team uses one to the exclusion of the other.

Beane declined to comment for this story.

Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos leans toward the statistical end of the spectrum, but he is trying to topple the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in part by hiring more scouts. The Angels lean toward scouting — so do the Giants — but Manager Mike Scioscia said he gets more statistical data than ever from the front office.

"Moneyball" was not about a computer spitting out the A's roster. It was not about constructing an offense around on-base percentage. It was about zigging when the A's could not afford to zag.

When the Oakland budget did not allow for a slugger at every position, the A's opted for creativity over surrender. The on-base guys tended to come more cheaply. When the market price went up for guys who walked a lot, the A's zagged again, trying to cobble a winner out of superior defenders.

Scioscia also said the A's now use strategies they never did in their "Moneyball" glory days. They might try dropping a sacrifice bunt, or stealing second base, or scooting from first base to third on a single, plays that were regarded as anathema in Oakland a decade ago.

"They would never give away outs," Scioscia said.

The core of baseball lifers, skeptical of the reverence with which Beane was portrayed in the book, point to the scoreboard. And, yes, the A's never have won the World Series under Beane.

On the other hand, in an eight-year span ending in 2006, the A's advanced to the playoffs five times and had a winning record every year. The Yankees were the only other major league club to do so.

No, what "Moneyball" really symbolized was the democratization of statistical information.

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