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September 24, 2011

I saw Moneyball last night as I am sure many an A’s fan did. While the A’s were finishing up ending the Angels’ post-season hopes, I was watching the 2002 A’s win 20 straight. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie though some things bothered me, like Jonah Hill playing a guy based upon Paul DePodesta, who of course wasn’t Paul DePodesta. The movie gave DePodesta a ton of credit also that I think was to a degree unwarranted, even Billy Beane gets a lot more credit than he is deserved as well. After all, Beane was a disciple of Sandy Alderson who commissioned a pamphlet for the A’s that focused on the fact that if the club could only get a so-called “one-tool” player, it needed to be a hitter, the pamphlet read,

“Analyzing baseball yields many numbers of interest and value. Yet far and away — far, far and away — the most critical number in all of baseball is 3: the three outs that define an inning. Until the third out, anything is possible; after it, nothing is. Anything that increases the offense’s chances of making an out is bad; anything that decreases it is good. And what is on-base percentage? Simply yet exactly put, it is the probability that the batter will not make an out. When we state it that way, it becomes, or should become, crystal clear that the most important isolated (one-dimensional) offensive statistic is the on-base percentage. It measures the probability that the batter will not be another step toward the end of the inning.

In many ways this sums up the entire movie as any references to defense-independent pitching were ignored (as was Oakland’s trio of aces in Tim HudsonMark Mulder and Barry Zito which was mostly ignored aside from Hudson’s part in starting the 20th straight win game), and many other details were smoothed over – which makes sense given it is a movie and the story needs simplification perhaps. The trade of Carlos Pena to the Tigers, which I recall as being far more about the A’s being able to extract Ted Lilly, two prospects (Jason Arnold and John Ford-Griffin)  and cash by making themselves a go-between to get Jeff Weaver from Detroit to Yankee Stadium – is made out to be much more about ensuring Scott Hatteberg is in the lineup against a very confrontational Art Howe. Susan Slusser for one felt that the representation of Art Howe was unfair and I trust her judgement on that one, as I haven’t ever heard of him to be do disagreeable despite the fact that he was to a degree handcuffed in all likelihood by the front office’s requests.

But that all said, I don’t want to write a movie review here. I want to look back and see if Moneyball was successful or not. The movie plays up the idea that you aren’t doing anything meaningful unless you win that last game of the year and we all know Oakland has not done that since the Moneyball revolution. But I feel that it does matter, the contribution to the mindset of the game was forever changed and teams like Boston took advantage of it and did win that last game of the year. The A’s philosophy wasn’t flawed, in fact it all came down to a big problem in sabermetrics – small sample size. The A’s did succeed during the regular season when things statistically evened out to a degree (2002 being an example of that in many ways) yet failed in the five game American League Divisional Series, or in other words a series that represented at most 3.1% (assuming a five game series) of a regular season.

Oakland, Billy Beane and by extension Sandy Alderson’s theories were right on things. They did things well, Scott Hatteberg panned out, the A’s did make up for the loss of Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and their understanding of the overrated aspect of closers like Jason Isringhausen was certainly proven to be right. But the argument that the A’s succeeded largely based on an unprecedented intersection of extraordinarily talented starting pitching is a valid one. That is largely the argument made by David Haglund in the article “More Moneyball, Same Problems: The numbers are good, but the story is bunk” on Slate (an article that was kind enough to include a link to this very blog), who writes,

“the main reason the A’s were successful in the early 2000s was that four of the high draft picks they were awarded after lousy seasons in the late 1990s all turned fairly quickly into top-notch players. Hudson, Mulder, and Zito I’ve mentioned; the fourth was Eric Chavez, a third baseman who was the 10th player drafted in 1996 (like Hudson, he was signed by Oakland before Beane became general manager), when he had just finished high school and was widely regarded as one of the best prospects in the country.”

It is interesting how rereading and watching a narrative such as the book and movie’s can change your perception of what actually happened, however while we may credit the big three with being the primary reason the A’s were successful in 2002, Hatteberg was the third most valuable offensive player with 2.9 WAR and Chad Bradford was the most valuable reliever on the club posting an impressive 2.1 WAR as well. These hidden gems certainly contributed to the A’s success, and those types of moves are the ones teams like the A’s need to make to keep up with the big boys. Ultimately the draft did play a huge role in Oakland’s success, and while the movie doesn’t acknowledge it, the book does because the book devotes a good chunk to exploring the 2002 draft.

The dynamics of baseball were forever changed. The book is about market inefficiencies which the A’s did to a degree manage to finesse. Players with high on-base percentages are no longer unknown, they are no longer undervalued, but rather known and very valuable commodities. Just as Brad Pitt says in playing Beane in the movie, if you don’t adapt you become a dinosaur. The A’s have needed to adapt since 2006 and their last playoff appearance. They’ve failed to do so, and they have paid the price. But Moneyball in the sense of a static statistical belief system couldn’t ever work, the whole point of the book is that the A’s in 2002 were ahead of the curve, they need to remain there to compete and they haven’t. Moneyball isn’t moneybust, it’s now the new normal.

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