Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Purpose of Moneyball

There is a major motion-picture hitting theaters Friday — a movie in which its release I have been anticipating for quite some time.

For reasons beyond your or my control, the relative importance of this movie's story has never been greater, yet, in an all-for-naught manner, its ending may prove that the basis for its tale has never been more obsolete.

The movie, of course, is called Moneyball.

Moneyball, if you're catching up, is a book written by Michael Lewis (of The Blind Side fame) covering baseball's Oakland Athletics and their outside-the-box  thinking general manager, Billy Beane in the early-2000s. With Beane's adaption of Bill James' sabermetrics, the A's attempt to win despite having one the game's lowest payrolls by using advanced statistics to the point of complete objectivity — or something close to it — like never before.

Stolen bases, batting average, RBIs— while they still meant something, Beane knew to get ahead and compete with the big-market clubs, he'd have to dig deeper to into the numbers to find cheaper statistical translations to success on the field. Eventually, the A's would use the now famed on-base percentage (OBP) statistic where most teams used batting average, at a time when batting average was valued much higher than OBP. The result was more on-field success for less of the cost.

For years, baseball's traditionalists have argued against the "computer-geek" uprising of analyzing the game this way. Former player and ESPN announcer, Joe Morgan became the unofficial spokesperson for the old way, at one point even claiming that Beane wrote Moneyball himself.

The very fabric of the way we viewed the game, if we so chose to do so, had changed.

The question now, for many, on the eve of Moneyball's motion-picture debut is simple:  Was the concept of Moneyball a success? Was its purpose fullfilled?

The premise of the book was not Beane's usage of sabermetrics alone, it was doing so in an advantageous manner in relation to the market-value for players with those qualities. The OBP statistic had been in existence long before Beane became general manager of the A's, it was just that baseball had underestimated its value prior to Beane coming along.

Well, the cat's out of the bag now, and other teams have caught on.

Many big-market clubs, possibly the most-famous being the Red Sox, have allowed the once-undervalued statistics to equal market-value. And Boston, unlike the A's, won the World Series (twice) with a sabermatician aiding their scouting department.

The A's would make the postseason four consecutive seasons from 2000-'03, each time being ousted in the first round. After eight straight winning seasons and a trip to the American League Championship Series in 2006, the team hasn't fielded a winner since.

Seemingly, Beane has lost his zen.

Sure, the game will never be the same. It's the dawn of a new era in baseball and in the world of sports as it relates to how we view and analyze them. James' invention, Beane's adaption, Lewis' writing and now Brad Pitt's acting will all be instrumental in this.

But Moneyball, and all the talk surrounding its importance to the game, will be introduced to the masses Friday with the A's some-17 games under .500 and the Yankees and Red Sox headed for yet another postseason.

Its purpose having gone unfulfilled; the basis of its tale having become obsolete.

The effects of the book will shine through baseball for years to come. Moneyball - the movie, however, can only conclude one way — incomplete.

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