(article was originally posted 11/17/2015)
by Leslie Miller
For any readers who haven’t seen the film “Moneyball,” one of its opening scenes portrays a 2001 meeting between Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his team of scouts and talent evaluators. An increasingly exasperated Beane tries to get these stodgy geezers to look for new approaches to the perennially cash strapped Athletics’ problem: finding good baseball players on the cheap. His appeals fall on deaf ears (literally in the case of one of the scouts). The point of this scene is to drive home one of the movie’s main themes - that baseball’s old guard relied on completely subjective methods for finding promising prospects and assessing the value of current players.
Supposedly reliable methods such as the “smell test” or using gut feelings were considered standard methods of assembling a roster in the multi billion-dollar business of pro baseball. The film spares no effort to make Beane’s group of scouts look like ridiculous old dinosaurs with no real clue of how the game of baseball actually works, relying on such silly scouting tools as “how the ball sounds off a player’s bat” or the attractiveness of a player’s girlfriend. Obviously this is a fictionalized Hollywood version of what actually took place, but the point is clear; the film goes on to show how the Athletics overhauled this system by incorporating computer models and less conventional baseball statistics (sabermetrics) to objectively analyze players, thus finding talent that the rest of the league undervalued. While most teams were seeking players with high batting averages and lots of RBIs, Beane’s Athletics sought out players with high numbers in other categories. But did the film (and the book on which the film is based, for that matter) give unfair treatment to the concept of “good old-fashioned baseball wisdom?”
The Athletics were the first team to heavily rely on sabermetrics, though the concepts they used had been developed decades earlier. Bill James, generally considered the most influential baseball statistician ever, began his writing in the late 70s. Yet it wasn’t until the events written about in “Moneyball” that his ideas began to gain acceptance inside the baseball establishment. Since then, the sport has been drastically and permanently changed by the application of these concepts. There is not a single team that does not have some degree of reliance on sabermetrics and mathematical modeling. Baseball seems to have left the steroids era and entered the statistics era. The change has been so sweeping that in 2006 TIME magazine went further than calling Bill James the most influential baseball statistician, and named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
The importance of sabermetrics in understanding the game of baseball is undeniable, but teams that rely too heavily on these measures and ignore the “intangibles” may wind up regretting it. One of the notable inaccuracies in the film version of “Moneyball” is the suggestion that Jeremy Giambi was brought to the Athletics as part of the sweeping 2002 changes, when in fact he was already with them as part of the 2001 team. The Athletics had been incorporating Bill James’ ideas for years prior to 2002, though the movie does not make this clear. Beane touted Giambi’s ability to get on base over the raised eyebrows of some of the supposedly clueless scouts who had concerns about Giambi’s locker room influence and off the field reputation as a party animal. Eventually, Beane himself became fed up with Giambi’s antics and traded him in spite of the strong objections of his assistants in charge of the statistics project. In the following months, the trade began to seem like an excellent move; John Mabry came to the Athletics and made some major offensive contributions while Giambi bounced around with a couple teams and was out of the majors by 2003. So this particular success during that storied season actually had nothing to do with objective statistics and would not have happened had Beane listened to the number crunchers.
For more examples of the shortcomings of relying too heavily on statistics, look no further than the Seattle Mariners under recently fired GM Jack Zduriencik. One of his most notable failures was the signing of free agent Chone Figgins in December 2009. This move was made just over a year after Zduriencik’s hiring, with the Mariners coming off of a stretch of awful seasons under GM Bill Bavasi, whose tenure is usually described as disastrous for the Mariners - on many levels. Zduriencik was touted as the person who could rebuild the Mariners using sabermetric ideas much like Beane did for the Athletics. Local media and bloggers hailed the Chone Figgins signing as a solid move that was a bright omen of good things to come for the Mariners under Zduriencik. Figgins had a strong season in 2007, and even though he was 31 years old, his production didn’t seem likely to drop off so drastically that it would make the Mariners regret the signing. But that is exactly what happened. Figgins declined so drastically that he lasted only one season as an everyday player, and his most notable highlight as a Mariner was an infamous dugout scuffle with former Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu.
In all fairness to Zduriencik, few people could have seen the Figgins signing going as poorly as it did. Yet I wonder what those stodgy old scouts from “Moneyball” would have had to say about the move. I imagine they would have called the move risky, saying Figgins was too old and too small. They might have grumbled that he was a bit mercurial, and that aging undersized players don’t tend to have careers that last long into their 30s. The supposedly sabermetric savvy Zduriencik got this one wrong, and so did the sabermetric obsessed Seattle baseball media.
Perhaps more baffling was former Mariner Dustin Ackley’s inability to build on his successful 2011 rookie season in which he played 90 games and was in the conversation for rookie of the year. Scouts, coaches and statisticians all agreed in this case: Dustin Ackley was a sure bet, and likely a future all-star. After those first 90 games however, everything went downhill for Ackley. This is where the statisticians were left scratching their heads, but the coaches and old-school scouts exchanged knowing frowns. Ackley had been brought up to the majors at the too young age of 23. He bounced from position to position, infield to outfield, majors to minors. Zduriencik’s treatment of Ackley seemed at many times to show that he had little faith in the former No. 2 overall draft pick. Any coach will say that this is no way to develop a player, and yet many statistics buffs simply couldn’t understand why Ackley was not having the success they had predicted. Ackley admitted to having confidence problems, and it really shouldn’t be surprising, in hindsight, that he was doomed under Zduriencik’s system.
Eventually Zduriencik had so many trades and signings fail to pan out that some former staffers and local reporters openly questioned in the Seattle Times if he had lied about his statistical background and knowledge when hired by the Mariners. Kevin Mather, the Mariners team president, gave a different reason for the lack of success upon Zduriencik’s firing, however. On a local sports radio talk show, he emphasized that it was Zduriencik’s organizational leadership, rather than the team’s disappointing performance on the field in 2015 that led to the change. This seems to hit closer to the truth. Under Zduriencik, players appearing to have bright futures according to sabermetricians, simply failed to develop. Old-fashioned baseball wisdom holds that bringing young players to the major leagues too early can ruin their confidence and cause long-term underperformance. This seemed to play out time and again under Zduriencik. Players were bounced from position to position in a way that almost seemed to suggest that Zduriencik was desperately trying to recreate the Athletics’ success in 2002 when they famously converted Scott Hatterberg from catcher to first base. Instead, these changes constantly kept players struggling to learn unfamiliar skills, unsure of their role on the team and unable to develop to their full potential.
Hollywood’s interpretation of “Moneyball” appears to have gone a bit over the top in its rejection of the old methods in baseball; the book offers a more in depth and balanced view that may better illustrate the keys to success in this brave new baseball world. While equally scathing in its treatment of major league scouting, the book casts the knowledge and wisdom of coaches and managers in a more positive light. It would seem that in the statistics era it is the teams that have been able to combine an understanding of baseball’s human factors with the insights offered by computer models and statistics, which are the teams that have success. My beloved Mariners meanwhile are stuck struggling to find a happy medium between old and new.