Bennett Miller has made an excellent film out of Michael Lewis's book documenting Billy Beane's revolutionary experiment of trying to construct a championship team on a modest budget compared to the teams fielded by the nation's large cities.
The story as told in the film: The Oakland Athletics actually had a very good season the year before Beane launched his experiment, but then all their "free agent" stars were spirited away by other clubs who were able to offer much higher salaries, and the Athletics had to rebuild from scratch with a relatively low budget. Latching on to a newly-emerging theory about how "On Base Percentage" was the most important statistic in building a team capable of winning a league championship, Beane pursued a strategy of identifying undervalued (i.e., "cheap") players and assembling them into a team that could win over the long haul. They were cheap because their traditional batting averages were not high, and they were not big home run hitters are extraordinary fielders, but under this theory that really didn't count. Over the long haul of a 162 game season, the team with the consistently highest on base percentage for its regular position players was going to emerge at the top of the league, because ultimately all that counts is producing more runs than the opposition.
Beane appeared to have succeeded. Replacing his missing stars with undervalued journeyman position players whose average "on base percentage" was higher than those of the departing stars, he produced a team that set a new major league record for consecutive wins (winning 20 straight in the midst of the season) and shot to the top of the American League Western Division – once Beane had taken somewhat extreme steps of front-office interference with the decisions of the field manager, ultimately forcing manager Art Howe to play the individuals Beane wanted by dint of trading away the players Howe preferred to use. Once that change was made, the team suddenly started putting together winning streaks.
The problem with this "moneyball" theory was that while it would work over the long haul of a season, because that's how such statistical odds work, it would not necessarily work in the short haul of the divisional or league play-off series, when lucky breaks count for a lot and players are tired from the long season. So Beane's team lost out in the play-offs, and his teams have continued to do so. One of the problems with the theory, of course, is that once one team showed that it could be a successful strategy for getting to the play-offs, copycats started to emerge, gradually leveling the playing field. The Boston Red Sox used the theory to finally break the jinx that had haunted them since they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees and made it to the World Series, where they won Boston's first pennant since early in the 20th century.
We'll see a test of the idea this year: the New York Yankees have now clinched first place in the American League Eastern Division with only one regular position player batting over .300 and no pictchers with 20 wins. The victorious season over the long haul was built out of a line-up of people who got on base a lot, good relief pitching, and baseball's greatest closer. How will this hold up in the crucible of the short divisional and league play-off series? We'll see….
Meanwhile – to the film. I never read the book so I don't know how faithful the film is, but I know that Brad Pitt's performance as Billy Beane is extraordinarily good, eerily realistic. The supporting cast is uniformly strong. The direction, pacing, cinematography, special effects (there must have been quite a bit of work to make those baseball game excerpts appear so convincing) all come together to tell a compelling story. Jonah Hill as the affectless statistics geek who provides the data-crunching for Beane's strategy is marvelous. I realize that "baseball films" don't do well unless they are really about something else. Well, this film is, in a sense, really about something else. It's about a man's struggle to change a system of thinking, to focus on facts instead of mythology. It might even be a metaphor for our national political struggle, in which a faith-based administration was followed by a fact-based administration – which has trouble advancing the ball because enough of the faith-based crowd remain in control of Congress… Until the U.S. is ready to play moneyball, can we really solve the recession….?
OK, I spoke a bit too soon above. Just checked the Yankees box score on this afternoon’s game (played while I was at the movies) and see Jeter’s batting average for the year is now exactly .300. If he stays hot through the week, he could end up over .300, which would really be magnificent. We’ll see….