If you know anything about baseball — or statistics — Moneyball is an aggravating moviegoing experience.
I knew I was going to have a problem with Moneyball even before I went to see it this past weekend. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s an entertaining movie. Nevertheless I had a problem with the movie and the reason I had a problem with the movie is because I have a problem with the book on which the movie is based.
Moneyball was written by Michael Lewis, a former bond trader who became a literary sensation in 1989 with Liar’s Poker, an account of his time on Wall Street. In Moneyball, Lewis turns his attention to the economics of Major League Baseball. At the time of its release in 2003, the Oakland Athletics were in the midst of reaching the postseason for the fourth consecutive year despite having a payroll of less than $40 million. The New York Yankees by comparison had a payroll three times that size. Lewis spent the 2002 season following the innerworkings of the Athletics organization and in particular their general manager Billy Beane.
Now when I think about the 2000-2003 Oakland Athletics three names spring to mind — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. This triumvirate was the mainstay of arguably the most talented starting rotation in all of MLB. While they alone were not responsible for the success of the Athletics during that period they deserve a great deal of the credit. In 2001, the Athletics won 102 games. Hudson, Mulder and Zito won 56 of those games. The following season, despite losing Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isiringhausen to free agency, Oakland won 102 games with Hudson, Mulder and Zito winning 57 of those games. Yet they were scarcely mentioned in the book.
I brought this up with Lewis when he made an appearance in Cambridge at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square to give a talk about Moneyball shortly after its release. “Talking about the Oakland Athletics without discussing Hudson, Mulder and Zito is like talking about the Atlanta Braves without discussing Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz,” I said. Needless to say, Lewis seemed rather annoyed with my observation and yet could not come up with any adequate explanation as to why he devoted so little attention to this trio. Well, they get even less attention in the movie. In fact, aside from stock footage of Hudson getting hit hard by the Kansas City Royals in pursuit of their MLB record 20th consecutive win late in the 2002 season, there is no acknowledgment of them at all.
If you watched Moneyball this weekend, you might be under the impression that the A’s won the American League West in 2002 on the strength of Scott Hatteberg’s ability to get on base. Hatteberg had been a backup catcher with the Boston Red Sox but could not throw the ball after sustaining nerve damage in his elbow. Following the 2001 season, the Red Sox traded Hatteberg to the Colorado Rockies for infielder Pokey Reese. But less than 48 hours later, the Rockies granted Hatteberg free agency when he rejected a 50 percent pay cut. Hatteberg’s baseball career appeared to be over. What team would want a catcher who couldn’t throw? Well, it turned out the Athletics were very interested in Hatteberg. Not as a catcher but as a first baseman — even though Hatteberg had never played the position. The Athletics weren’t interested in Hatteberg’s defensive skills at first base (he had none) but rather his ability to get on base.
You see, unlike every other organization in MLB at the time, Billy Beane and the front office staff in Oakland embraced the ideas espoused by Bill James, a onetime night watchman at the Stokely Van Camp pork & beans factory in Lawrence, Kansas whose interpretation of baseball statistics became known as “sabermetrics” in honor of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). In various editions of the The Bill James Baseball Abstract which he first released in mimeograph form in 1977, James argued that offensive statistics like on-base percentage and slugging percentage were undervalued while offensive statistics like batting average and stolen bases were overvalued. Well, James’ work begat a generation of “sabermetrician” organizations like Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Think Factory and The Hardball Times.
On base percentage (OBP) statistics are to sabermetricians what images of 38 DDs are to adolescent boys. As it was put in the movie by Peter Brand (a fictional character based on then Athletics assistant general manager Paul DePodesta, played by Jonah Hill), “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. In order buy wins, you need to buy runs.” OBP was the currency the Athletics used to pay for runs.
Yet just because you can get on base doesn’t mean you are going to score runs. In 2002, Hatteberg had the 14th best OBP in the AL at .374. He finished one percentage point ahead of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Yet Jeter scored more than twice as many runs as Hatteberg (124 to 58) that year. Now an argument can be made that Jeter had more opportunities to score runs because he played in 21 more games and had 162 more plate appearances than Hatteberg. Indeed, Jeter reached base nearly sixty more times than did Hatteberg (271 to 212). But if you divide the number of times each player reached base (hits, walks and hit by pitch) by the number of runs they scored then you find that Jeter scored nearly half the time he was on base while Hatteberg scored just a little over one quarter of his time on base. Translated into a percentage (runs scored percentage or RSP), Jeter had a RSP in ‘02 of .458 compared to .274 for Hatteberg. So what good is OBP if you can’t score runs? It is but one of many reasons why I find Moneyball to be off base.
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