The movie Moneyball hits theatres on Friday, just in time for the end of the Toronto Blue Jays season, and I’m sorry: Any movie fixated on the acquisition of Ricardo Rincon seems to whisper available on DVD.
Still, reviews have been favourable, give or take the fudging of dates or the odd detail – as favourable as any storyline can be when it essentially ends with Sisyphus getting squashed by the same boulder three or four times. There’s no happy ending. There’s no sad ending. There’s just third place. For this, Billy Beane gets to be played by Brad Pitt?
It is hard for baseball people to approach this as a .500 topic. The book on which it was based, written by Michael Lewis, detailed how as Oakland Athletics general manager, Beane, used all manner of statistics coupled with a brazen nature to exploit what Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos rightly identified as “market inefficiencies.”
The problem with Moneyball is the narrative became a cliché within the game: Being a Moneyball guy meant you hated scouts, loved fat white players who went to college and worshipped statistics thought up by guys with greasy hair who kept pet amphibians in their parents bathtubs. In Toronto, the Toronto Star fretted that then-GM. J.P. Ricciardi’s adherence to Moneyball principles – specifically drafting collegians – was turning the Jays into “The White Jays.” It was a battle of gross oversimplifications; effectively, a civil war pitting old-timers versus new-fangled guys, spilling over into the media. It was a battle of Marriott points, with the winner getting the window seat in the concierge lounge in Minneapolis or St. Louis or wherever.
Despite being a bright young guy with a college degree and limited playing pedigree, Anthopoulos, whose status as an employee of the Montreal Expos in 2002 and 2003 helped him avoid the crossfire, does not believe he was automatically lumped into the pro- Moneyball clique when he started working for Ricciardi in 2004.
“I don’t think everybody who was young was automatically looked at as being a Moneyball guy,” Anthopoulos said Thursday, as the Blue Jays closed the home portion of their 2011 schedule. “As clubs hired statistical analysts, those people that were hired were looked at as being Moneyball. But there were young people like me who were scouting, too. That’s how I started; I wasn’t hired as a statistical analyst.”
Anthopoulos has read the book. He has not seen the movie. “The fact that it [ Moneyball] spawned a debate isn’t such a bad thing,” Anthopoulos said. “It doesn’t mean it was or is right. But why not evaluate yourself? My understanding has always been that it’s about exploiting inefficiencies in markets. Does it need to be stat versus scout? I don’t know. It seems to me it’s a microcosm of every competitive situation anywhere in life. Everybody’s always trying to exploit market inefficiencies.”
Under Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays have returned to the scouting ethos that is part of the organizations DNA, put in place by Pat Gillick and Paul Beeston. But Anthopoulos views it as a matter of common sense as much as philosophy.
“All teams have access to the same statistics,” he said. “Not everyone has access to somebody else’s eyes or brains. I mean, you and I might have the numbers in front of us, but if I have the better evaluator? You can’t compete with that.”
Beane’s Oakland Athletics owed their success by and large to three young, stud starting pitchers: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. That factor is underplayed in Lewis’ book and apparently all but overlooked in the movie and that is a significant flaw, since young, cost-effective starting pitching has never been as important as it is at a time when the game is going through an offensive detoxification as a result of testing for performance enhancing drugs and amphetamines. That is the continuum from Moneyball that rings most true; that can be seen in the Tampa Bay Rays and in what Anthopoulos is trying in Toronto.
The happiest ending comes when a team drafts well and develops well and has an owner willing to spend money to cover up mistakes in evaluation. But in the meantime, as Anthopoulos asked, why limit yourself philosophically? Stats versus scouts? Who says you need to choose? “It’s like operating with one eye closed,” Anthopoulos said. “Why would you do that?”