Sunday, June 15, 2014

Moneyball Imitates Lifeball

As published in The County Times ( in May 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

I am way behind on movies.  The origin of my cinematic delinquency is my daughter’s birth a decade ago.  The arrival of a second demon a few years later didn’t help.  Kids, fatherhood and movie watching don’t mix – unless they are the Disney variety.  Otherwise there are simply too many diapers to change, fights to referee and extracurricular activities to support.  But a recent cross-country flight provided an opportunity to throw on an adult flick (no, not that kind) and Moneyball was crossed off my short list of films to watch when my most precious resource – time - allows.

Moneyball is a documentary of sorts on the Oakland A’s, General Manager Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) and the usage of Sabermetrics (advanced statistical analysis) to evaluate player performance and determine best-value acquisitions.  Stubborn adherence to the theory has enabled the A’s – a small market team with a fraction of the payroll of financial behemoths like the Yankees or Dodgers – to absorb the loss of several high-priced free agents and remain perennial contenders.  In fact, as of this writing, the A’s have the most wins in the American League (AL) and are in first place in AL West.

The magic of Sabermetrics is that it places value on stuff – skills, attributes and contributions – not immediately apparent or interesting to the naked eye.  It has made statistics like Wins Above Replacement (WAR) part of baseball lexicon and forced junkies of the game of consider if a player’s On-Base Percentage (yawn) is actually more important to team success than homeruns.  Sabermetrics is about raw data.  There’s no emotional component.  Sabermetrics doesn’t over-value Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter based on name recognition or marketability.  It doesn’t know the reputations or salaries of “Player A” or “Player B.”  It doesn’t care.  Advanced statistical analysis is all about identifying assets that will make a comparative contributions to victories – period. 

But, as Hunter S. Thompson might say, “enough about that” (baseball, that is).  Moneyball is a movie about Sabermetrics and baseball; it’s just not only about Sabermetrics and baseball.  Simply put, and “As the Spreadsheet Turns”, sometimes spending the most money on the sexiest players is a wise move; sometimes it’s fool’s gold. Sometimes the best players are the fastest, throw the hardest and hit the farthest. Occasionally, though, such visual superlatives are non-substantive window dressing.  They are illusions. Tricks. 

Does that sound familiar?  Useful?  Does it feel like a test?  Sabermetrics – a theory that judges on substance and not what immediately romanticizes the flawed human eye – begs to be applied in our everyday assessment of people, whether they’ve ever swung a bat or not.  There’s no specific statistic or formula for people-evaluation, per se, but the concept of Sabermetrics – avoid the distraction of eye-popping traits - translates.  Is the best spouse the most attractive or wealthy?  Is the flashiest dresser and smoothest talker the best choice for a critical professional project?  Will the pursuit of the coolest people, those with beneficial connections, the most Facebook “friends” and Twitter followers really produce the best friendships?  The answer is maybe – if luck smiles upon thee.  But the best value, the optimal person for “the job” – spouse, friend, business associate, etc. – is more likely the quiet, unassuming gem lurking below the radar.

In a poignant scene from Moneyball, Bean was in the Cleveland Indians’ GM’s office negotiating a trade.  Surrounded and outnumbered by graybeard executives, Bean nonetheless noticed that with each offer the GM communicated non-verbally with an out-of-place young man in the room that looked like an accountant six months removed from graduation.  After finalizing the deal, the group dispersed, but Bean hunted down the non-descript stats weenie in cubicle-ville.  He knew “the kid” – not the GM or flashy scouts – was the true star.  After a brief discussion on player analysis, Bean hired the young lad, brought him to Oakland and Sabermetrics was born.  Bean, in a way, used Sabermetrics in its more powerful form - to judge people - before using it in its more traditional way - to judge baseball players. 

Here’s to channeling our inner Billy Bean - and to choosing wisely. 

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