On the eve of the 2021 World Series, in perhaps the most exciting baseball postseason in years, one of the buzzwords spread around the most is “Moneyball.”
The book about data analytics and baseball is one of the most revered sports stories, yet it’s amazing how so many readers and moviegoers who saw the Brad Pitt film keep getting the message wrong.
A top college football coach “says the movie ‘Moneyball’ spoke directly to him when scouts were talking about how the lack of an attractive girlfriend can indicate a player has confidence issues.” He added in that radio interview “I’ve been saying it for a long time, I will not hire an assistant until I see his wife.” He later apologized and said he didn’t mean to offend anyone.
Sadly, this football coach must not have watched the movie closely, because that is the exact opposite lesson from “Moneyball”. It’s what the scouts were saying who were running the team into the ground, the ones executive Billy Beane challenged to get out of their unsubstantiated myths about success, the ones who focused on rippling muscles and video highlight home runs, instead of the real statistics, talent and ability that played a greater role in a team’s success.
Armchair gurus are quick to take what they think the lessons of the “Moneyball” book and movie are, and misapply them just as badly. “Their new mantra is to reduce costs as much as possible, and that means cutting team payroll to the bone.”
Really? By that logic, the Baltimore Orioles should be playing the Pittsburgh Pirates this year in the World Series, or we could be treated to another Cleveland Indians vs. Miami Marlins series. Instead, those teams were 2021 cellar-dwellers.
So does that mean “Moneyball” is wrong? It is if you think it’s only about cost-cutting.
“What are we doing here?” is the quote I most frequently give to my sports-loving classes full of athletes who love the book, regardless of race or gender. That’s because the theme isn’t about cutting salaries or laying off people. It’s about setting goals, having a plan, using data analytics to achieve it. Oakland had few fans and lost free agents, and chose a particular strategy to get on base, get wins, and get the fans back. The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, flush with cash, tradition and cool ballparks, spent plenty, and hired Theo Epstein, a young baseball executive linked to “Moneyball” in the movie, who broke both teams’ longtime championship curses.
But he didn’t do it alone with an obsession for numbers. He knew the human element too, the key ingredient most people forget to add, from “Moneyball.” Here’s what he told Yale students:
“He said that he came around to realizing the choice between how ‘some players—and some of us—go through our careers with our heads down … protecting our individual interests’ while ‘other players—and others amongst us—go through our careers with our heads up … putting collective interests ahead of our own.’” It’s about that common goal, and doing what’s needed to achieve it, according to an article about Epstein in Forbes Magazine.
“I still think data is important; it can give you some empirical facts about a player. Objectivity is important, but you have to combine it with an understanding of the player as a human being. Chemistry is really hard to pinpoint. It's really hard to discern the magic formula.”
Anyone watching the special Atlanta Braves team of 2021 can see it in this special season. It wasn’t about paying the most, the least, or only number-crunching. Their organization put a team on the field that emphasized defense, pitching, timely hitting, and a clubhouse where celebrating is infectious. Hopefully, defenders and critics, of Moneyball will learn those lessons.