Moneyball: Brad Pitt Movie Reignites Debate over Statistics in Baseball

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterSeptember 23, 2011

Brad Pitt plays Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball".
Brad Pitt plays Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball".

Regardless of what you think of Brad Pitt as Billy Beane or Jonah Hill as a Paul DePodesta stand-in, Moneyball should give baseball fans pause to consider how the game has changed in recent years.

The film, and the book by Michael Lewis on which is it's based, isn't really about how the Oakland Athletics managed to win more than 100 games in consecutive seasons with one of the lowest payrolls in MLB. Rather, it's about challenging orthodoxy and conventional wisdom, and how doing so serves to stimulate and enliven debate, especially in sports.

Especially in one as fiercely dogmatic as baseball. 

It's been nearly a decade since Beane and DePodesta mainstreamed the mathematical musings of statistician and baseball nerd Bill James by putting them into practice with a real, live baseball team. Nearly every front office in baseball employs some form and degree of sabermetric analysis, some to greater effect than others.

For journalists and pundits, deciding the most valuable player in the league no longer comes down to a simple calculation of who has the best combination of batting average, homers and runs batted, just as picking a Cy Young Award winner now extends far beyond wins, earned-run average and strikeouts. Sabermetric stats like wins above replacement (WAR), value over replacement player (VORP) and ERA+ have weaseled their way into the discussion and forced traditionalists to reconsider the meaning of "value" and what makes a particular pitcher or player more outstanding than his peers.

What the story of Moneyball has done is given us a chance to look back in time and consider the evolution and convergence of sports and the scientific method in the 21st century. The complex statistical analysis that helped the small-market, small-money A's get the most bang for their buck has permeated nearly every facet of mainstream sport, including football, basketball and hockey.

And though sabermetrics remains a befuddling mystery to most, it has, since its introduction into major professional sports, become much more accessible to your Average Joe. More importantly, though, sabermetrics has added a new dimension to timeless debates within each sport that it has found a home.

No longer is sabermetrics—as a discipline, as a way of thinking about things on an analytical level, as a way of describing and explaining what we observe—reserved for only the privileged few with the time, money and resources to put it into practice professionally. Now, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can go to fangraphs.com, hoopsstats.com, footballoutsiders.com, baseballprospectus.com and any number of other sports statistics websites to get their fix of sabermetric analysis and think like Billy Beane.

PHOENIX - MARCH 03:  General manager Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics talks on the phone during the MLB Spring Training game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on March 3, 2006 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Brewers defeated the A's
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It's still easy, though, for baseball purists to brush aside Beane's accomplishments as mere luck, as an aberration washed asunder by the the overriding and overwhelming tides of the sport. After all, the A's haven't won the World Series since Beane took over in 1998 and haven't put together a winning season, much less earned a playoff berth, since 2006.

But to simply overlook what Beane and DePodesta accomplished because their unconventional methods didn't net the ultimate prize is to miss the point entirely. The impact they had, in entering the brilliance of Bill James into the Zeitgeist of modern sport, will last far longer and spread far wider than any single pennant could ever hope to.

Not only in the minds of front office brain trusts or the memory banks of computers, but also in the hearts of fans and sports-lovers everywhere.



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