Sunday, June 21, 2009

The death of Moneyball, as a film and an idea?

Some interesting news came out this evening. Apparently, Columbia Pictures decided to cancel [Will Brinson, FanHouse] the upcoming movie of Michael Lewis' famed book Moneyball at the last minute, only a few days before shooting was set to start. It's rare to see that kind of cancellation so close to production on any film, but even more unusual when it's a big-ticket film involving the likes of Brad Pitt and director Steven Soderbergh. Apparently, the studio didn't like the direction Soderbergh was taking the project. There's a chance the film could still get picked up by someone else; we'll have to wait and see on that front.

This is a somewhat unfortunate move in my mind. Moneyball was a brilliant book, and one that truly revolutionized how many segments of people—from print journalists to television personalities to fans, bloggers, and even team executives—approached baseball. Its influence spread beyond baseball to other leagues, and it dramatically changed the sporting landscape. It encouraged unconventional thinking and analysis and played a key role in popularizing the sabermetrics movement. It's the main reason I labelled Lewis as the Elvis of the sports world a while back, and he fits the moniker much better than even Bill Simmons' candidate, Houston Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey. I wasn't sure that Moneyball would translate to the big screen all that well, but it would have been interesting to see in any case. There certainly aren't many sports movies being made these days, either, so losing one of the few high-profile ones known to be in development isn't a good sign for the sports film scene.

It's also somewhat apt, though. The film's currently in limbo. Its future with Columbia appears dead, but there may be other studios interested in giving it new life. In my mind, that same process has happened with Moneyball as a whole. At its heart, Moneyball described how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his staff couldn't afford to compete with the clubs with bigger budgets for the top free agents, so they had to find another way to win. They did so by spotting players who were productive, but undervalued, most notably players with relatively low batting averages and relatively high on-base percentages, and then acquiring those players cheaply.It's simple economics; if there's a limited supply of traditionally valued players and a significant demand, they'll be expensive, but if you can find players with close to as much value and lower demand for their services, you can achieve similar results.

Beane and his staff did very well with this philosophy, winning 90 or more games every year from 2000 to 2004 and 80 or more games from 1999 (the year after Beane succeeded Sandy Alderson as the A's full general manager) to 2006, despite minuscule payrolls, a lack of high draft picks and not many players traditionally thought of as top-end talent. Some have used the A's lack of playoff success during that period (they lost in the first round four times and in the American League Championship Series once) as a knock on the Moneyball approach, but that criticism is flawed; just making the playoffs in baseball is tough enough, for one thing, and short playoff series have a small enough sample size that even far better teams will still lose quite a lot of the time (as David Berri explains wonderfully here). In short, the Moneyball approach worked very well for the A's from 1999 to 2006.

Since then, however, things have gone downhill for Oakland. They suffered through losing seasons in 2007 and 2008, and appear likely to have another one this year. That's not an indictment of Beane, as he's still doing quite well with limited resources and the team has suffered its fair share of injuries and free agency departures over that period as well (see Swisher, Nick, a first-round draft pick covered in Moneyball who had significant success
with the A's, but left for the White Sox in 2008 and is now with the Yankees). It is a reflection that the Moneyball strategy no longer works in the form it once did.

It goes back to simple economics again. As the most basic example, before Moneyball came out in 2003, there was a significant supply of the high on-base percentage, lower batting average players favoured by Beane's approach and relatively little demand for them. After Moneyball, almost everyone from fans to team executives realized that these guys were worth more than they thought. Several guys with a background on the statistics side got jobs as major-league general managers (including Beane assistant J.P. Ricciardi, now the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays), with many more being hired as assistant general managers and consultants; most of them quickly started adopting some of the strategies that had worked well for Beane. Even executives who don't seem to place a high value on OBP in practice give it at least lip service (see Moore, Dayton, who Joe Posnanski comments on here), resulting in significantly more demand for these kind of players. This increased demand means these players achieve a market value more suited to their skills, and thus can no longer be acquired cheaply. When everyone's doing it, it isn't an unconventional strategy any more. Thus, the idea of Moneyball along the specific terms expressed in the book is largely dead; the OBP approach in particular still has plenty of value and is a good idea for many teams, but it's no longer really a cheap way to win.

However, the larger idea behind Moneyball is very much alive and ticking despite the claims of some curmudgeons. The book's central thesis was that you can build an effective professional sports franchise cheaply by finding and exploiting market deficiencies, and that's still very true. In baseball, one way we've seen this lately is in teams' evaluations of players' defensive prowess, which used to be largely based on eyesight and spectacular, highlight-reel plays. Defensive statistics still have a way to go, but such statistics as Michael Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating (fully explained here, explained more simply here) and John Dewan's +/- system (explained here) allowed for a more detailed evaluation of players' fielding performances and gave some teams that picked up on them early the chance to sweep up undervalued defenders. I'm sure Beane and his fellow unconventional thinkers have plenty of other ideas in the works as well.

In hockey, guys like Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis have tried to apply a similar "Moneypuck" strategy for finding underrated players and have discussed in detail [Iain McIntyre, Vancouver Sun] how Beane inspired them, plus there's been a surge in new statistical analysis as exemplified by such sites as Gabriel Desjardins' Behind The Net. Basketball's also witnessed a statistical revolution and an increased application of unconventional insight, led by the likes of John Hollinger and the aforementioned David Berri. Even Lewis got in on the act this year with a tremendous piece on the Rockets' Shane Battier.

Statistical analysis have taken on a large role in football as well, as shown by the work of writers like KC Joyner (who I interviewed here) and Aaron Schatz; I still argue that there's room for much more unconventional thinking in the sport, though. Lewis also discussed some of the historical changes in the game wrought by unconventional analysis in his book The Blind Side (a few of which I analyzed over at The Good Point), which has already been made into a film scheduled to be released later this year.

These, and the numerous other examples out there, demonstrate that large numbers of people have caught on to the basic idea of exploiting market deficiencies to build a successful franchise. They'll likely take it in many different ways, and only some of them will pan out. However, this is proof that the principles behind Lewis' book linger on despite the specific examples perhaps petering out. Like the film, reports of the death of the ideas behind the book may have been greatly exaggerated, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain. Moneyball is dead: long live Moneyball!


  1. I think one other thing hurting Beane and the Athletics is the infusion of smart guys into Major League Baseball front offices. It is even pointed out in "Moneyball" - Some kid in the Red Sox front office begs them to not include Kevin Youkilis in a deal for Urbina and Floyd. That kid was kind of smart; his name was Theo Epstein.

    While Beane still does make good usage of his resources, the Angels finally using their financial leverage and the replacement of "baseball" guys in front offices with actual thinkers has definitely cut into his ability to exploit the market.

  2. Good write-up. I'm sad that movie was canceled; I was actually looking forward to seeing it.

    And I agree with Steve; the book's success ultimately caused Beane's failure. Market deficiencies are only exploitable if you're the only one who knows that the market's deficient; when the knowledge is out there, the market corrects itself.

  3. Excellent points, guys. It's amazing how many of the stats types are either running the show or close to the top in sports organizations these days, and that's quite a reflection of how they've changed the game. Some of those changes were already on the way pre-Moneyball, but it certainly helped expose them to a wider audience and made it acceptable for teams to try that approach.

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