The Trouble with the Moneyball Movie

Michael Lewis’ influential book Moneyball was primarily about how by exploiting market inefficiencies small market baseball teams can close the gap with larger market teams and remain competitive despite the uneven playing field on which they are forced to compete. This lesson is obviously applicable in other professional endeavors as well. The book has too frequently been conflated simply with the movement towards more rigorous quantitative analysis of baseball in general. While this was part of the book, it was not really Lewis’ main theme. Lewis himself is not an innovative baseball statistician, but his work has helped popularize ideas which people like Bill James began working on about a quarter of a century before Moneyball was written.

The illustrative case on which Lewis focused was Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s during the early part of the last decade. This made sense given that in the first years of this century Beane was probably baseball’s most innovative general manager and also had an interesting style and personal story. The A’s were a small market team enjoying real success due in no small part to Beane and the team he had assembled in Oakland. However, the book was not so much about Beane and the A’s, but about how they transformed some of the ideas about market inefficiencies into winning strategies for putting together a baseball team.

The movie version of Moneyball, probably due to the necessity of building some kind of dramatic story, pays more attention to Beane and the tension between him and his scouts, rather than to the concepts which underlay Beane’s approach. The problem with this approach is that the movie suggests that Beane’s strategy won out over that of the scouts, thus allowing the A’s to succeed in 2003.

The reality of 2003 was different. The five best players on that A’s team: pitchers Tim Hudson (6.6 WAR), Barry Zito (6.5 WAR) and Mark Mulder (4.3 WAR), shortstop Miguel Tejada (5.8 WAR), and third baseman Eric Chavez (3.6 WAR) were all products of the A’s farm system. They had all been drafted or signed and developed due to the work of the A’s scouting and player development teams. The combined salaries in 2002 for all five of these players was a paltry $7.8 million. Seven members of the New York Yankees each earned more than that in 2002. Given that, perhaps the scene early in the movie where the scouts ask to have their views on how to fill the hole left at first base and the middle of the lineup by Jason Giambi’s departure taken into consideration, might have been a little more sympathetic to the scouts.

While the argument that in 2002 players who walk a lot were undervalued by the market and could be acquired cheaply is true, the decision to use Scott Hatteberg over Carlos Pena, the primary example used to demonstrate this in the movie is less obviously correct. Hatteberg may have been slightly better offensively than Pena in 2002, but from 2003-2008, Pena was generally better than Hatteberg, Dan Johnson, Daric Burton or whoever else was playing first base for the A’s. The only exception was in 2006 when Pena was hurt. Moreover, Pena’s salary stayed below $3 million until 2008.

To some extent, crafting the film this way was necessary to tell the Billy Beane story, but the result was to make a better movie for everybody except the serious baseball fan. I kept watching the movie wondering where Tejada, Zito, Mulder and the others were. Chavez had some dialog but nothing to suggest how good a player he was during those years. Although, it could not have been the intent of the filmmakers, these omissions make it possible to question the ideas guiding Beane and lend more credibility to those who belittle what has come to be known as the Moneyball approach to baseball and who are suspicious of any number more complex than batting average, wins and RBIs.