'Moneyball' champions ideas, not orders

Does the mere existence of 'Moneyball' the movie mean that the book is obsolete? Not yet, at least as the ideas and philosophy live on. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, October 7, 2011—If one was to watch the movie version of Moneyball without any prior knowledge of Major League Baseball circa 2001-2003, it would be very easy for to come away with some mistaken impressions. The biggest is a prototypical movie attitude, namely, that the team in question won because a cast of misfits came together.

In real life, as the book Moneyball explains, the core of the 2002 Oakland Athletics didn’t entirely fit into the principles espoused by the front office. In fact, there was a major organizational disparity surrounding the on-base percentage philosophy. 

At the heart of the 2002 Oakland offense were two infielders: shortstop Miguel Tejada and third baseman Eric Chavez. To say that they weren’t cast-offs is not an understatement; rather, it’s a fact. Both swung for the fences first, and took walks second, in the case of Chavez, or last, in the case of Tejada.

Their patience numbers were in sharp contrast to those of the players who filled “Giambi’s Hole.” But that didn’t get in their way en route to driving 34 homeruns apiece in ’02. Only walking 38 times certainly didn’t hurt Tejada in terms of individual accomplishments – he won the 2002 AL MVP Award over Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano.

One doesn’t even need to touch on the pitching staff that held Oakland together through consecutive playoff appearances. At their best, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito were as good as any top three to take the mound on the same team. So, while the risks taken on hitters like Scott Hatteberg and David Justice did pay off, the real foundation of the 2002 A’s was either on the mound or in conflict with organizational hitting philosophy.

Assembling a team from the scrap heap, while only using players with the qualities that the front office was searching for and staying within a low payroll, wouldn’t have worked to the extent of a 20-game winning streak. 

This all begs the question: Can a playoff team be assembled with the principles espoused in Moneyball, while relying on a low payroll cap?

The easy answer is that it’s no longer possible because the specific principles of Moneyball have gone mainstream. And that is the heart of the true Moneyball story. The purpose of Moneyball was not to publish a bible of how to run a baseball team. It was not to chronicle the 2002 Oakland Athletics. It was a testament to the power of new ideas. That is how Moneyball has impacted the game, and how it will continue to do the same. Everything is a tale of exploiting inefficiencies.

On-base percentage is no longer an inefficiency. It’s the new discoveries that keep the book relevant, even as the original philosophy continues to adapt.


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Arjuna Subramanian

Arjuna Subramanian is an aspiring baseball writer living in the Washington D.C. area.  He started his writing  with his blog Painting The Black on MLBlogs in May of 2009.  He fell in love with the sabermetric movement during the 2008-2009 offseason, and strives to provide balanced articles from both sides of the statistics/scouting divide.  

When not writing, watching/listening to baseball, over-analyzing his Chicago Cubs, staring in disbelief at the writing of Thomas Boswell, or keeping tabs on the latest Milton Bradley blowup, he can usually be found at the DC Fencers Club, where he is a competitive epee fencer.

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