In 2003, Michael Lewis published a book about Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane called Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which pointed out that because Beane utilized sabermetrics (which is the belief baseball needs to involve as much math as possible) he was smart, whereas other general managers who did stuff like “listening to their scouts” were dumb. This helped the lowly A’s triumph despite being poor, while everyone else had lots of money… but no Billy Beane, so they were just big ol’ pieces of crap. OK, that simplifies it a little, but with the Brad Pitt-fronted Moneyball immortalizing Beane as the greatest innovator since Steve Jobs (only hunkier!), it’s time to say: enough. While there is much to admire about the book, the new movie and the Beane, here are 10 reasons real-life moneyball is overrated.
1. It’s not that the A’s haven’t won a World Series… it’s that they haven’t come close. Beane became Oakland’s GM in 1998. Since then, they have no World Series titles. Nor have they reached a World Series. Nor have they nearly reached a World Series. By winning four division titles and a wildcard spot, they reached the playoffs five times. Once there, they managed to advance a total of once and were promptly swept in the American League Championship Series. That’s six series played, one that didn’t end with guys cleaning out their lockers. They missed the playoffs entirely in seven seasons and will add another miss to that total this year. But they’re poor, so it’s all gravy. Except…
2. In 2008, Tampa Bay reached the World Series with a payroll of $43.8 million. This is less than Oakland’s, which was just under $48 million that year. (And yes, 2008 was one of the years Oakland missed the playoffs.) I don’t know who Tampa’s GM was that season, but he’s not considered a genius. Then again, this was after Moneyball was published and transformed the game: he probably stole Billy’s secrets! That said…
3. In 2003, the Florida Marlins won a World Series. Florida had a little more cash than the A’s (they spent $63.3 million to Oakland’s $56.6), but they went three rounds deeper so it seems to be money well spent. Their GM isn’t considered a genius either. Moneyball was published on May 10 of that year, so he must have read it quickly or gotten advance galleys.
4. One of Beane’s beliefs that doesn’t get as much play: his conclusion that managers don’t really matter. The theory is that since smart baseball‘s a matter of playing percentages, who cares who’s standing on those dugout steps? He attempted to prove this by appointing as manager Bob Geren, the best man at his wedding. (Incidentally, how flattered Geren must have been when Beane said, “Bob, managing is a job of far less importance than commonly believed. It is largely ceremonial, bordering on meaningless. I think you’d be perfect for it.”) Having alienated many of his players—one former A’s pitcher called him his “least favorite person I have ever encountered in sports”—Geren was fired midway through his fifth season with a record of 334-376.
5. The Giambi Factor. Two of the most successful teams during Beane’s reign are the 2000 and 2001 division winners. The key to these teams? Star Jason Giambi (the 2000 MVP and the runner-up in 2001), a player he inherited from his predecessor. (Beane did acquire Jason’s crappier brother, Jeremy.)
6. Both Giambis are among the few players who actually admitted being heavy steroid users. Oh, and Miguel Tejada, another star Beane inherited and who won the 2002 AL MVP with the A’s, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about acquiring performance-enhancing drugs (he still insists he didn’t actually use them, apparently just liking them as collectibles). How sabermetrics feels about this, I have no idea.
7. How impressive is winning the AL West anyway? The Rays had to beat the Yankees and Red Sox to win their division, which they did before reaching the World Series. The A’s faced down the Angels (one World Series title in their history; they have no other Series appearances), the Texas Rangers (no titles and one World Series appearance in their history), and the Seattle Mariners (yet to reach one), meaning Derek Jeter could leave three World Series rings in a cab and still have more hardware than the rest of Oakland’s division.
8. In 1999, future three-time MVP Albert Pujols was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the thirteenth round. Hindsight is 20/20, but shouldn’t all that fancy statistical data have enabled Beane to snap him up by round 10 or so?
9. In related news, the Yankees acquired Mariano Rivera when a scout in Panama named Herb Raybourn decided to shell out $3,500 to see if a converted shortstop might eventually throw harder than 84 mph, despite having made no effort to calculate his VORP (that’s value over replacement player, for non-sabermetricians). Since Rivera’s the greatest, most durable reliever ever and has accomplished more than the entire Oakland roster combined while initially costing less than a heavily-used Hyundai, isn’t it time we had a book called Raybournball?
10. If Brad Pitt had to portray a guy with a short career as a player in the bigs (Beane played briefly before he became brilliant) with the initials B.B., he looks more like Billy Bean minus the “e.” That Bean is one of two former major leaguers to come out as gay. So he has a very interesting story of his own, as detailed in Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life in and out of Major League Baseball. Oh, and his .226 career average dwarfs Beane’s .219, though he does have one thing in common with the other Billy: he’s never assembled a champion either.