Monday, September 26, 2011

On the Field

The game is easy: throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball. The difficulty lies in execution. Baseball is, after all, a sport played by men with human flaws and frailties, subject to the ebbs and flows of life.

Spring training traditionally breeds speculation. Teams are analyzed and scrutinized based on previous years’ performances. Prognosticators anoint their would-be champions, favoring those squads that look best on paper. The problem, as traditionalists will tell you, is that the game is not played on paper – victors are determined on fields of dirt and grass.

The human element of baseball comes to mind due to last week’s release of Moneyball, the Brad Pitt vehicle directed by Bennett Miller, of Capote fame. Based on an excellent 2003 book of the same title by acclaimed author Michael Lewis (whose take on the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, appeared on bestsellers lists for several months), Moneyball relates the story of Billy Beane, long-time General Manager of the Oakland A’s, who successfully competed with large market teams during the early part of the new millennium by abandoning traditional scouting techniques and focusing almost entirely on statistical analysis.

Beane’s innovative twenty-first century approach, adopted by other small market teams in subsequent years, revolutionized a sport that, despite its glorification of records and numbers, had been reluctant to abandon the “gut check” method of scouting and player development. While the Yankees and Red Sox lured high profile athletes with big money and the promise of media exposure, Beane focused on less heralded college athletes who did not necessarily possess the traditional tools of the sport (such as power and speed), but who reached base often enough to earn high spots on the A’s unorthodox list of prospects.

The problem with Moneyball is that its principal premise is somewhat dated. After turning down an offer from the large market Red Sox to assume management of its front office (electing instead to remain in northern California, close to his daughter from an earlier marriage), Beane’s baseball success came to a halt. After trading away key players inherited from his predecessor with the A’s, Sandy Alderson (now General Manager of the large market New York Mets), Beane’s teams simply stopped winning. This unfortunate epilogue is conveniently omitted from the Hollywood version of the Billy Beane story.

The eventual dilution of Beane’s success is not surprising because, despite his efforts to prove otherwise, numbers in baseball do not tell the whole story. Quite often, the difference between winning and losing is a hard slide into second base to break up a double play, or hitting the cutoff man to keep the tying run from reaching scoring position – acts which take place on the field and can not be quantified or easily inserted into statistical columns. That is where execution and the human element assume paramount importance.

While the average fan may view baseball players as commodities to be preserved or discarded, depending on the needs of fantasy teams, the product which Beane puts on the field is a matchup of men against men. Beane’s men in recent years have lacked the skill of their opponents. Not surprisingly, the Oakland A’s have not fielded a winning squad since 2006.

This does not mean that Beane, a charismatic personality whose popularity will certainly be enhanced by his association with Brad Pitt, has failed. On the contrary, he will always be remembered as an innovator in a sport that has historically abhorred change – how else could one explain the sport’s refusal to accept black major leaguers until 1947?

Too much emphasis is placed on the off-field impact of men like Beane, whose success will always be measured by what takes place on the field. Players – not owners, managers or general managers – win games. The true role of back-stage players such as Beane is to select athletes, put them on the field, and let them do their thing – while trying to maintain a safe enough distance to avoid mucking things up.

No comments:

Post a Comment