The rise of sabermetrics has reached something of a peak. Teams are investing more money and time on analysts and General Managers and – strangely – fans have followed suit. Statistical analysis has become more mainstream in sports management, and the broader acceptance of sabermetrics in pop culture and among sports fans has followed. How did sabermetrics get so popular, and how has it changed the way we consume sports? (part 1 of 4)
The most popular iteration of sabermetrics – the use of playing statistics for the empirical analysis of baseball – in pop culture is easily the movie (and book) “Moneyball.” While most critics focus on the ingenuity of the script’s movement between Oakland A’s Manager Billy Beane’s personal story and the performance of his unconventional team, the more subtle power of “Moneyball” is the movie’s execution of a traditional sports narrative during the advent of a new mode of consumption and understanding of sports.
“Moneyball” begins with the 2001 American League Divisional Series (ALDS), in which the A’s lose to the Yankees in five games. Not only do the A’s lose the series to a big-market team – they also lose many of their star players (including Jason Giambi) in the following offseason. Beane is, rightly, pissed that he can’t spend more money to retain his star players. In his bid to get more money from his owner, Beane recaps his team’s performance in the postseason. “They played their hearts out,” he says. “It just didn’t fall our way.” Beane’s analysis is basically correct – the A’s lost primarily because of luck. It’s hard to be as good as the A’s were and lose three games in a row without luck “swinging” in the other team’s favor. It’s a brief scene, but it holds the seed of tension that carries the film. Luck is the natural enemy of the movie’s other (wholly fictional) protagonist, Peter Grant.
Shortly after the scene above, Beane meets Grant and listens to him pontificate about the “medieval” understanding of baseball and the creation of successful teams. Grant’s world, the sabermetrician’s world, is about probability, risk assessment, and the proper evaluation of players in the game they play. This is important. Sabermetrics does not change how we value a sports game – it only changes how we value players within the pre-established system. Peter Grant does not want to change the game of baseball. Peter Grant wants to change how we value baseball players.
That may seem like a relatively small point, but it actually cuts to the core of the movie. The middle of the movie, “The Streak,” documents the Oakland A’s historic 20-game winning streak. There are two ways to explain The Streak. The first is that the A’s have captured a supreme element of luck. The other is that the A’s are actually progressing toward the mean – they are finally living up to the statistical model they were meant to embody. Both explanations are correct. The A’s were unusually lucky during the streak, but they also started playing to the potential that their past performances would suggest. The natural sports narrative of the movie pushes the viewer toward accepting The Streak’s dramatic conclusion as a triumph for the A’s and vindication for the twin protagonists Beane and Grant. Sabermetrics works, Beane and Grant are geniuses of the game, and the A’s are a genuinely good team. However, Beane brings Grant back to reality. “This kind of thing is fun for the fans,” Beane says, “but it doesn’t mean anything.” Grant responds – “Billy, we just won twenty games in a row. We got the record.” To which Beane says – “What’s the point?”
What Beane rightly sees is the absurdity of the situation. The 2001 and 2002 As were both good teams. They were both assembled by Beane. And (as the audience will soon discover), they both lost in the ALDS. No World Series. No ultimate success. While Grant and Beane may be able to value the Oakland A’s baseball team without the context of the system in which they play (Major League Baseball) the casual fans of the team (who Beane and Grant effectively work for) only value the team within the context of Major League baseball – and, more specifically, the World Series. As Beane already noted after the previous year’s playoff, the A’s lost mostly because of bad luck.
If the tension here is confusing, think of it this way – both the 2001 and 2002 Oakland A’s are good teams. Both teams lose in the playoffs. One team is built with a sabermetric approach – the other team is not. The end result of each season is the same, but the film is asking us to value the sabermetric season over the previous season, which is confusing because our typical understanding of a sports narrative is that a team wins it all, or has some kind of larger, moral victory. The underdog player performs well, the team finds greater meaning beyond success in the game and we all leave the movie theater feeling a little bit better about ourselves.
Moneyball lacks this traditional sports narrative. The A’s season ends brutally. There is basically no follow up or even much characterization of the players on the team. One could even say this is the “sabermetric” ending. The players do not matter as people – they matter as statistics – and to that end they performed up to their statistical mean and failed when statistics fail, when the ultimate enemy, luck, resurfaces and dooms their playoff hopes. The movie presents the possibility of this ending and even endorses it by giving us a full dramatic narrative of “The Streak.” In light of the A’s ultimate failure, Beane’s statement “What’s the point?” rings out even stronger. Beane is not only questioning the point of trying to decipher the difference between the 2001 A’s and the 2002 A’s, he is also addressing the absurdity of the playoffs. If the playoffs are set up for randomization, why even bother playing the game?
The closest thing that the viewer gets to a “message” in the film comes in the final scene when Beane’s character is transformed from his negative positions (“what’s the point”) to a positive, more traditional ending. Beane is mulling over his offer from Boston (a career decision that would remove him from frequent contact with his daughter) when Grant pulls Beane into his office. Grant shows Beane an inspiring video that, while genuinely moving, is also pretty saccharine. The film turns the scene well by fulfilling Grant’s personality (socially genuine, but clumsy) as well as Beane’s (smart, to the point, charming). The video charges the lost season with meaning – it shows a player who is afraid to run to second base because of his weight attempting to run to second. He falls. He fails. He is in the middle of being humiliated when he discovers that he has actually hit a home run.
While the video shows a non-traditional player succeeding in a traditional way, an obvious metaphor for the A’s season, the movie complicates the metaphor by attaching it directly to Beane’s employment decision. Beane quips sincerely – “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
Beane’s quote is the positive position that matters. It is the position that the film has taken us to by pulling us through the A’s intriguing, but ultimately unsuccessful, season – that analytics do not (and should not) make us any less romantic about sports. We shouldn’t care about sabermetrics for sabermetrics sake because statistics treat us as just that – statistics. The honest and brutal ending of “The Streak” shows us just how callous the statistical world can be. However, the change of value that sabermetrics can bring (evidenced by Grant’s video and the re-occuring theme of shifting perception) allows for us to inscribe new meanings into sports that were not originally there. The “human” ending of the movie points out the obvious – you can stack the deck as much as possible and still end up losing. However, in losing, Beane shifts the actual value system of the game. Marginalized and ugly players, like the player shown in Grant’s video, are now seen as useful, even beautiful. Losing at the point of absurdity is just that – absurd – so why even bother giving it extra meaning? Sabermetrics exposes this harsh reality and, at its best, provides a way to inscribe meaning in what would otherwise be a meaningless struggle. Fittingly, Beane’s daughter -the product of Beane’s failed marriage – ultimately teaches Beane this lesson.
While driving home, Beane listens to a CD of his daughter (anachronistically) covering Lenka’s “The Show.” The camera runs in and out of focus, changing the perspective from Beane’s face to his steering wheel and the moving traffic around him. The camera cuts away and his daughter’s voice chimes brightly with her own interpretation of the lyrics – “You’re such a loser Dad / Just enjoy the show.”