VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – So, you’ve seen the flick “Moneyball” and now you think you understand how the traditionally low-budget Oakland A’s still managed to capture the American League West title again this season.
That film starring Brad Pitt as A’s general manager Billy Beane taught you all you need to know about “Sabermetrics”, the number-crunching, anti-MLB establishment modus operandi Beane and his nerdy cohorts apply so successfully, right?
Well, that’s what MAS thought, too, when he invaded the office of A’s manager Bob Melvin, deep in the bowels of Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
Boy, was I ever mistaken.
Oh, Moneyball still exists — but it sure ain’t what it used to be.
First, let’s backtrack a little bit — for the benefit of those who didn’t see Moneyball, a film adaptation of a book by the same name.
Moneyball chronicles the birth and development of the methodology developed by Beane and his band of Ivy League-educated, pocket protector-wearing assistants.
They found a number of traditional ways of doing things on and off the baseball field to be self-defeating and best replaced with strategy arrived at via some rather complex computer calculation and analysis.
For the sake of my fellow techno-challenged humans, I’ll simplify things.
Basically, Beane and his geeky cohorts found that practices such as giving up outs through hit-and-run and stolen base failures and sacrifice bunts was counter-productive.
Strikeouts suddenly weren’t all that bad because at least they prevented batters from hitting into double plays.
Also, they perceived on-base percentage to be much more important than batting average. Thus, walks became very desirable.
And they researched hitters’ and pitchers’ hot and cold zones ad nauseum to improve player performance.
Lots of seemingly trivial stuff like that.
Only, to their differently-wired minds, it all added up. So, the A’s set out to play a specific style which avoided many of the ways things had always been done.
The A’s then started securing inexpensive players who best suited that new brand of ball — many of them marginal players in other organizations.
Scott Hatteberg, ex-Boston part-timer who blossomed with the A’s, served as the movie’s poster boy for the A’s organization’s ability to procure players that fit their strange mold.
Hatteberg and others like an over-the-hill David Justice helped propel the A’s to amazing success in the early 2000′s (several division crowns and near pennants).
This, despite annually losing young star players to teams that would pay them the megabucks the A’s couldn’t (see Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi).
After an A’s dry spell at the end of last decade, though, some thought the American League had caught on to them.
But last season, Oakland — again, mostly with a bunch of low-paid no-names — surged back to win the AL West, topping the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers, who spend like drunken sailors.
And this season, same story.
The A’s last weekend clinched another division crown despite a player payroll that ranks 26th in MLB.
Can a Hollywood sequel be far behind?
“Moneyball Lives” would be a good title, MAS thought as he brazenly — but unknowingly — strolled into skipper Melvin’s tiny visitor’s office, well after the A’s clubhouse media clear-out deadline.
Bob, looking trim and strikingly handsome in his Oakland threads, was about to depart.
But he willingly plopped back down in his swivel chair, when MAS promised his requested interview would be quick and painless.
A minute into our talk, a media relations person poked his head in the room — presumably to give me the boot.
But Melvin, swiveling comfortably by now, waved him off, saying “It’s OK”.
In Moneyball, then-A’s skipper Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) chafed at having to follow the front office’s dictums on the field.
The Moneyball machinery was more or less in place and Howe merely pushed the on and off buttons, it seemed.
I asked Bob if he felt similarly constricted.
“We don’t do everything the way we used to” Bob quickly pointed out, fairly bristling at the implication that he, too, was a button-pusher.
“We now encourage our players to steal bases, hit and run; we sacrifice (bunt) and don’t wait for walks — and a lot of other stuff.”
Melvin explained how Moneyball presently allows the A’s players — AND manager — more freedom.
Boy, was know-it-all MAS’ face red!
What hasn’t changed one iota, though, is the uncanny way Beane and A’s management still bird-dog and acquire talent that other teams pass on — or already possess but don’t appreciate.
Example: last year Oakland sprung (for them — $36 million over 4 years) for Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes (26 HRs, 80 RBI in 2013) when other teams were dubious about his potential.
Pundits are now comparing the bullish Cespedes, who won this year’s Home Run Derby, with Bo Jackson.
Another key acquisition last season was outfielder Josh Reddick, stolen from Boston, where he was a part-time starter.
Reddick proceeded to make the AL All-Star team.
This year’s find is third sacker Josh Donaldson, acquired from the Chicago Cubs, who leads the club in most offensive categories
And, as always, the A’s unearth young hurlers who will eventually become rich pitching elsewhere.
OK, so MAS learned — embarrassingly — that Moneyball is constantly evolving and does not remain stuck in time.
After the interview, the young PR guy returned and politely explained the A’s one-hour before game-time clear-out policy.
Thus, MAS was soon out of there.
This, after he had been “out of IT” regarding Oakland’s Moneyball evolution.
But now you don’t have to be.
Just remember what’s changed since Pitt’s tobacco juice-expectorating Billy Beane portrayal and you’ll, instead, be WITH it.
Contact Man About Sports at: firstname.lastname@example.org