The Death of Moneyball

I have just watched the Athletics blow a 7-3 lead all the way to hibernation for the winter, and as that last Royals run crossed the plate, it sealed the deal: Moneyball is dead.


You have seen the movie. Brad Pitt as the general manager of a baseball team. No money, no stars, just smarts — extreme smarts — and a willingness to buck baseball tradition and assemble a team no one – not even its field manager, in the Hollywood fable that also gave him an untrue-to-life beer gut and sour mien – thought would work. But it could work and it did work. By the numbers.

The numbers. WHIP and WAR and BABIP and CERA and DERA and all the Bill-Jamesian glut of incomprehensible statistics that have overwhelmed the game just as Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco and their butt injections rendered HR and RBI and BA essentially meaningless, and (along with Brad Pitt) made Billy Beane into a cult figure, a demigod, an F. Scott Fitzgerald character – The very rich, they are different from you and me. The Pitt/Beane version is The very knowledgeable about arcane baseball numbers, they are different from you and me. And Beane (and Pitt) got very rich playing on this.

To be sure, Beane has done all right by the Athletics, who are anything but very rich. Their small but passionate fanbase has held its own amid his repeated attempts to abandon the unloved Coliseum (or Mausoleum, as Bando, Jackson, Rudi and Tenace – ah, there were baseball players in those days — dubbed it) for presumably greener San Jose pastures, and he has with immense ingenuity parlayed the small budgets he has been handed into on-field success that the small but passionate ones have lustily cheered and magnificently appreciated. 


But every Shakespearean character has his fatal flaw, and even if Brad Pitt’s Beane wasn’t precisely Shakespearean, Beane’s particular flaw may have come courtesy of Pitt himself, and George Will, and Michael Lewis, and all the other acolytes of the Moneyball concept. For Beane, like Macbeth himself, is clearly in 2014 suffering from a malady that only the Bard could properly sing: hubris. The 2014 Oakland Athletics would have made a terrific Shakespeare play, with protagonist Beane the polar opposite of Hamlet, not at all hesitant like the melancholy Dane but all too resolute, all too resolved to act, a Titus Andronicus intent on manifesting his will to power until the stage was littered with corpses, including that of the hero himself. And Yoenis Cespedes.

Beane’s 2014 baseball corpse is still bloody on the ground as I write this and the Kansas City Royals (themselves the bastard children of the hubris of Beane’s illustrious predecessor in Shakespearean overreach, Charles O. Finley) still pouring champagne over one another, wearing those silly goggles that the teams now wear when they conduct revels in this age of the Nanny State. But it has already been remarked many times, as the Athletics fell like a bird hit with grapeshot from their high perch of early August (best record in baseball) to their skin-of-the-teeth hold on the postseason (the second wild card, now spent and lost): the Athletics lost themselves when they lost La Potencia, and Yoenis Cespedes’s nickname sums it up neatly. The first game after Beane traded Cespedes for Jon Lester, in a move that was supposed to give the Athletics pitching good enough to carry them through to a World Series victory, the A’s lost (in an eerie foreshadowing of the just-completed debacle) to the Kansas City Royals by the zero-sum score of 1-0.


When I saw that boxscore, I had a feeling this trade was not going to turn out well. The new A’s had pitching, all right, pitching to beat the band, if not the Kansas City Royals, but there was just one problem: you also have to hit the ball. And without the beloved Cespy, there was no one there to do that. 

I am sure Billy Beane crunched all the numbers before he made the trade. I am sure he crunched them to a fine and heady powder. I am sure he was certain that Donaldson and Reddick and Moss and the gang would be able to sustain the loss of Cespedes and that the Big Green Machine would go on humming along. He no doubt was sure six ways to Sunday that the Athletics had sufficient offense to carry them through to the playoffs and World Series, and that the Lester/Gray/Kazmir/Samardzija pitching rotation, even if it wasn’t Hunter/Holtzman/Blue/Odom, would still surpass all challengers.

And the crunched numbers were all that mattered. Remember in Moneyball, how Pitt/Beane and his fictional sidekick Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) go up against a roomful of scouts, old baseball hands, who are talking in old baseball clichés (“the ball just jumps off his bat”) that Beane, Brand, and the moviegoer are supposed to hold in amused contempt? Beane and Brand had crunched the numbers, and by jingo, they were right and the old baseball hands were too hidebound to see it.


But life doesn’t always go by the numbers. I have never been in the Athletics’ clubhouse and never will be, but I suspect that Yoenis Cespedes brought some potencia there that didn’t show up in Beane’s DICE and DIPs and LIPs. There was support he gave to Moss (in particular, as he hit .168 after the Break) and the others that just didn’t show up in Beane’s numbers no matter how long he cooked them and how long he left them to simmer. Without him, the A’s tanked.

And looking at the long-term implications of that tanking, it can and must also be said: when Billy Beane traded Cespedes and the Athletics nosedived, Moneyball tanked. Indeed, when that last Royals runner (whoever he was) crossed the plate to seal the KayCee’s 9-8 victory in the wild-card game, Moneyball breathed its last.

The old scouts were right. Sometimes the PECOTA and the PERA and the TPR just don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes you have to go by what you see with your eyes. Sometimes you have to go by intuition. Sometimes you have to go by heart. Apparently Yoenis Cespedes was far more of the heart of the Oakland Athletics than Billy Beane ever saw in his charts and graphs. The A’s swan dive of 2014 should put paid to the idea that two players who hit 20 home runs each are equal to one player who hits 40. Life just doesn’t work like that. It may be that the guy who hits 40 motivates the light-hitting second baseman to hit .259 instead of .239, and runs over from first to joke with the nervous middle reliever until he settles down and strikes out the side, whereas his dour replacement would have watched in stoic dismay as the same middle reliever gave up five runs.


With human interaction, in other words, you just never know. It’s complicated. Sometimes, the way a guy hits, the ball just jumps off his bat. Yoenis Cespedes of the Boston Red Sox, he’s a guy like that. His change of address, and the winning run scoring early Wednesday morning in Kansas City, are the lid closing on the coffin of Moneyball.


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