Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Wife Susie and I saw the baseball movie “Moneyball” last week. It starred Brad Pitt, normally not my favorite actor, but I thought he was good in the role of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager whose adoption of Bill James’s statistical slants on the game helped turn his low-payroll team into a winner in the first years of the present century. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s script excellently captured the content and rhythms of baseball speech, no small feat for an outsider.

We saw the movie in the company of a couple of non-fan friends, and afterward they asked me if I knew which parts of the movie were true and which weren’t. A few discrepancies occurred immediately, but I later did a bit of research and discovered several more. I pass them on here in the interest of sports education.

Let me say first that I understand the difference between life and art and the urge to sometimes improve on the former in the interest of the latter. The movie’s producers wanted to tell a compelling story and, for the most part, did. That’s the business they’re in, and good for them. Still, one shouldn’t confuse “based on truth” for the real thing. It’s not good for one’s mental health.

A main invention of the film was the character of assistant general manager Peter Brand, whom baseball-guy Beane hired to install Jamesian technology into the A’s field operations. Brand’s real-life counterpart is Paul DePodesta, who after his A’s stint became the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and now works in the New York Mets’ front office.

Character Brand, played by the actor Jonah Hill, held an economics degree from Yale. DePodesta has an economics degree from Harvard. Hill is plump and nerdy. DePodesta may be nerdy but his photos reveal him to be quite fit looking, and his Wikipedia biography says he played baseball and football at Harvard. Obviously, making Brand a schlub helped the filmmakers cast the movie A’s into a “Bad News Bears” mold, a tried-and-true movie device.

A more-basic and related divergence between film and truth had to do with the makeup of the 2002 A’s team that was the film’s focus. In the movie the A’s had been devastated by the loss to free agency of stars Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon and had to scour the castoff lists to replace them. It portrayed as the new stars of the team the weak-winged first-baseman Scott Hatteberg, the over-the-hill outfielder David Justice and the funny-throwing relief pitcher Cory Bradford, none of whose true value was apparent to anyone but the Beane braintrust.

While Hatteberg, Justice and Bradford were useful role players, the real ’02 A’s had a heckuva lineup otherwise. It included shortstop Miguel Tejada, whose .308 batting average, 34 home runs and 131 runs batted in won him election as the American League’s Most Valuable Player that season, and third-baseman Eric Chavez, another young power hitter (34 homers, 109 RBIs) of All-Star caliber.

Oakland’s starting-pitching rotation that year featured the young stars Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, whose combined won-lost record was 57-21. Zito (23-5) was the AL’s Cy Young Award winner, giving the team the league’s best pitcher as well as its best overall player. The Bad News Bears they weren’t.

It’s noteworthy that Tejada, Chavez, Zito, Hudson and Mulder (none of whose names I recall hearing in the movie) all were products of the Oakland farm system, signed as draftees or free agents by the team’s scouts, some before the Beane regime began in 1998. The scouts were portrayed in the movie as Neanderthals, sitting around spitting tobacco juice into paper cups and spouting baseball saws. I guess they weren’t so dumb after all.

Equally misleading, I thought, was the relationship between the statistical underpinnings of the “Moneyball” slant on baseball and the feats of the ’02 A’s, especially the 20-game winning streak that propelled them into that season’s playoffs. The streak was a great achievement, all right, but it was a fluke and not the result of sort of calculations on which Beane’s roster was built.

Much of what James contributed to baseball back then (he’s moved on since) stemmed from his fresh focus on on-base percentage (OPB; hits plus walks divided by times at bat) rather than straight batting average as the prime measure of offensive efficiency and defensive emphasis. As Beane succinctly put it in an interview I did with him for a 2003 piece in Sports Business Journal, “we look for batters who take balls and pitchers who throw strikes.” Often, that kind of player was undervalued on the baseball market, giving an edge to teams in the know.

Baseball is the game of the long haul and the small difference, and the difference between a hitter with an ordinary OBP of .330 and one with a quite-good .380 is five hits or walks in 100 plate appearances. That works out to one more scoring opportunity every four or five games, producing, maybe, an extra run or two over that span. A lineup of walk-taking hitters and walk-stingy pitchers might add a half-dozen or so wins for a team over a 162-game campaign. That’s a nice addition but alone is hardly the stuff of epic winning streaks.

The Beane-led A’s had a great run from 2000 through 2006, winning almost 59% of their games and several divisional titles. Alas for them, everyone else now knows what they do, and they haven’t had a winning season since. Now that his daughter is older, divorced-father Beane no longer is tied to the Oakland area, and no one would be surprised if he bails for a larger-market club.

Truth is, “Moneyball” is fine but being rich is better.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

511, 309, 36

When the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera broke Trevor Hoffman’s baseball regular-season career saves record of 601 a few weeks ago, a considerable fuss was made, and appropriately. Rivera is a great relief pitcher and we might not see his like again for quite a while.

But the suggestions that his mark (which still is abuilding) might never be broken seemed way off the mark. Yes, he has almost 300 more saves than any other active pitcher (Francisco Cordero is next with 326), but never is a long time, which is why the adage “never say never” is, well, an adage. Rivera isn’t Superman, so some day someone will beat it. Of that you can be sure.

The same can be said of just about every other baseball record. Ty Cobb’s career hits mark of 4,189 stood for 57 years but Pete Rose took it down in 1985; eventually, someone will take down Rose’s 4,256. Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive-games hitting streak of 56, set in 1941, is widely seen as eternal, but heck, it’s already been topped in the minor leagues and the colleges, and it, too, will fall.

However (my favorite word), a few diamond records are highly unlikely to be surpassed, because of the way the sport has changed over the decades. Foremost among these is the 511 wins that Denton “Cy” Young posted in a 22-season Major League career that began in 1890 and ended in 1911. Less noticed, but no less noteworthy, I think, are the marks for the most three-base hits, or triples. For multiple reasons, none of them reversible, the three-bagger has become an endangered species. That’s a sad fate for this most-exciting of baseball’s recurring plays.

First, let’s look at Young’s mark. His towering win total spanned some fundamental changes in baseball’s rules, such as the 1893 movement of the pitcher’s rubber (actually, it was a “box” before then) from 55 feet 6 inches from home plate to its present 60 feet, 6 inches. It came at a time when starting pitchers performed at least every fourth game instead of every fifth or sixth as at present, and were expected to finish what they started. The game’s so-called “dead-ball era”—before the introduction of cork-centered baseballs in 1911 (Young’s last competitive year) — boosted pitchers’ egos by keeping scores low.

Still, no pitcher even then came close to Young’s achievements, making them a unique product of the man and his time. A big right hander, officially listed at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds although he grew heavier as he aged, the young Cy had such a blazing fastball that his nickname was short for “cyclone,” for the reputed force of his deliveries. His velocity slowed with time, as all pitchers’ do, but he compensated with a rubber arm and the always-superior control that gave him a 1.5 walks-per-game average that few others have matched. “I aim to make the batter hit the ball, and throw as few pitches as possible,” Young noted as his career wound down.

Besides his wins record, 94 greater than anyone else’s, the Ohio farmer holds the career marks for innings pitched (7,356), starts (815), complete games (749) and (uh-huh) loses (316), all also invulnerable. He had 15 seasons with 20 or more victories and five with 30 or more. He threw the first pitch in World Series history, in the 1903 matchup of his Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates (Boston won it, five games to three), and in 1904 recorded the first perfect game in the new century. Wrote the poet Ogden Nash:

“Y is for Young
The magnificent Cy;
People batted against him
But I never knew why.”

The decline of the triple has so long been part of baseball life that few fans today know the records for the feat, or their holders; they are 309 for a career, by Sam Crawford (1899-1917), and 36 for a season, by the Pirates’ John Wilson, in 1912. The unlikelihood of their being surpassed is seen by the facts that only three currently active Major Leaguers—veterans Carl Crawford, Jimmy Rollins and Johnny Damon— have hit as many as 100, and that no player who performed after 1928 has hit as many as 200. A dozen by one player in a season these days can lead a league.

Lots of triples were the result of an era in which batted balls didn’t carry well, outfielders played shallow and wore little, flat gloves quite unlike the baskets their present-day counterparts tote, and ballparks were huge and, often, oddly shaped. The centerfield fence in the Polo Grounds in New York was a distant 483 feet from home plate; at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and Cleveland’s League Park they were 460-plus feet away. Balls that got past outfielders there rolled and rolled, and allowed batters to run and run. Inside-the-park home runs were about as common as one’s hit over a fence.

Most baseball statistical records are just that—statistics. Aside from its historical significance Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run in 2001 wasn’t much different from his first that season, or his 22nd, or 46th. The triple, though, is the kind of play-- beginning with a sharply hit ball between the outfielders and, usually, ending in a cloud of dust and an umpire’s close call—that engenders intrinsic and unique excitement. Its eclipse by modern trends is to be mourned.

To appreciate what we’re missing we must turn to the arts, specifically to Philip Roth’s 1973 baseball-themed book “The Great American Novel.” In it Luke Gofannon, Roth’s fictional superstar, had just completed a strenuous bout of lovemaking with a famous beauty. Under her questioning, he professed that she thrilled him more than a stolen base, a shoestring catch or a home run. (“Smack a homer and that’s it, it’s over,” he said.).

But when the woman asked him if she’d been better than a triple, his evaluation changed. “I can’t tell a lie,” he said. “There just ain’t nothing like a triple.”