'Moneyball' Is About More Than Just Baseball Stats

The movie Moneyball opens Friday. Based on the Michael Lewis book, it focuses on the rise of advanced statistical analysis in Major League Baseball.

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DAVID GREENE, host: OK. Let's leave the political field and hit the baseball field. The movie "Moneyball" opens tomorrow. It stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the real life general manager of the Oakland A's. The movie's based on a book by Michael Lewis called "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game." It doesn't center on a big game or a heroic performance. It's about an idea, a new way of using statistics in evaluating players.

NPR's Mike Pesca talked to some of the sharpest minds in the world of baseball statistics and asked them about the enduring success of "Moneyball."

MIKE PESCA: It's hard to quantify, which is especially frustrating given who we're talking about, but the baseball stat gurus loved "Moneyball" from the moment it was published in 2003. Keith Law, then a young statistical-minded executive with the Toronto Blue Jays, remembers the enthusiasm around the book.

KEITH LAW: What was going on in Oakland was not just a couple of whack jobs in the front office, doing something totally crazy. But it was, hey, you know, sort of this is creative destruction that is going to change the industry

PESCA: The "Moneyball" way of thinking scrapped the old reliance on batting average at the expense of all other stats, and concentrated on different traits that were theretofore not even considered talents. Like how skilled a player was at drawing walks. Yes, in baseball these days, walks are prized. But there was a time when they were seen as the boring stuff that happened between hits and outs.

Not that "Moneyball" is flawless. Anyone who followed baseball at the time will tell you that the A's won 103 games in 2002, largely because of their great starting pitchers who are barely mentioned in the book.

Jonah Keri's recent book about the Tampa Bay Rays, "The Extra 2 Percent," is a kind of child of "Moneyball," just as the Rays are the inheritors of some of the philosophies championed by the A's. Keri allows that Lewis' storytelling virtuosity can at times come at the expense of the granular details, like the importance of the star pitchers

JONAH KERI: Michael Lewis is a fantastic storyteller. I would give my right kidney, eye, other parts of body, to write and report like Mike Lewis. He's fantastic. But what he does very well, is he distills. And he basically will omit things that don't necessarily go with his thesis.

PESCA: But baseball researcher Rob Neyer reminds us that Michael Lewis wrote a story of an idea - not a story meant to describe a winning team's accomplishments.

ROB NEYER: It doesn't tell the story of the Oakland A's success in that period. Well, that wasn't the story Mike Lewis is trying to tell. What we have instead, is a different sort of book which is incredibly entertaining

PESCA: The 2002 draft, treated as a triumphant moment in the book, actually didn't work out nearly as well as the A's had hoped. Then there was the trade referred to during this scene between Beane and manager Art Howe as played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")

BRAD PITT: (as Billy Beane) You can't start Pena first tonight. You'll have to start Hatteberg.

PHILLIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Art Howe) I don't want to go 15 rounds, Billy. The lineup card is mine and that's all.

PITT: (as Billy Beane) The lineup card is definitely yours. I'm just saying you can't start Pena first.

HOFFMAN: (as Art Howe) I am starting him at first.

PITT: (as Billy Beane) I don't think so, he plays for Detroit now.

PESCA: In fact, the traded player, Carlos Pena turned out to be much better than Scott Hatteberg ever was. In hindsight, not a stroke of genius. In fact, a reader of "Moneyball" today won't come across any statistical insights that are currently cutting edge. But that's not what makes the book important, says Rob Neyer

NEYER: Every front office not only in baseball, but in every sport and in business - essentially all the owners and all the GMs in every sport - had to read it

PESCA: Keith Law goes even further.

LAW: This is not actually just a baseball story. It is a story of rapid change in the business world and how there will always be people who resist change because it threatens them

PESCA: "Monevball," the book, has sold over a million copies. The movie is getting mostly glowing reviews and Brad Pitt is on the cover of Sports Illustrated - a glorious time for all. Except the Oakland A's, they're on a pace to finish the season 10 games below 500. At least tomorrow, they can relieve their recent near glory at a cinema near them.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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