'Moneyball': How The Oakland A's Gamed Baseball

Year after year, the teams with the biggest payrolls make baseball's playoffs, but for at least a few years in the 2000's, the Oakland A's were an exception to that rule. Host Scott Simon talks to author Michael Lewis, who detailed general manager Billy Beane's campaign to find a new way to win in his best-selling book, Moneyball.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Baseball is a money game. Year after year, the teams with the biggest payrolls - the Yankees, the Red Sox, now the Phillies, make the playoffs. I know that doesn't explain how the Chicago Cubs have the third highest payroll and finish last. But the teams with the smallest payrolls often see their biggest stars just go off to the richest teams. In the new film, "Moneyball," the Oakland A's general manager portrayed by Brad Pitt, puts it to his scouts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")

BRAD PITT: (as Billy Beane) There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then, there's 50 feet of crap. And then there's us.

SIMON: But for at least a few years in the 2000's, the Oakland A's confounded that by adopting a new way of looking at the game and recruiting players nobody else wanted. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, a man who shook things up for the Oakland A's and for baseball. Bennett Miller directed "Moneyball." He joins us now from Los Angeles. Thanks very much for being with us.

BENNETT MILLER: Thank you.

SIMON: I've read that you weren't particularly a baseball fan when you were approached.

MILLER: You know, I was when I was a kid and I liked to play and had memorized everybody's stats. And at about age 13 or 14 I think it was, it became clear that I was not going to be a baseball player. And my math teacher at the time was the coach of the freshman team in my high school, and I tried out and did not make it. But he made me the scorekeeper and the stat keeper.

SIMON: But, oh, my word. I mean how apt this is for this film because, of course, at the center of it in many ways, is the character who you named ? renamed Peter Brand...

MILLER: Right.

SIMON: ...actually based on a real man. He's a number cruncher, played by Jonah Hill, a young bespectacled Yale economist. He gets hired away from the Cleveland Indians.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")

JONAH HILL: (as Peter Brand) I wanted you to see these player evaluations that you asked me to do.

PITT: (as Billy Beane) I asked you to do three.

HILL: (as Peter Brand) Yeah.

PITT: (as Billy Beane) How many did you do?

HILL: (as Peter Brand) Forty-seven.

PITT: (as Billy Beane) Okay.

HILL: (as Peter Brand) Actually, 51, and I don't know why I lied, just...

SIMON: And he says you can sweep out a lot of the stats by which we usually assess ballplayers. We have another clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")

PITT: (as Billy Beane) Why don't you walk me through the board.

HILL: (as Peter Brand) I believe there is a championship team that we could afford, because everyone else undervalues them. Like an island of misfit toys.

SIMON: So where did they look for their misfit toys in Oakland?

MILLER: One thing that the A's did was turn to ideas that were outside of professional baseball. And a fellow by the name of Bill James, who in the '70s and the 1980s, wrote a series of what he called abstracts, which were analyses of the game that were rejected by, you know, the church of baseball. And he at the time had been a night security guard at the Stokely Van Camp pork and beans factory. And Billy Beane turned to these ideas and turned to his general approach of how to look at the game and employed these ideas and became the first.

SIMON: Billy Beane himself had been just about when he was a high school baseball player...

MILLER: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: ...just about the most highly recruited high school baseball player in the country. He...

MILLER: Right.

SIMON: He had ? the scout said boy, what a build he's got. What a swing. He can throw. And it just never panned out for him.

MILLER: Clearly, he did not live up to the expectations that those who recruited him had. He was taken in the very first round of the draft in 1980 by the Mets, alongside Darryl Strawberry, their other first round pick.

The way I looked at it is that he was able to, you know, look back at what had happened in his case and learn something from it. Billy got very turned on by these alternative ideas, this other way of looking at the game that put much less stock in how the scouts had perceived the game and the traditional way that they had perceived the game and more in these numbers. And it interested him doubly because not only did it represent a possible route to winning, but also it kind of explained him and his past and maybe he hadn't failed, because he didn't live up to his potential. Maybe he had failed because there had been unreasonable expectations put upon him.

And with the second lowest payroll in baseball that year, 2002, he finds players who others either completely overlooked or were really undervaluing because they were too old or too funny looking, you know, too quirky or flawed.

SIMON: The conventional wisdom was that they just weren't promising ballplayers and they were interchangeable parts.

MILLER: Right. One example is Scott Hatteberg, who had ruptured a nerve in his elbow, his throwing arm. And so he couldn't feel half his arm and half of his fingers in his throwing hand. And he was a catcher, so that basically took him out of it and he was released. But when they looked at his on base percentage, how many pitches he saw, you know, his continued solid contact with the ball, placement, stuff like that, you know, a semi-broken player, if you put him at first, a guy who'd never played first, like how costly would that be? And they ran their numbers and they believed that if they had nine guys as productive as him, if they had nine Scott Hattebergs, they could potentially take the whole thing, and now teams with money are adopting a lot of these ideas.

I think the number of THDs and data systems architects and statistical analysts that are in the game right now ? I don't have the exact number but I'm going to say that most teams now have their full-time, you know, analysts that are ? I mean even including the New York Yankees.

SIMON: I can't imagine anyone wouldn't be anything but complimented by being portrayed by Brad Pitt. But do you have any idea how Billy Beane feels about the motion picture?

MILLER: It's funny. You know, he - Billy is a very charismatic guy, very friendly guy, very easy to be in a room with him, very interesting. He's a really good hang. But you could also tell that there's something sort of intense and competitive inside him. You know, Billy Beane is a guy who thinks that he's trying to win baseball games. But I think that there was something going on also. You know, there's a great expectation put upon him as player and that ended up not panning out. You know, I think in his mind he's trying to remedy something from the past. I think he thinks he's trying to win baseball games. But what he's really doing is he's embarked in this adventure that's going to lead him to value things differently, including his own life and that's really what happens in the movie.

SIMON: Bennett Miller directs the new motion picture "Moneyball" out this weekend. Mr. Miller, Thanks so much.

MILLER: Okay, man, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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