As much as Moneyball tried to paint the picture that “this is the way to build your team and if you ignore it you’re an idiot”—and succeeded to some degree—it was never the “way” to build a team. It was a strategy borne out of necessity and opportunity.
In fact, Billy Beane is not, nor was he ever, a “genius”. What he did took nerve, but that nerve stemmed from being locked in the vacancy of having limited funds and competing against teams that were raiding his cupboard on a year-to-year basis.
The truth is becoming more mainstream with articles such as this one in today’s New York Times discussing how smaller markets have grown smarter and therefore more competitive.
Are they getting smarter?
Are they more competitive?
Is there a connection to Moneyball?
Um. No. Not really.
Considering the teams remaining in the playoffs, you have one that connected on a deep strike to try and win this year while they still had a mid-lineup combination among the best in baseball with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. The Brewers brought in a Cy Young Award winner in Zack Greinke; a solid mid-rotation starter in Shaun Marcum; and traded for an All-Star closer to function as their set-up man in Francisco Rodriguez. As a result of this, they’re in the NLCS under a moderate budget. But their farm system is gutted and once Fielder and K-Rod leave, they’re going to be hard-pressed to repeat this success. As long as Greinke, Marcum and Yovani Gallardo are healthy, they’ll still be competitive, but this good and able to cover up flaws like an atrocious defense that cost them dearly last night? To protect a vanilla manager who does bizarre things? It’s hard to see.
The Cardinals have the best manager of his generation in Tony LaRussa and made a series of “win now” maneuvers signing Lance Berkman and trading Colby Rasmus for ancillary, depth pieces to augment LaRussa’s frequent bullpen usage. They also benefited from a superior Braves team collapsing and allowing them the opportunity to make the playoffs.
The Tigers are a big money team that spent lavishly on a set-up man in Joaquin Benoit and made smart deals in getting Doug Fister and Delmon Young at mid-season for basically nothing. But without one of the three best pitchers and hitters in baseball—Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera—they’d be golfing now.
The Rangers were built by a young GM in the Moneyball mold of someone who’d never played but was well-versed in statistics. It took awhile for Jon Daniels to gain footing and he survived making one of the worst trades in baseball history in sending Adrian Gonzalez to the Padres for Adam Eaton; but since then he made some trades that were absolutely brilliant by raiding the Braves farm system for Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus and Matt Harrison when they traded Mark Teixeira a year-and-a-half before he was up for free agency. That took nerve, but it was only possible because the Rangers weren’t contending and in desperate financial straits to the point where they could ignore fan entreaties to keep their star. Now that they’re in better condition financially, they’ve been able to use a loaded farm system to acquire a Cliff Lee in 2010 and the numerous bullpen components that have brought them to the verge of a second straight pennant.
It all goes in cycles.
Moneyball was trendy because it was a neat story of a triumph over adversity for a “can’t miss” superstar who transferred his inability to fulfill that promise on the field, but became a star off the field.
The problem was that what Beane did was more gutsy than smart. He’s an actor. And his new role is that of the boxed-in everyman; the excuses are that everyone else is using his template and doing so with more money than he has and his antiquated ballpark has made it impossible to draw fans and attract marquee free agents. But if he’s a genius, shouldn’t he figure something else out?
It’s laughable that Beane was politicking for and openly wanted the Cubs GM job and they didn’t even ask to interview him, instead focusing on and apparently getting Theo Epstein.
Like the X-Files, the truth is out there and those who aren’t invested in the concept of “Beane as genius” are seeing it and shunning him or at least questioning the portrayal.
The dismissive way in which Moneyball writer Michael Lewis discusses the Rays (“they have investment bankers running it and have been lucky in the draft”) is exactly the same argument that people used to contradict his salable and practically ridiculous narrative of Moneyball. I’m wondering whether he sees that or is blocking out this reality in a psychiatrist’s dream case of egomania.
Beane’s persona-switch from hard-charging, ruthless, corporate monster to happy-go-lucky, shrugging man of the people who’s trapped where he is in a system that’s swallowed him up doesn’t explain away a series of horrible trades and drafts. But that doesn’t fit into the story.
There is no one way to build a successful team—a team that’s going to win the World Series. The 2011 storyline is that the big money clubs, rife with superstars and recognizable names, all got bounced in the first round or missed the playoffs entirely due to humiliating collapses. Next year it might be the opposite; or it could be something different entirely; or the same thing.
But the mythmakers will look for an angle, even if they have to conjure one from nothing just like Moneyball. And just like the moving the goalposts of Moneyball, it’s a desperate act that’s still occurring as we speak.
The public and media are beginning to see it.