A couple days ago, on a lark, I rented Moneyball, the 2011 film starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. The A’s have just come off a credible season, though losing to the Yankees in the ALCS. Insult is added to injury here as they also lose several of their key players, and the owner is unable / unwilling to part with additional funds to reach for “name” talent. Meantime, the scouts who are supposed to find diamonds in the rough to replace heavyweights like Jason Giambi argue back and forth about players who don’t look good, are getting pudgy or have an odd throwing action. Into this mix, Beane throws Peter Brand, a Yale graduate and economist, who seems to have distilled a method of quantizing performance, based on the ideas of one Bill James, down to ONE statistic: On Base Percentage. With that as a primary benchmark, and in spite of the resistance from scouts and manager Art Howe, Beane and Brand assemble a team which, in theory, can tackle opponents like the Yankees, whose payroll is at least three times larger, and WIN.
The reason I’m writing about this movie is the whole issue of subjective vs. objective. To listen to the scouts talk, the game is all about intangibles, about intuition and instinct and impression. Certainly statistics enter into the equation, but they may be no more important in some eyes than facial features or some particular aspect of a player’s batting motion. Beane’s attitude in the midst of all of this hand-waving flies directly in the face of these traditions. It is utterly objective and results-oriented. He is about numbers and applications, quantifiable performance figures which correlate to that all-important statistic: Wins.
I cannot help but associate Beane’s experience on the baseball field with our experience with theists. They want to talk in abstract, subjective, metaphysical terms of feeling and personal experience and so on. We want to deal in FACT, what is demonstrable, what has a high correlation to a desired result, what gives a predictable and desirable outcome. Listening to the coaches and scouts in the conference room early in the game sounded as much like WOO as the crap we get from evangelicals. There are a lot of pretty-sounding words, supposedly backed up by years of experience, but boiled down, it may amount to no more than a lot of sound and fury, signifying not bloody much.
I was disappointed at the end of the film to learn that Billy Beane didn’t take the GM job at Boston. I was pleased though to learn that Boston took what they learned of Beane’s technique, pressed it into service, and won themselves a World Series. Certainly, theories such as what Beane and Brand were using are not iron-clad guarantees for success … but when a team with a $39 million payroll can compete with teams who pay one player roughly that much, someone should take note.
By the same token, religion has gone on largely unchanged for a lot longer than Abner Doubleday’s game has been around, but when that status quo is challenged long enough and successfully enough, eventually, someone is going to pay attention … and start looking at the stats.