Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Gospel of Moneyball

I saw Moneyball the other night. I had read the book when it came out. If you don't already know it's the story of Billy Beane, Oakland A's general manager, who was faced with building a competitive baseball club when he had millions of dollars less than other ball clubs to work with. So, he turned to statistics to lead him to undervalued baseball players who could still play and win ballgames. It was a novel idea at the time. Old timer baseball guys did not understand it. They were used to going by baseball instinct and gut feelings and knowing - just knowing - how a guy would perform in the future by watching him take some at bats or field some ground balls. It was baseball know-how vs the new science of baseball. You could take a guy with an MBA from Yale armed with a manual of new kinds of statistics like OPS which means on base percentage - someone who may have never played the game and value his advice over a well seasoned baseball grunt spitting tobacco juice, cussing, backslapping good ole boy, who knew the game, for crying out loud! It was unbaseball like, it was unAmerican, it was unorthodox. But, it worked and in the past decade has become the way baseball does business. Now,even the rich teams do what Billy Beane did.

In the movie, Beane explains his scientific method this way: don't bunt, don't sacrifice, don't steal - these are all low percentage ways of getting on base. Take a walk - who cares if you get on base by a hit or a walk. The point is to find guys who get on base. If your not on base, you can't score a run. It was unorthodox and the oldtimers did not like it. Instincts, bunting, stealing, sacrificing - this was the way the game was meant to be played. When Billy traded one of his best players and sent another one down to the minors, his assistant told him, you can't do that! They are not going to like it. He said, don't worry about what they think. If you believe it is right, then do it.

Of course, I was thinking about how often in life we don't do that. We do what we do because it is the way it has always been done and we want to avoid taking the flak for changing it (I am thinking of the Church, in particular, here). We don't want to chance the unorthodox. Now, to switch gears here, I believe in Orthodoxy when it comes to the Faith. But, I think we can do Orthodoxy unorthodoxly (if that's even a word). I think we have to. Jesus was totally Orthodox but he ran afoul of the religious establishment of his day because he went about Orthodoxy unorthodoxly. There are many ways to do Orthodox. We have to change things up sometimes. Or we end up with what has been called Dead Orthodoxy. An Orthodoxy that no one cares about. An Orthodoxy with no life in it.

Billy Beane could have taken his paycheck and been satisfied with fielding a last place team. Instead he shook things up, and found another way to field a better ball club which was competitive. He took the heat of the baseball establishment for doing things differently from the way they had always been done. It was a risk. As his assistant pointed out, it could have cost him his job. He had faith in this new way of looking at building a baseball team. It was the same game but a new way of looking at how it was played.