'Moneyball' misses: Clubs need more than OBP
Hitting, pitching, fielding, bench all musts to win in big leagues
I went to see "Moneyball" as soon as it came out. It was entertaining and true to the spirit of the book, but that's only part of the story, a story that has an agenda. Simply stated, the message is that you can win in the Major Leagues without spending a lot on players, as long as you have hitters who get on base a high percentage of the time.
The movie pays a brief homage to Bill James, who started writing about on-base percentages and slugging percentages at least 30 years ago. The fact that walks and extra-base hits have value beyond what is expressed in batting averages was well known among baseball professionals long before "Moneyball."
But what is amazing is that slugging percentage isn't even mentioned in the movie. Young sluggers Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada were conspicuously absent in the movie. Also omitted is the fact that Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder were the real "money" players on those A's teams. All three were among the top ten pitchers in the league.
There is a lot more to winning pennants than OBP.
This was evident in an ironic way last night, when the Rays overcame a seven-run deficit in the late stages of a game with the Yankees, thus winning the American League Wild Card berth. This happened just days after I read a column about the genius of Rays general manager Andrew Friedman. The author's premise was that you can win pennants with a low payroll by emphasizing good pitching and fielding.
In the movie, the genius was Billy Beane, who insisted that manager Art Howe play catcher Scott Hatteberg at first base. Howe pointed out that Hatteberg was a terrible fielder at that position. Beane said something along the lines of, "Fielding. The [heck] with fielding."
It is a fact that the Rays won with pitching and defense this year. But it's not that simple. They won last night with clutch hitting. And don't forget the good vibes created by the quirky management style of Joe Maddon. We call that chemistry. It covers the intangibles such as mood, confidence and togetherness.
OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) comprises 90 percent or more of your offense, but not all of it. Baserunning is also a factor. Every good baseball fan knows that you seldom win without good pitching, even with a bountiful offense. And fielding, because, good or bad, it has a significant effect on pitching.
Even if you have good pitching, hitting and fielding, you can still fall short if you have a weak bench. Players get hurt. Sometimes they need to be replaced for months at a time. You often need pinch-hitters, pinch-runners and defensive replacements. You need to have these players on your bench, and beyond that, winning teams almost always have good prospects in the Minor Leagues -- players who come up during the season and play well enough that it is obvious that you couldn't have won without them.
To say Billy Beane was an innovator is wrong. He patched together some great teams without spending a lot of money on players. But he didn't invent on-base percentage. He simply emphasized it. He is not a genius.
Andrew Friedman is not the first GM to win with limited offense. The 1906 White Sox, otherwise known as the "Hitless Wonders," won the American League pennant with a team batting average of .230. But they led the league in walks that year and had speedy baserunners. They ended up third in the league in scoring. And they had great pitching.
The Dodgers of the 1960s used the same combination. But the Dodgers of the '80s won with power hitting and great pitching, despite having a poor-fielding team.
The "Big Red Machine" Cincinnati teams in the 1970s won with great hitting, baserunning and a deep bullpen. They had a good bench, but their starting rotation was below average.
If you have enough money, you can ostensibly have everything you need on Opening Day. That's the way the 2011 Red Sox were built. But the BoSox had a rash of injuries, and despite having good bench players and a good Minor League system, they fell just short in a late-season collapse.
The long and short of it is that there is no way to field a team on Opening Day that can't miss making the playoffs. It's just too complicated.
A decade ago, Beane and the A's were great, but only partly because of their OBP. This year, the Rays were great, and not just because of their pitching and fielding.
I don't want to diminish the accomplishments of Beane and Friedman. But I respectfully submit the theory that there are no geniuses in baseball.
I talked to Howe yesterday. He was disgusted with the way he was portrayed in the movie.
"The guy who played me was a sourpuss," he said. "You know I'm not like that. And the scene where I supposedly confronted Billy about extending my contract was fiction. I never did that."
I believe him. But it made the conflict angle better for the movie. And using a larger actor, who was indeed a sourpuss, to play the Howe role in counterpoint to Brad Pitt (Beane) also served the movie's agenda.
Still, I have to admit, I really enjoyed both the book and the movie. Seems like I've heard an adage that you shouldn't let the truth stand in the way of a good story. That formula paid off big time for author Michael Lewis and the spin masters in Hollywood.
Larry Dierker played in the Major Leagues for 14 seasons and guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.