By Justin Fox
Oct. 20, 2011
The Oakland Athletics — the 2002 version — keep winning, while Major League Baseball for the most part has passed them by.
As the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers meet in the World Series, “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt as A’s General Manager Billy Beane, is treating movie-goers to the tale of how Oakland a decade ago rebuilt into a 103-game winner after the departure of three stars it couldn’t afford to keep.
It’s also created a debate over what the A’s run of success but not quite triumph from 2000 through 2006, and the team’s subsequent failure to put together a winning season, really means, according to the Oct. 24 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.
As recounted in the 2003 Michael Lewis book upon which the movie is based, Beane was among the first high-level baseball executives to embrace sabermetrics, commonly known in the business world as data analytics. Through the statistics, Lewis wrote, Beane exploited inefficiencies in the market for talent and built a low-budget team that triumphed over richer foes.
The book quickly became a business classic, making brainy iconoclasm seem heroic. Plus, baseball has two characteristics that exist in business only in the abstract: a level playing field and truly reliable performance metrics. Cause and effect are clearer, and successful behaviors and counterproductive ones can be isolated.
But the most useful lessons to be drawn from the recent history of the A’s — and sports in general — may not be the ones celebrated in the book and movie.