The 2011 sports drama Moneyball starring Brad Pitt would win widespread Hollywood acclaim upon its release, but it was a movie that highlighted a greater discovery in the sports research field. The subject of baseball statistics was never considered an attractive topic, even for those fans, coaches and players who loved the game for generations. Yet the principles of this approach would be examined and replicated by sports enterprises across every discipline and every competition to one degree or another.
Baseball statistics expert Bill James would be the writer who published a series of books during the 1970s and 1980s, delving into the game like no one before him. Whereas scouting networks and those inside the game were focused on the obvious numbers and the aesthetics of hitters and pitchers, James would assess what the numbers actually meant and where the value could be found.
His consultations with big league teams would yield results. While hits, strikes and other generic measurements were part of the package, he would develop new algorithms. Metrics like range factor, runs created, win shares, secondary average temperature gauge and game score were entirely new to this environment. One man who would pay close attention to this phenomenon was Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane.
Alongside his assistant Paul DePodesta, the pair would be at the forefront of the ‘Moneyball’ approach. It would be a term that described the analysing of the market for players who were undervalued before selling off players for what they deemed as overvalue. Those statistical frameworks adopted by James would be the foundation for Beane and DePodesta to alter the roster of the Oakland A’s, reaching the playoffs every year from 2000 to 2003, including a 20 game winning streak in 2002.
In the sports research field, ‘Moneyball’ removed the aesthetic profile of a player and focused on their core skillset. Hitters like Scott Hatteberg were considered too slow and one-dimensional to make a success with a big franchise, but his on-base percentage made him a key asset in California. The same for pitcher Chad Bradford, utilising an unorthodox pitching style that didn’t compute with baseball convention.
Arguably the biggest impact of the ‘Moneyball’ approach was the capacity for smaller teams with fewer resources to compete with the big sides in their league. It would be a misconception to say that those bigger teams could not emulate these strategies for their own gain, but the Oakland A’s would regularly outperform MLB franchises with much larger budgets, upending a system that has been designed to allow financial muscle to dominate the landscape.
The concept of ‘outsmarting the market’ suddenly became possible because the traditional way of scouting players and building rosters was outdated. It was not enough to research players based on their bread and butter statistics because there were other sets of data that illustrated their actual value to a winning team over the course of a regular season.
The very idea of ‘Moneyball’ has been hotly debated and contested in the years since. Now that this level of detail is not a new phenomenon, there are different operating models within baseball and other sports that are being utilised.
However, the innovations designed by James and enacted by Beane at the Oakland A’s revolutionised how managers and scouts looked at their practice. The lucrative offer to Beane by the Boston Red Sox of a five-year $12.5 million deal in 2002 illustrated how much value his insights were. Building a roster and squad at a sporting club had to incorporate the most exact of profile information, embracing a strategy that would change how sports organisations operated forever.