Opinion Columns & Blogs

Peter Schrag: Moneyball may win games, but it’s boring

It’s now an even 10 years since Michael Lewis’ book made Moneyball a big item on the sports pages and gave Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, its chief exponent, what may become a permanent place in baseball history.

Nerds love it, and over the years, as other teams picked it up, it’s seemed to pay off magnificently. But it’s also drained the game of color. You could even say that for the fan in the stands who doesn’t know his OPS from his WPA, and doesn’t care, it’s made baseball hopelessly boring.

Moneyball, based on what’s known as sabermetrics, is the methodical use of statistics in baseball strategy. For Beane, whose team can’t pay high prices for talent, it came down to two core principles: (1) recruit players not by the shape and heft of their bodies but by their statistics in college or amateur ball and (2) don’t give away outs with sacrifice bunts.

The whole point of the game is not to make outs and, in the front office, getting more bang for the buck.

Consider the 2013 season, when the famously low-budget A’s, playing before thousands of vacant seats in their inhospitable ballpark, came close once again to parlaying the Beane strategy into big-time success.

Nor were the A’s the only low-budget club to get into this year’s playoffs. Of the eight contenders, three – the Tampa Bay Rays, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the A’s – were among the five with the smallest payrolls of the 30 clubs in major league baseball.

The mighty New York Yankees, with a team payroll three or four times that of the A’s, didn’t come close. The Yankees’ three costliest players get about as much as the whole A’s team.

In the end, none of the low-budget contenders made it, though both the A’s, aka the Sacramento River Cats, and the Pirates tantalized their fans to the very end. All were beaten by heftier payrolls.

But the main reason for regret isn’t that Moneyball didn’t take the A’s to the World Series, something they haven’t done since 1990, long before Beane took over – the wonder is that they’ve done so well. But through a 162-game season, notwithstanding the late summer excitement the A’s briefly generated among their fans, the games get tedious.

A week ago Tuesday in Detroit, the A’s had the bases loaded with nobody out in the eighth. They were a run behind but leading in the series two games to one. One more win and they’d get to the next round.

In another era, some team might have tried to squeeze home a run and move the other runners up. It was called smallball. But the numbers say you have a better chance of scoring if you hit away. And Josh Reddick, the guy who was up, doesn’t know how to bunt. In big league ball these days, excepting only a few National League pitchers, hardly anybody does. So they played it by the book and lost.

It was the turning point in the series, which the A’s lost 3-2. When they were done, they’d struck out 57 times in the five games, said to be some sort of record.

During the regular season, they hit more home runs than all but two other teams. Like the rest of the hitters in the majors, who set a collective of record of some 36,000 strikeouts this year, they knew how to swing for the fences, and they tried mightily. But waiting for home runs, even when the wait is rewarded, is boring.

Where’s the running game? Who ever tries a suicide squeeze? This year the A’s stole 74 bases, which is just nine more than half the 130 Rickey Henderson stole by himself in 1982. The threat of a bunting game might even force the corner infielders to play further in, increasing the chances for a well-hit ground ball to get through.

There are lots of other things to complain about. In the owners’ desperate efforts to engage the spectators, everything’s scripted: the flashing signs urging “NOISE” and “LOUDER … LOUDER,” the waving during the playoffs of dishtowels, the tomahawk-chopping, the blare of pop music, the ritual jumping up and down and the player dog pile after every walk-off hit, the high fives in the dugout for the routine grounder that scores a runner. Do teams practice this stuff?

Baseball was always slow, allowing for jockeying and chatter in bleachers between pitches, but the amplified noise has made even that difficult, and so we now have the wave and the bouncing beach balls. And as always, there’s the compulsive landscaping on the mound or in the batter’s box, the cap-tugging, the batting glove-adjusting, the crotch-scratching.

It’s enough to drive even dedicated fans to their iPhones.

You can’t blame Moneyball for all this. It may appeal to Wall Street market analysts and it helps teams do better in the won-lost column. But for this aging fan, the game isn’t nearly as much fun.