The “Moneyball” Kerfuffle

In case you live under a rock — which I have been accused of many times in the past — the new “Moneyball” movie comes out in theaters next Friday. Many baseball writers have already seen the movie in private screenings, and reviews are starting to trickle out. From what I’ve seen, the movie is drawing mixed reviews — some people like it and some hate it, but overall it sounds like a fun movie that won’t be terrible. And you know, that’s better than I had originally expected.

But one review has currently caused a bit of a skuttlebutt. Keith Law wrote a fair-handed takedown of the “Moneyball” movie on his person blog a few days ago,  and his review drew enough attention that Michael Lewis himself responded. Law’s criticism touched on both the movie and baseball aspects of the film, and in general, he felt that both were lacking. Some of the comments seemed nitpicky to me — inaccuracies I wouldn’t necessarily have noticed, even as a pretty big baseball and “Moneyball” fan — but one of his comment has really stuck with me:

…[T]he lampooning of scouts, which draws from the book, isn’t any more welcome on screen (where some of the scouts are played by actual scouts) than it was on the page; they are set up as dim-witted bowling pins for Beane and Brand to knock down with their spreadsheets. It’s cheap writing, and unfair to the real people being depicted.

Man, how far we’ve come since “Moneyball” first came out. It makes me wonder if this movie is going to end up being a bad thing for the public perception of sabermetrics.

You know, it wasn’t all that long ago when it seemed funny and hip to make fun of scouts and baseball “traditionalists”. When “Moneyball” first came out, there were darts being flung back and forth from both sides of the aisle. Saberists weren’t afraid to criticize old-school baseball thinkers for being close-minded and stuck in their ways, and the old-school certainly wasn’t afraid to give right back at them. The baseball world was changing at a rapid pace, and it scared some people while invigorating others.

But these days? While there is still some lingering animosity, I think we can firmly stamp out the notion that saberists think scouts are useless. Even the most experienced and knowledgeable statheads acknowledge the importance of scouts, and the value in accruing as much knowledge and information as possible. Sabermetrics isn’t about stats; as Tango loves to say, it’s the search for objective truth about baseball.

The more and more we discover about baseball, the more we realize the truth is somewhere in-between. Pitchers do have some control over their balls in play…just not nearly as much as traditionally thought. Lumbering sluggers with high walk rates are valuable….just not as valuable as saberists used to think, due to their poor defense. As our knowledge has become more nuanced, I’ve started to realize that whoops, maybe we were a bit too harsh on non-saberists back in the day.

Many of the statistics tracked here on FanGraphs have their roots in scouting data — velocity readings, Pitch F/x charts, plate discipline rates, batted ball profiles, etc. — and scouting is a vital part of any organization. But when this “Moneyball” movie comes out, are saberists going to be depicted as know-it-all, holier-than-thou elitists? Because if so, dammit. That’s the image we’ve been trying to tear down for the last few years, and now it’s just going to be reinforced.

I’m excited to see the “Moneyball” movie, as I was a big fan of the book at the time. But I can’t help but ask myself: is “Moneyball” slightly dated already? Yes, Billy Beane’s general principles of statistical analysis and market inefficiencies still hold true today — and both have swept the baseball world — but will this movie only widen the divide between those that appreciate stats and those that don’t?

Only time will tell. I wish I could say I was optimistic.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

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Jason
Guest
Jason

“…are saberists going to be depicted as know-it-all, holier-than-thou elitists? Because if so, dammit. That’s the image we’ve been trying to tear down for the last few years, and now it’s just going to be reinforced.”

Whenever I question sacred cows like WAR or UZR around here plenty of people reinforce the image you’ve been trying to tear down. …and I criticize them on statistical grounds…

DavidCEisen
Guest
DavidCEisen

Shut up. Using terms like ‘sacred cows’ makes you look like an asshole and a moron.

Jason
Guest
Jason

haha, well done.

Daniel
Guest
Daniel

… sounds like someone doesn’t like their Sacred Cows being questioned. 🙂

Jerome S
Guest

My sacred cow is Bruce Chen

DavidCEisen
Guest
DavidCEisen

No one treats UZR or WAR as ‘sacred cows.’ Every one admits that there is serious noise in UZR data, and that large sample sizes (bigger than one season) are needed. Further, everyone is hopeful that UZR and other advance defense metrics will be improved. So obviously WAR has flaws too. It is only in your paranoia and pretension that you perceive them as being sacred.

nosferatu
Guest
nosferatu

What god would Bruce Chen be if Bruce Chen were a Hindu god?

Jason
Guest
Jason

Oh, you were serious! …which makes it funnier actually.

shthar
Guest
shthar

mmmmmmmmm, sacred cow.

Chris
Guest
Chris

Gave this a thumbs up for well-placed sarcasm. Then I read on to find out the writer was serious. Whoops.

Tommy
Guest
Tommy

It’s not true that “no one” thinks that. Don’t speak for EVERYONE else, man.

GiantHusker
Guest
GiantHusker

I could be wrong, but I read this as superb parody. I think you negative voters owe David an apology.

Bip
Guest
Bip

The thing is, people often cite acknowledged flaws in WAR and UZR and use that to basically declare a “toss up” between old fashioned and advanced statistics, i.e. that “eh, none of them are really accurate, so we might as well just use ERA.” This fallacy is common enough that it can be assumed that people who criticize the advanced metrics, when usually the articles themselves contain qualifications about their accuracy, probably have an agenda behind it.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

I’d love it if, whenever a sportswriter cited ERA, AVG, or W-L record, they included the caveat “these stats mean virtually nothing.” That’d balance out all the caveats that the advanced stats routinely get.

Jason
Guest
Jason

Yirmiyahu,

Sportswriters typically cite the advaced metrics with the caveat that they are better than the traditional ones. Here is an example:

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/cliff_corcoran/09/13/mariano.rivera.stats/index.html?sct=mlb_bf2_a3

It is not actually true that ERA, AVG or W-L record mean virtually nothing, so that caveat would be misleading.

joser
Guest
joser

But they’re not especially predictive and it would be awesome to occasionally hear that mentioned in the mainstream.

Jim
Guest
Jim

The other thing is, too many defenders of WAR and UZR take the Keith Law approach of belittling their detractors (like DavidCEisen) rather than offering a reasoned counter that doesn’t insult (like Bip). I think that was Jason’s main point in the first place.

DavidCEisen
Guest
DavidCEisen

What is belittling is saying that UZR and WAR are sacred cows, when the exact opposite is true. Nearly any defender of UZR would admit that there are serious flaw in UZR (which is why Fangraphs lists other advanced metrics) and is hopeful that they can be improved upon. By definition that means they aren’t ‘sacred cows.’

Jason
Guest
Jason

DavidCEisen,

I appreciate the unintended irony.

Barkey Walker
Guest
Barkey Walker

ERA is plenty predictive. I’d give you FIP is a lower variance estimator, but not that ERA isn’t predictive.

DCN
Guest
DCN

Well, are you questioning them as flawed or are you dismissing them as meaningless?

There’s a big difference. I think most people on this site would be very receptive to specific criticism of stats like WAR and UZR; that’s how we get better stats (and how we got those stats in the first place.)

Jason
Guest
Jason

DCN,

I think they are not useful for making meaningful comparisons between players until someone slaps some error bars on them. UZR is likely to be particularly problematic. The error very well may be on the same order as the differences it is trying to measure.

I’ve seen people sort of recognize this by saying that, for example, WAR shouldn’t be carried out to the second decimal. Well, it is actually the case that without having any sense of the error, we don’t even know if it makes sense to carry it out to single digits, or tens, etc. I doubt these extreme examples are the case, but I also have no confidence that a WAR of 6 is actually meaningfully better than a WAR of 5 or even 4. How can I possible know this without knowing the amount of error?

None of this is really my point here though. I was just pointing out that some people really don’t like when you question WAR. You might be called “asshole” or “moron”.

Patrick
Guest
Patrick

DavidCEisen is actually right, ‘sacred cows’ is indeed one of those terms used by pretentious assholes. I would not recommend using it.