'Moneyball,' Oakland, and the Engineering of Victory
Moneyball is opening nationwide today to rave reviews, and there is already Oscar buzz about Brad Pitt’s performance. For lucky Torontonians like me, the movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9.
I’ve been an A’s fan since my teenage years in the early 1970s, back in the days of Charley Finley’s and Dick Williams’ legendary championships featuring Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, and Bert Campaneris.
The movie, based on Michael Lewis’ bestseller of the same name, tells how Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s captured the American League West in 2002 utilizing a statistical technique known as sabermetrics. Beane was able to best bigger market teams that could attract major stars with higher salaries by focusing on sophisticated metrics such as on-base percentage, runs created, and linear weight, that maximize player success and help refine offensive tactics.
Is there a reason this happened in Oakland instead of elsewhere? Maybe so. To start with the obvious, it’s a smaller market team with a limited budget. New York, Boston, L.A., and Atlanta are rich; they could care less about this approach, since they can and often do just go out and buy the players they need. But there are many other smaller market teams, like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, that could have pioneered this approach but didn’t. And most of those cities aren’t just small—their economic systems are also in decline.
Along with San Francisco and San Jose, Oakland is one of the three major metros that make up the broad San Francisco Bay Area. And the prevailing culture of the region at the turn of the millennium – fueled by high tech industries from semiconductors and software to biotech and social media – was one that was based on innovative and commercially viable ideas. Engineering values were and continue to be deeply embedded in its DNA.
You could certainly argue that had Billy Beane been employed by the Brewers at the time, Moneyball would have taken place in Milwaukee. But if the culture of a city affects its sports teams (and I'd argue it does), then you can also flip that logic around: Oakland chose Billy Beane. Looked at in this light, it doesn’t seem surprising at all that the A’s would have been the first to take such a risky, high-stakes, yet not at all irrational gamble. It was how business was done in that time and place.