Where Anything Happens: The Dreams of Moneyball and the Beauty in the Unreasonable

Moneyball tells the apparently simple story of how a failed ex-major leaguer finds redemption and the underfunded team of which he was the general manager finds success by surfing the implacable wave of advanced statistical methods.

As such, it’s an underdog story that’s easy to follow.  Both the general manager, Billy Beane, and his team, the Oakland Athletics, are easy to identify with and support.   Most of us struggle, like the A’s, to make our lives without the privilege of vast wealth or superior natural talent.   Moreover, many of us may identify with Billy Beane’s struggle to right the failed choices of our younger days, even, or especially, when those choices were made on the basis of something that feels like the misleading promises the world made us about our abilities or potential.   Seen in this way, I certainly found Moneyball, both the book and the movie based on it, moving and enjoyable.

From another point of view, Moneyball is at the same time a story of enlightenment, which is to say a story about progress in knowledge.  At the outset the protagonist Billy Beane faces two questions, one personal and one professional.  Personally, the question is how he went from a highly touted amateur prospect to a failed ex-professional.  Professionally, the question is how to assemble a successful major league team with a fraction of the money available to other general managers.

In the book and movie, the solution to both riddles comes from advanced statistical methods or Sabermetrics, as these methods came to be called in baseball.  Sabermetrics help Beane understand why his career took the path it did because the scouts who virtually guaranteed his success at the highest levels were using flawed, non-Sabermetric methods to assess his value as a player.  And they help Beane field a successful team because Sabermetrics lead him to value and cheaply acquire players overlooked by wealthier teams using flawed methods to assess player value.

From this point view, the antagonist in the story is the scouting establishment, blindly wedded to a combination of idiosyncratic observation, anecdote, unquestioned traditional truisms, limited statistical measures, and intuition.  This contest between Beane and the establishment, between sabermetrics and intuition, and therefore also between reason and irrationality, is played out simultaneously in two arenas.  The first is the baseball diamond of course, where the goal is to win games.  And the second is the market, where the goal is to get paid.  Beane, sabermetrics, and reason triumph in both arenas:  they win ball games and the market comes to value them.

In this way, the overt moral of the story is, first, that baseball is a game that can best be understood and manipulated through the use of reason and second, that the market, whatever its quirks, is ultimately a rational arbiter of value.  Along the way, of course, the story also teaches us that ingenuity and determination triumph over complacent privilege.  From this point of view, all would seem to be well in the all-American world of baseball, rational ingenuity and the wisdom of the free market.

Broadening the picture Moneyball appears to be not only a quintessentially American story, but also a miniature version of the story of the rise of Western civilization through the Enlightenment and modernity.  Cultural historians usually use the term Enlightenment to describe a loosely grouped set of beliefs and values that gained ascendancy in Europe in the 18th century.  Built on the foundations of Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment thinkers argued that the world of things and people could be understood rationally according to certain fixed laws of their nature.  On the basis of such a rational understanding human lives could be improved.  True knowledge of nature and of human beings could be shared and applied to empower humans to defend themselves from natural disasters and disease, to exploit natural resources more efficiently, and to level unjust hierarchies based on religious belief and inherited privilege.   With the Enlightenment, science would replace superstition, reason would replace faith, and objectivity would replace subjectivity.  And the result would be the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals.  Modernity is the name we give to the combination of technological, social, political, and cultural shifts that grew out of the Enlightenment.

In one sense, Moneyball participates fully in this broader narrative of Enlightenment, where reason triumphs over such irrational forces as superstition and emotion.  But the wrench in the works, at least for me, is that the very appeal of the story undercuts its Enlightenment message.  I’ve said that it is easy to identify with Billy Beane and his crew.  This is to say that it is easy to see his story as our own and so to invest emotionally in the arc of his struggle and eventual triumph.  But this identification and emotional investment are constructed on an at-best rough analogy whereby we equate Beane’s life and the specific world of professional baseball with our own lives and world.  Exactly to the degree that we are experiencing these attachments we have suspended our ability to think critically about the validity of the analogy we have constructed.  We forget, in other words, all the ways in which the people and things in the baseball world portrayed in Moneyball are not the same as the people and things in the world we live in.   The story, in other words, depends on irrationality to drive home its message about the triumph of reason.

And this pertains not only to the elements of characterization and plot structure which cause us to identify Beane’s story as our own, but also, explicitly where the film is concerned, to the visual devices by which we are reminded again and again of all in baseball that exceeds the grasp of reason; of all in baseball, in short, that we love and that make it the national pasttime.  I’m thinking of the exterior shots of the ballpark, looming with beckoning promise for the approaching fan on a summer’s day.  Or the images of the lush simplicity of the diamond, made of the grass and dirt that we can find anywhere around us and so binding us to the adventures played out within its lines.  Or the various suspenseful game scenarios we are cued to invest in by the throngs of absorbed fans in the stadium.  Baseball may be more amenable to statistical analysis and so to reason than other sports, but no sport benefits more from romanticized, irrational attachments. And the film of Moneyball at least, understands this and exploits it to cement our emotional attachment to its story of the triumph of reason.

At the heart of Moneyball lie questions of value and of knowledge: what ought a baseball player be worth? And how can we best determine that?  The answer seems to be that a player ought to be valued according to his contribution to winning and that his contribution to winning will be best be determined through rational, advanced statistical analysis.  Given sufficient sample size, the methods cannot fail to accurately assess a player’s value and, given enough time, the market will come around and value a player accordingly.  But the story’s broad appeal (well beyond fans of baseball or advanced statistics) depends on mobilizing exactly those irrational qualities that, within the world of the story, are lampooned (in the form of the scouting establishment) as ignorant, stubborn, irrational, and old-fashioned.

I am speaking, in a way, of something that might be called, very loosely, the return of the repressed.  On its surface, Moneyball would like to assure us, it seems, that baseball is a game of reason and, moreover, that the market quite reasonably agrees.  Given time and sufficient computational power, we can scrub our understanding of the game clean of vague, intuitive pseudo-knowledge.  But if it can’t quite seem to make its case by reason alone, perhaps that is because neither baseball nor we, the story’s consumers, really are exclusively about reason.  Indeed, for some philosophical commentator’s this is true of the Enlightenment itself.  Modernity’s dependence on a quasi-religious devotion to science and technology itself expresses the indispensability of the very irrationality that it was elsewhere at pains to extinguish.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that advanced statistical methods have no place in baseball or other sports.  It is obvious that they do.  Obvious, in other words, that there are aspects of baseball and its culture (as of other sports and their respective cultures) that can be quantified and may best be approached by science and its methods.  I mean only to say Moneyball itself points – intentionally or not, I cannot say – to the elements of the game and of the human beings who play and watch it that reason cannot capture.  And, moreover, it points to these elements not as unfortunate wrinkles to be overcome, but as essential aspects of the game as it is played and enjoyed.

Around the time Moneyball came out in theatres, I heard Bill James, founder of Sabermetrics, interviewed on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”  Host Neil Conan pointed out that it seems that Sabermetrics may win lots of games, but it doesn’t win lots of playoff series.  James replied, quite reasonably, that this is because, in effect, a playoff series doesn’t provide a large enough sample size.  In other words, in a short five or seven game series, statistically anomalous elements of the game – chance, injury, emotion, weather, a hot pitcher, a hot hitter, bad calls – that might iron themselves out over the course of a 162 game series are not ironed out and so have a disproportionate impact on the game.  Perhaps that is why the playoffs, in every sport, generate so much interest.  Of course, the stakes are higher and that may be the biggest reason for our excitement about the playoffs.  But I wouldn’t underestimate the role played by our intuitive understanding that in the playoffs, anything can happen; or, to follow Bill James’ statistical terminology, anything is pretty much as likely to happen as anything else.

It is, of course, when anything happens, when the unexpected happens that we thrill and delight in the drama and, so, the art of the game.  Reason and quantitative analysis are perhaps not our best tools for appreciating and communicating such experiences.  For that, we need emotion, imagination, and language.  Accordingly, I think we err if we cast all that is not amenable to reason in the same trash bin as outmoded prejudices and superstitions.  And, the random, the beautiful, the emotional, the unexpected, the chaotic are no less valuable a part of the athletic experience than, say, the ability to get on base and so generate a greater likelihood of winning.  Michael Lewis may have had all this in mind when he subtitled his engaging, colorfully told story:  “the art of winning an unfair game.”

We should, I think, remain mindful of this, in life as in sports.   Reason is one of our faculties as human beings.  It is one facet of our being.  And its exercise can be beneficial and enjoyable for its own sake, as well as for the advantages it may bring.  But it is only one faculty.  And no one of our faculties defines the human being or his or her worth.  It is, on the contrary, the unique combination of physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual faculties we possess that make us human.  These faculties may not always combine harmoniously.  There may be situations when emphasizing one or another is called for.  But we are, I have no doubt, at our best when we can engage all of these faculties together in concert.  And I don’t think that science has yet come up with a formula for quantifying, let alone achieving, that.

I wrote this some time ago as a reflection for the now hibernating Voice on the Floor.  Today’s piece on Ricky Rubio in The Classical  by Flinder Boyd raised in passing – no pun intended – similar issues of quality and quantity, of art and numbers, of value and money.

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