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Starkey: Huntington a 'Moneyball' guy?

| Thursday, July 21, 2011

Neal Huntington finds it curious that people reflexively refer to him as a "Moneyball guy."

By that, they presumably mean the Pirates' general manager is a disciple of Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, whose new-age, statistical-based evaluation of players was chronicled in Michael Lewis' seminal book "Moneyball."

Beane is credited with advancing "reason and science" in player assessment — particularly of prospects — as compared to the subjective analysis of conventional scouts. Hence the book's running quarrel between "stat guys" and "traditionalists." The former need only a prospect's numbers to make a value judgment; the latter must watch him play.

One man Googles, the other ogles.

The conflict burst into flames with the publication of "Moneyball" in 2003 and continues to rage in advance of the movie, scheduled for a September release starring Brad Pitt as Beane.

If you want to get a baseball man stirred up, read him this paragraph from the book:

For (the A's), a young player is not what he looks like, or what he might become, but what he has done. ... (This) directly contradicts the baseball man's view that a young player is what you can see him doing in your mind's eye. It argues that most of what's important about a baseball player, maybe even including his character, can be found in his statistics.

This is why Huntington, as much as he respects Beane, isn't eager to pin the "Moneyball" tag to his lapel.

"On one hand, it's an honor to be named as a disciple, but on the other, it's not true," Huntington said. "The scouting side is my foundation. I've definitely learned the value of the objective and metrical part of the game, but I think the very best (evaluators) I've seen have balanced the objective and subjective. That's what we try to do."

As I found out firsthand, "Moneyball" remains a touchy subject.

Huntington, at first, was reluctant to discuss it. Pitching coach Ray Searage looked like he'd swallowed a lemon when I broached the topic.

"You're going to open a can of worms," Searage said, laughing. "In my opinion, there was some validity to ('Moneyball'), but you can also punch holes in different things. I've never really been an advocate of that stuff. I trust my instincts, and I trust my bullpen coach and my bullpen catcher, and I let my eyes and (the players') personalities tell me what's going on."

That sort of quote was ridiculed in "Moneyball." Therein lies a problem I have with the book, and, likely, the movie: Old-school baseball people are marginalized. Mocked, even. Yet, here is Searage, orchestrating one of the great one-year pitching turnarounds in baseball history.

The truth doesn't always make for the best story, particularly when Hollywood gets a hold of it. The truth is that while Beane's methods were often brilliant and daring, they also contained holes.

Nobody in baseball has the magic bean, as evidenced by Beane's last-place A's, who have not had a winning season since 2006.

I'm with Huntington, who makes use of the work of his statistical guru, Dan Fox, and the opinions of a multitude of more traditional observers. The late Chuck Tanner, an old-school guy if there ever was one, was a Huntington confidante.

Still, as Huntington points out, Beane found value where others did not. He emphasized on-base percentage and slugging percentage over more traditional hitting measurements, for example. And there is no doubt his strategies caught on, which could be one reason the A's have faltered. Even big-market teams such as the Red Sox are run by so-called "Beane disciples."

Combine Beane's ideas with a $150 million payroll, and you're probably onto something. Every team has access to the statistical wonder world called sabermetrics. The A's aren't original anymore.

Is anybody?

"It has become more and more challenging as more teams look to find market inefficiencies and exploit them," Huntington says. "It's an ever-changing and ever-evolving process."

Clearly, Huntington has found a few things that work. That's obvious in looking at the product on the field.

If this keeps up, somebody might make a movie.

'Moneyball's' main failure

The mission of "Moneyball" was to explore — and ultimately contradict — the widely held belief that "the people with the most money often win."

Fact is, people with the most money do often win. The proof lies, ironically, in the sabermetrician's Bible: Baseball Prospectus.

This year's edition lists the 10 most successful teams of the 21st century. Four of the top five and seven of the top 10 happen to be among the top-10 payrolled teams. The A's, Twins and Giants are the exceptions.

Brilliant as "Moneyball" might be, its central theme does not stand up.

Author Michael Lewis paints Billy Beane in 1999 as toying with Major League Baseball's Blue Ribbon Panel, a group formed to address legitimate concerns regarding competitive balance. Beane is described as feigning distress about his team's small-market status when he actually savored it ...

Billy told the panel that his inability to pay the going rate for players meant that his success was likely to be ephemeral. It might have been what they wanted to hear, but it wasn't what he believed.

Still, the A's success has proven to be ephemeral — and part of their downfall was losing great players who became unaffordable.

Beane doesn't sound so brash anymore. Consider his quote from a recent radio interview in Oakland: "We have one of the challenging, if not the most challenging, market in the league. The economics of the game are getting more difficult for us."

I'm guessing that won't be one of Brad Pitt's lines in the movie.

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