If you’re a baseball fan, there’s a good chance that you’re profoundly interested in the new film Moneyball, that is set to debut on September 23rd at a theater near you. The Common Man is planning to see it, but hasn’t seen it yet, so this is not a review of the film. Others, including Aaron Gleeman, Keith Law, and John Bonnes, have seen it. Gleeman and Bonnes found themselves entertained by the film, with Aaron saying that “what the movie lacked in historical accuracy it made up for in witty dialogue, likable characters, and a surprising amount of humor.”
Keith had an entirely different reaction, calling it
“an absolute mess of a film, the type of muddled end product you’d expect from a project that took several years and went through multiple writers and directors. Even good performances by a cast of big names and some clever makeup work couldn’t save this movie, and if I hadn’t been planning to review it, I would have walked out.”Yeesh. KLaw goes on to lament the movie’s “lampooning of scouts, which draws from the book, [and] isn’t any more welcome on screen (where some of the scouts are played by actual scouts) than it was on the page.”
After reading KLaw’s review, someone at Moviefone tracked down original Moneyball author Michael Lewis to get his reaction. Lewis was taken aback, but rather than react with a modicum of restraint, went on the offensive, saying,
“He's intellectually dishonest, and I don't know to what purpose….I don't understand why he goes from being -- when I interviewed Keith Law, and I did, at length -- he was so nasty about scouts and scouting culture and the stupidity of baseball insiders. He was the reductio ad absurdum of the person who was the smarty pants who had been brought into the game and was smarter than everybody else. He alienated people. And now he's casting himself as someone who sees the value of the old school. I can't see where this is all heading and why. But I learned from experience that the best thing to do is ignore it, because it goes away."
Lewis’ response is pretty damning, what with calling Law “intellectually dishonest” and all. But here’s the problem, Moneyball is actually really old. It was published eight years ago, in 2003, which probably means the interviews Lewis did to write it were conducted in 2002. That’s practically a lifetime when it comes to baseball and the statistical revolution. Statheads in both baseball’s front offices and in the online writing community have grown significantly since those bad old days where scouts were denigrated, spreadsheets worshipped as golden idols, and on-base percentage was the only thing that mattered.
Indeed, Lewis seems to be indicating that Law should feel exactly the same in 2011, as the four-year veteran of a baseball front office and five years as a writer for ESPN, as he was just a year after he had been hired by JP Ricciardi to his first job in baseball. As though Law’s experience should not have been able to influence his initial impressions, which should have been cast in amber, crystalized, and frozen in carbonite just be sure. KLaw’s not being intellectually dishonest, he's gotten smarter. Most of us have to varying degrees. He’s seen that good scouting has incredible value to an organization and can be used in tandem with numbers and figures to get a complete picture of a player or an organization. Those who reject either stats or scouting as useless are dinosaurs who can’t help but be lapped by their more flexible rivals.
What’s amazing is that Lewis’ rigidity is completely counter to the thesis that most of us seem to take from his seminal work in Moneyball, for organizations to zig when others zag, to find undervalued resources, and to exploit every advantage over a competitor in order to maintain their competitive advantage.
The Common Man doesn’t blame Michael Lewis for not keeping track of how the debate has developed over the last eight years (unless, of course, he’s working on a Moneyball 2). He’s undoubtedly moved on to other things. But it’s stupid for him not to have learned the lessons of his own work, and to get stuck in a past paradigm and to view that as unchanging. The Michael Lewis who wrote Moneyball would, or should, have known better. But maybe he’s changed a lot in the last eight years too.
Update: Keith goes into greater detail about the evolution of his mindset regarding stats and scouting in today's ESPN Today podcast. It's very interesting and compelling, and certainly clears up some of the concerns of readers in the comments. And, hey, it was all prompted by a question from your very own TCM. Go to about 18 minutes in.