The intangibles

I was watching a special on a cable sports channel about great baseball players, awaiting the results of where our current roster of great ones land on the list. The ultimate judge was based solely on statistics. Now, there has been much on the rise with the statistics and Sabremetrics to judge the better players — the old “Moneyball” approach, made popular by the 2011 Brad Pitt movie of the same name.

The results of the sports show were disappointing to say the least as to where they ranked some Yankee greats because the approach completely factored out so many of the important and intangible parts of the sport — mainly heart, instinct, and overall team spirit. So it got me thinking about that movie and another recent baseball movie Trouble with the Curve. Both movies displayed the old-school instinct and the new-school metrics and how often they’re at odds with each other.

There was a scene in Moneyball where Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane (yes, Oakland’s current GM) has relied solely on statistics to build a team that is starting to win some of their games, but the attitudes of some of the players are disturb the team unity, which translates to loss on the field. So Beane has had it and fires the troublemaker, installing a player who fit the team better as a whole. He is at odds with his statistician, but the result is more wins. What Sabremetrics fails to take into account is the player’s character and impact he has on team morale.

In Trouble with the Curve, old-school scout (played by gruff and grumpy Clint Eastwood) relies on what he knows is going to work — his own instinct. In one part of the movie, he arranges for a struggling minor league prospect (cameo here: Clint’s own son Scott) to have his family come visit him, which in turn boosts his on-field play and puts him back on the rising path of the next generation of great players for the Braves (the team this movie centers around). In another scene, Clint and his daughter (played by Amy Adams) recognize that although the hot-shot kid everyone’s buzzing about can hit everything from a high school player’s pitch with a metal bat, his swing isn’t clean enough for the wooden bats and high speeds of the Majors. The movie’s antagonist fights Clint’s instincts at every turn, relying instead on what the computer is telling him about performance and predictions; it is insinuated that the guy hasn’t seen a real game in years.

The conclusion of both movies isn’t that we need to discount either system entirely but rather find a happy medium. At the end of the Curve, it is Amy Adams’ character that brings the marriage of the two to discover an amazing young pitcher. And nearly a decade after the Moneyball system was implemented, the A’s went on to win their division last year, a team now a decent threat in what is becoming a tough division in the league; they face the Angels, the Rangers, the reorganizing Mariners, and newly AL Astros this year. A product of the marriage of Moneyball and instinct is Nick Swisher. The Indians are lucky to have him this year.

And that’s the problem I guess I mainly have with just using one system — you miss the guys who will play through bone bruises, driving rain or snow, bleeding socks, broken helmets, lack of sleep, and booing opposing crowds all with a great attitude and passion for the game they’ve loved and played for 25 years of their life.

Go Yankees!

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