Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Moneyball, Math and Poker

Since I haven't followed baseball closely since I was a teenager, I was oblivious to what the subject matter of Moneyball would be, other than the fact it was based on the true story of the general manager of the Oakland A's during a particular recent season. Having this fresh, untainted perspective made the film that much more enjoyable for me, I imagine, because I felt like I had actually learned something coming out of the theater.

The narrative depicts a kind of revolution in the way that baseball management and scouting are done within the organization of the A's. In 2001, coming off a successful season, the general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), is forced to operate within a very limited budget and compete against teams like the Yankees who were spending three times as much and taking some of the A's star players in free agency, like Jason Giambi. Necessity is, in fact, the mother of invention, it turns out.

In looking to revamp his team on a limited budget, Billy goes to work seeking to make some deals with other teams, but without much leverage to work with. When a trade with a team goes sour because of the input of one of the team's statistical analysts in the room -- Peter, played by Jonah Hill -- Beane realizes that Peter is something of a genius that thinks outside of the box of typical management strategies (as Billy is looking to do), and recruits him to be his assistant. Using a highly math-based, statistical-analysis method of scouting and recruitment, Peter thinks he can help Billy rebuild a winning team on the cheap by finding players that are undervalued by traditional metrics.

Though their system is initially mocked as egg-headed, stuffy, and ineffective, there are underlying non-mathematical realizations about what wins game and what is valued in players, versus what should be valued in them, which are qualitative as well as quantitative. For example, Billy's system values walks and On-Base Percentage higher than most traditional systems, and cares much less about fielding in general (especially at the position of first base). This could be right or wrong, but it isn't merely a statistical data point; it's a view of what really produces runs and wins, and what is less important than most people think. Peter also uses statistics to analyze things like pitch distributions and, through Billy, advises players on the appropriate adjustments to make to their game. Younger "math-based" players in poker are often similarly unfairly criticized by the old guard, with the older players often seemingly oblivious to the fact that statistical analysis is a description of actions taken in the real world which reflect important realities, such as betting patterns.

Billy's staff is resistant to the change given their experience and knowledge of the game, but Billy is convinced of the soundness of Peter's insights, which are based on the work of Bill James. One exchange between Billy and his head scout plays out exactly as the dynamic between an old-school, live, intuitive poker player and a young, online, "math-guy" poker player (which is itself similar to the dynamic that took place when the stock market was similarly revolutionized, or so I'm told).

Billy and Peter's method is derided in the media when the team opens the season in poor fashion. But their vision for the team is being hampered by the team's Manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who isn't playing the team the way that Billy wants him to. Once Billy pulls some strings, by trading certain players, Art is forced to go with the program, at which point the A's go on a phenomenal winning streak.

Realistically it's of course possible that the winning streak had more to do with some other variables than Billy and Peter's system, but within the narrative of the film their system is vindicated, just as the "math guys" and "quants" in the stock market and poker worlds were vindicated and changed the way the respective "games" were played. It isn't a perfect analogy, of course. There actually is a personal, intangible, psychological element to live poker that isn't present in baseball, but the significant correlation was interesting to me as a poker player.

For the record, Moneyball has more to offer than this short post suggests. The screenplay by Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) is superb, and the cast is fantastic. I highly recommend it, even to those of you who have no interest in math or analogies to the poker world.

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