Moneyball and the media

Sean O'Neill - More than the score (Tom Bateman/AQ)

Yes, Michael Lewis sold millions of copies of the book. Yes, it peaked into an up-and-coming mentality in sports management. Yes, a story about algorithms, pythagorean theorem and sabermetrics has been turned into a big budget motion picture staring one of world’s five biggest movie stars – Brad Pitt – and one of the five best actors of his generation – not Brad Pitt.

For those of you who live under a rock or flunked Grade 10 math like me, Moneyball looks at how baseball’s Oakland Athletics competed against teams with severe financial advantages. The generational divide is evident when general manager Billy Beane, played by Pitt, tells his much older scouts that the best way to produce a competitive ball team on the A’s shoestring budget is analyzing players through statistics and not natural skill or intangibles.

But while Moneyball does a great job of showcasing how the statistics revolution has made its mark in baseball management (which is the easiest sport for this type of analysis because it’s a series of one-on-one battles as opposed to a fluid game like soccer, basketball or hockey), it’s not the only world that has felt a ripple effect.

Jonah Keri knows this well. The 37-year-old Montreal native and baseball writer for Bill Simmons’ must-click Grantland.com got introduced to the world of baseball analytics when he was nine when his father bought him The Bill James Abstract.

James, the godfather of stats, influenced another generation of writers such as Rob Neyer at ESPN.com and then the Baseball Prospectus series which was first released in 1996. This was when Keri realized there was a market for this type of commentary.

“I was still a business writer at that point,” Keri said via email, “but when I started reading BP I thought, ‘Wow, this could have a future,’ and ‘Hey, maybe I could try that.'”

While it’s had more than a future, not everyone was receptive to the new way of thinking. Just like some old-school scouts saw Beane as a crackpot, the scribes who’ve covered baseball for decades saw the new-school writers as nerds stuck in front of their computers and living in their mother’s basements. Murray Chass vs. Nate Silver is a great example.

This didn’t mean anything to Keri.

“It was something new, so I imagine they were resistant to change,” said Keri. “Wasn’t a big concern of mine though. If anything, others’ resistance created more demand for a contrarian view.”

Keri is proof of this. He added to the growing volume of stats-based literature in March when he released the New York Times Bestseller The Extra 2%, which chronicled how the Tampa Bay Rays went from laughingstock to the World Series. (He is now working on a history of his beloved Montreal Expos).

If anything, the Moneyball revolution has shown that not only executives and writers can be smarter, but so can the sports fan.

While the archetype of a sports geek will always be a 350-lb man wearing a medium shirt, with a painted face, eating hot dogs and cursing out the referee, that’s not all fans can be. Sports fans have never had more information at their fingertips, and we have complicated math to thank.

“Demand and supply have kind of grown hand in hand,” said Keri. “More people are doing good work makes readers more likely to consume this stuff. More readers creates more demand for more good writers.”

And that cycle is easier to calculate than the power/speed number.

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