Moneyball Is Over. Long Live Moneyball

Ryan O’Hanlon
·7 min read

First, there was Moneyball. Then came Moreyball. And now, there’s neither.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Billy Beane, the subject of Michael Lewis’s 2003 book, would be leaving his position as Executive Vice President of the Oakland A’s to join up with Fenway Sports Group, the sports-investment vehicle of Boston Red Sox owner John Henry. A few days later, Daryl Morey (himself a subject of Lewis’s in the 2016 book The Undoing Project) resigned as general manager of the Houston Rockets. “Morey isn't ruling out a future return to the NBA on the team side,” wrote ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, “but he has become increasingly determined to explore what else might interest him professionally.”

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the two exerted seismic influence over their respective sports. With a comparatively shoestring budget, Beane turned the Oakland A’s into one of the best teams in baseball by looking past scouting cliches and counting the stats that really mattered. Since Beane took over as general manager in Oakland in 1998, the A’s have won the sixth-most games in MLB, despite maintaining the league’s second-lowest payroll over that span. Morey, meanwhile, became the GM in Houston 10 years after Beane started his stint in Oakland, and much like Beane, Morey transformed his franchise by, once again, looking past scouting cliches and counting the right stuff. While he was in charge, the Rockets won more games than any team in the NBA other than the San Antonio Spurs.

No matter what happens next, Beane and Morey will both go down iconic, transformative figures: You can’t tell the modern history of baseball or basketball or any other major sport without mentioning Beane or Morey. Their teams are responsible for ideas we take for granted now: walks are good, and so are three-pointers. But with both exiting in the span of a week, it’s hard to shake the feeling that their jobs remain somehow unfinished. If you finger through the logs of championship games, you won’t see either name mentioned. Which is fine, of course: one of the major tenets of the Beane-Morey approach is to trust the process, not the result. But the simple fact remains. Not only did Beane’s A’s or Morey’s Rockets never win a title; they never even made the finals.

In 1980, the New York Mets selected Beane, then a high-school outfielder from San Diego, with a first-round pick in the 1980 MLB Draft. In his nine-year career, he only made 148 MLB appearances—there are 162 games in a single season—and as the story of Moneyball goes, his rise as an executive was driven by his attempt to answer a single question: Why did all those idiots think I was gonna be so good? With the A’s, Beane focused on drafting players based on their statistical production rather than their aesthetic traits. He also made the decision—obvious in hindsight, like so many statistical revelations in sports—to prioritize some stats over other, more popular ones. Batting average had long been the main tool for determining an offensive player’s value, but it failed to account for the fact that a walk counted just as much as a single. And when Beane started hunting for players who posted high on-base percentages, the A’s started to take off.

Since then, baseball’s statistical revolution has gone warp-speed. We’re so far along, in fact, that every time a manager makes a strange decision it’s probably best to just assume he has access to some kind of proprietary data you wouldn’t even understand. Everyone is doing a much more advanced version of what Beane initially set out to do: use numbers to find a competitive advantage. And although teams are following in his path, the people in power suddenly look a lot different. According to a study by ESPN, 43 percent of MLB GMs graduated from Ivy League schools, compared to 3 percent in 2001. Over the same stretch, the number of former players in the same role has decreased from 37 percent to 20 percent. Now even the richest teams in the league are smart, too. While that has led to curse-breaking titles for Henry’s Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, it made Beane’s job even harder. Sorting free-agents by OBP doesn’t cut it anymore.

The stereotype of the baseball-analytics-type is, well, roughly correct: egg-heads who never played the game before. But the guy who started it all never went to college and was considered one of the best amateur baseball players in the world at one point. Hell, Brad Pitt played him in the movie! In fact, if you want to understand what baseball has become, go watch Moneyball again but don’t focus on Pitt. Instead, keep your eyes on Jonah Hill, who plays Paul DePodesta, an awkward, nebbish Harvard grad who worked as Beane’s assistant. Those are the guys who run things now.

Morey is more like his MLB contemporaries than Beane. He went to Northwestern, got his MBA from MIT, and worked at a consulting firm before getting into basketball. But like Beane, Morey built all kinds of models and tried a bunch of different ways to remove bias from the scouting process. After whiffing on eventual star center Marc Gasol—who looked rough in a tank top as a teenager—Morey banned the phrase “man boobs” from scouting reports, evoking the famous scene in Moneyball where Beane berates his scouts’ obsession with how players looked. And where Beane valued walks, Morey figured out that three-pointers were worth more than two-pointers. His Rockets led the way as teams across the NBA grew increasingly reliant on shots from behind the arc. By taking the best shots—and constantly acquiring the players who were best at creating them through an unceasing flurry of trades—Morey made sure the odds were always in Houston’s favor across an 82-game season.

But Beane’s words from Moneyball apply to both sports: “My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.” In Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, the Rockets missed 27 straight 3s—an absolute statistical anomaly, the sort of thing a model would never predict. The Rockets lost. After the game, Morey said, “We should have won.”

Beane and Morey leave their respective sports in different places. There are very few undervalued players in baseball anymore, and every team is focused on producing the same things: walks, homers, and strikeouts. The new frontier is figuring out ways to make the players you already have even better. And the chase for extra wins has become so competitive that there’s seemingly a massive cheating scandal every other year now; Apple watches, computer hacking, guys banging on trash cans, you name it. The NBA isn’t quite there—yet. Threes have become the game’s base currency, but I know a few New York Knicks fans eager for Morey to ignore all those inevitable offers from high finance and come work at Madison Square Garden.

Both Beane and Morey proved that baseball and basketball’s entrenched traditions and conventional wisdoms were self-defining features: that just because everyone was doing the same thing didn’t mean that it was the right thing. Perhaps that’s why Beane is expected to head up FSG’s soccer-related projects, and why Morey, too, has occasionally spoken about all the silly things he’s seen soccer teams doing. There’s no sport that’s more tied to the past than the one that’s been around the longest.

There is, of course, one obvious criticism to throw at the world that Beane and Morey built. It’s a stretch, but not a huge one, to say that they’ve sucked the magic out of sports, transforming every player, every transaction, and every on-court event into an efficiency to be exploited. But I’m not sure that’s entirely true. If anything, Beane and Morey have proven just how far away we still are from solving sports. Otherwise, one of them would have a ring by now.

An earlier version of this piece described Billy Beane as the first overall pick in the 1980 MLB Draft. He went 23rd.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He publishes a twice-a-week newsletter about soccer called No Grass in the Clouds.

Originally Appeared on GQ