When discussing the game of baseball, Hall of Famer and former Yankees player Mickey Mantle (1931-1995) said that “it’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life” (Mantle, 1974). If Mickey was alive and seen all the changes that baseball has gone through since his time, it’s possible that he wouldn’t recognize it. In connection to our class using various class concepts, I’ll attempt to explain these changes through the lens of religion, media, and popular culture; as well as explain the possibility that baseball could be entering its greatest era. The overall research question is whether Moneyball, also known as sabermetrics, works.
Since the beginning of baseball in 1869, rituals were created. From how a manager sets up a lineup, to how scouts find potential prospects, to how players on certain teams conduct and present themselves, to how baseball is played, among many other things.
In the game of baseball, there are usually 9 innings and 3 outs per inning. Outs are got in a number of ways: a strikeout, a fly out, a ground out, a double play; or in rare cases, a triple play. When a specific team get 3 outs in an inning, the game usually goes to the bottom half. When the away teams get 3 outs, the cycle repeats until the 9th inning. If the home team has more runs than the away team, and they get 3 outs in the 9th, they win the game; at the same time, should the away team have more runs, then the game goes into the bottom half to allow the home team to either tie it or win it. Failure to do either will mean a win for the winning team. As multiple announcers have stated over many years, there’s no time limit in this game. A game can only be finished when the final out has been recorded or the home team can’t outscore the opposing side.
Besides how the game is played, managers have a traditional way for how a lineup is to be constructed. Throughout a lineup, there are usually 9 players who have a chance to have an at-bat. The first batter called the lead-off hitter is usually the guy who has a ton of speed in the field and on the base paths. Whenever he gets on base, he’s usually someone who can steal bases and advance into scoring position for the next batter. The number 2 hitter has been usually someone who has good bat control. This is someone who usually can lay down a sacrifice bunt in order to move the runner another base. This is done in order for the next three hitters to have a chance to drive him in. The hitters 3-5 are usually the best overall productive players on the team. These are the players with the highest batting averages, home runs, and drive in the most runs. The 6-8 hitters are usually considered the worst on the team as they descend down a line-up. The number 9 hitter depends on which league the home team is on. Should they be a National League team, the pitcher has to bat and usually bats last; however, if it’s an American League team, then that pitcher doesn’t need to bat and a Designated Hitter DH is used.
When it comes to scouts pursuing prospects, there’s an interesting tool that they use to project players. This tool is called the “20-80 Scale.” How it works is that the number 50 is considered to be average, and as the numbers progress, it showcases that player’s strength(s) with 80 being elite. However, if that number on a specific tool is lower than 50, this is to highlight that player’s weaknesses and where a team can help develop him if drafted. When the term five-tool player gets placed on a player, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. The reason for this is because these are the players who are projected to become the best players when fully developed. These are the ones scouts call “blue chip prospects.”
However, before going any further, it’s important to highlight what five tools that these scouts are looking for in potential players. Those tools are the following: Contact, Power, Arm, Speed, and Defense. Contact is to measure whether or not a potential hitter can hit with a high average above .250; Power is to measure how many home runs that player can hit; Arm is to measure how strong and accurate a player’s arm is in the field; Speed is to measure how fast a runner can run the bases and how quickly that player can run down the baseball a hitter hit his way. Finally, Defense is the tool used to determine how well a player can play defensively.
With all of these respective tools in mind, this represents the three definitions of the term ‘ritual’ in the field of anthropology. In his book Media Rituals: A Critical Approach (2003), specifically in his chapter “Media Rituals: The Short and The Long Route,” Professor Nick Couldry highlighted three broad perspectives on how anthropologists have understood the term and these are the following definitions he used: “habitual action; formalized action; and action involving transcendent values” (Couldry, 2003, 3). For the purposes of this discussion, the definitions used will be habitual and formalized action. Because scouts looked at the traditional statistics (batting average, home runs, and runs batted in) for the overall value of a player for so long, and because most of these scouts were former ball players themselves, they grossly mismanaged their players and showed favoritism to those who fit their definition of what a ball player is. This became a habit for all baseball franchises and had been that way for over 150 years.
For the definition of formalized action, Couldry explained that “it involves a recognizable pattern, form or shape which gives meaning to that action” (Couldry, 2003, 3). Over time to the average fan, a baseball lineup became a recognizable form and had specific meaning behind it. For instance, ball clubs would put their worst hitters at the bottom of the lineup to minimize the amount of at-bats they received; while they would put their best hitters towards the top or the middle part of the lineup. To showcase a specific example, former shortstop Alex Rodriguez would usually bat 3rd or 4th in the lineup because he was the most productive offensive player for the Texas Rangers during the 2002 & 2003 seasons, respectively. In fact, despite the Rangers being in last place both seasons, Alex would go on to win the 2003 American League Most Valuable Player Award. (For more statistics of Alex Rodriguez’s illustrious career, click here.)
However, the problem was that a majority of these tools weren’t used in the first 108 years of baseball’s inception because they didn’t exist yet. Dr. Rocco Porreca (2016) explained that scouts relied on “personal scouting and the use of the naked eye” (Porreca, 2016). To be fair, media technologies like the Internet were not around until the 1990s; so they had no choice but to judge a player by how they saw them and people didn’t necessarily do a good job of keeping track of statistics either. In the 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, author Michael Lewis explained that it was the misinterpretation of some important statistics like the base on balls the walk and oversimplifying others. As a result, Michael pointed out that “the many little injustices and misunderstandings embedded in the game’s records spawn exotic inefficiencies. Baseball strategies were often wrongheaded and baseball players were systematically misunderstood” (Lewis, 2003, 71). Furthermore, these scouts weren’t paying attention to the numbers these prospects produced, but were merely “paid to imagine what kind of ballplayer a young man might become. Some scouts still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s face not only his character but his future in pro ball” (Lewis, 2003, 7). In effect, this sounds awfully similar to the false science of phrenology. Instead of measuring the base of a human skull to determine a person’s character and mental capacity, scouts were measuring a player’s face to determine his character and potential future in professional baseball. As for the injustices and misunderstandings, as well as the strategies being wrongheaded and players being misunderstood, this was my inspiration for taking on this project.
Baseball would not begin its transition until 1977, the year Bill James self-published his first of many Baseball Abstracts. A former Vietnam War veteran and someone who “never played, never managed, and was a former security guard at a pork-and-beans company” (Miller, 2011), he wanted to answer questions of why the game was the way it was; and using available statistics, he would attempt to answer his own questions. Over the years, he would publish books and answer multiple questions of how to win baseball games. As highlighted in the film Moneyball (2011), General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, concentrated on the stat On-Base Percentage. This stat determines how often a player gets on-base. The more players who get on base can contribute for runs scored for their teams, and increase the likelihood of winning games.
However, the baseball community dismissed James and his work entirely. They treated him as a pariah and complete outsider. After all, he never played or managed a baseball team before. So, he was as far from baseball as one could possibly get. The main reason that James was dismissed was because of the difference in ideology. Author Terry Ray Clark explains that ideology is “encountered so regularly…that it goes unnoticed unless one is trying to locate, identify, and study it” (Clark ; Clanton, 2012, 1). Because Bill James took the time to locate, identify, and study what was happening in the game of baseball, this threatened the livelihoods of those inside baseball franchises; especially scouts. Should his ideas be implemented, it could cost people their jobs. As a result, these scouts and people inside the game changed their role to religious gatekeepers; denying his ideas from being incorporated for 25 years. In 2001, an insider would have to become an outsider and be the first to begin implementing his ideas.
Billy Beane (; Paul Depodesta)
Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, would become the first person to fully implement James’ ideas into how he ran his team. Beane, a former baseball player who was a former scout and projected “blue chip prospect,” became an unwilling disciple of Bill James. By the term unwilling, I mean he didn’t have much of a choice. What made the 2001 offseason so detrimental was the fact that they were going to lose their top three players to free agency: Closing Pitcher Jason Isringhaussen; Outfielder Johnny Damon; and former M.V.P. and franchise player Jason Giambi. To make matters even worse, Beane couldn’t resign any of them because of the budgetary constraints on the team. According to Baseball Chronology, out of 30 teams in the league, Oakland was ranked 28th in the amount of payroll available (“Payrolls,” 2002). Compared to the Yankees’ $127 million payroll, the Athletics had under $40 million; therefore, that put Oakland at a disadvantage when signing or re-signing players.
Prior to those three players testing their market value in free agency, Paul DePodesta, assistant General Manager of the Athletics, introduced Beane to Bill James’ ideas. A former graduate from Yale University with a degree in Economics, Paul DePodesta would play a major part in the reconstruction of the Athletics’ franchise. When looking at stats on his laptop, Paul described it as “a new way of understanding amateur players” (Lewis, 2003, 18). In effect, by understanding these players, it helped determine which players are the ones the Athletics should pursue to help their franchise.
By Billy and Paul both implementing Bill’s ideas, they both became outsiders to the game; therefore creating an “us versus them” scenario. In the film Moneyball, former Head Scouting Director Grady Fuson berated Billy Beane by telling him that “baseball thinks the way I do” and that “you can’t put a team together with a computer” (Miller, 2011). When Grady threatened physical violence against Billy, this reinforced Eric Bain-Selbo’s idea that “religious adherents often turn to violence as a means of protecting or forwarding explicitly or implicitly religious objectives (Bain-Selbo, 2012, 72; emphasis added). While Eric’s goal was to interpret violence in popular culture through religion, Grady’s actions can be seen as his way of protecting the traditional ways that baseball was played; therefore, protecting his religion.
However, Bill James’ ideas were not guaranteed to work. Should his ideas be successful, it would bring out a new philosophy of how to play the game. However, should it not work, this would reinforce René Girard’s concept of the “sacrificial” victim. As Girard himself explained, “the elements of dissension scattered throughout are drawn to the person of the sacrificial victim and eliminated…in order to overcome those negative emotions and energy through the ritualized killing of the victim” (Bain-Selbo, 2012, 75). In baseball, the ritualized killing would be the termination of the General Manager. In other words, if Billy’s strategy failed, then he and Paul would be fired from their jobs and serve as “scapegoats” to others who would think of doing the same thing.
However, what would happen to players who didn’t live up to their potential? Dustin et al. (2014) conducted a study creating an analogy between long-term contracts on baseball players and tenure for faculty members at colleges and universities. As they explained, decisions are “guided by a concern for securing future productivity than rewarding past productivity…and past behavior is the best predictor of future performance” (Dustin et al., 2014, 44). When ball players are not being productive, owners of baseball franchises have multiple options on what to do: trade that player for another, release them and sign another player from free agency. During the offseason, free agency is an extremely important time frame for teams to meet and negotiate with players in order to sign them. Borrowing the concept of popular culture from Professor Stuart Hall (1932-2014), David Chidester explains its definition as “a battlefield of contending strategies, tactics, and maneuvers…over symbols of meaning and power” (Chidester, n.d., 86). In this battlefield, managers make strategies and maneuvers in order to sign high potential players. Billy Beane was able to implement these tactics and sign high potential players like 37 year old veteran David Justice; converted first baseman and former catcher Scott Hatteberg; and Jason Giambi’s little brother Jeremy. While on the surface they had their flaws, but they were successful at getting on base.
During the 2002 season, Oakland would go on to win 20 consecutive games; win the American League West title; and make the playoffs for the third consecutive year. According to MLB.com, their record of 103-59 would be tied for their 4th best record in franchise history. For more of a complete record of their franchise, click here. However, the Athletics would go on to lose the American League Division series to the Minnesota Twins. By losing the Division Series, they would also lose the chance of participating and winning the World Series.
As highlighted in the film adaptation of Moneyball, during the 2002 offseason, Billy Beane would be offered a contract to become the manager of the Boston Red Sox. During the credits, it explained that he would turn down a $12.5 million contract over 5 years and sign an extension to stay with the A’s.
During the introduction of Billy Beane, it was explained that he became an “unwilling disciple” of Bill James. In fact, when considering a religious disciple, it’s easier to compare him to John the Baptist. As it’s said: “But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (New International Version, Matthew 3:11). While Billy was the beginning, he isn’t the end of this story. Despite Billy Beane not winning the World Series with these tactics, the individual who would come after him would have a chance to do it. His name is Theo Epstein.
Theo Epstein (Boston)
A native of Boston, MA, Theo Epstein was the alternative to become General Manager of the Red Sox after Billy turned down the offer. Unlike the economically limited fiscal situation in Oakland, Boston was working with the 2nd highest payroll in the league. In fact, it was because of their financial stability that allowed them to sign Johnny Damon to a 4 year contract worth $32 million. On top of that, as discussed in the film Moneyball, the owner of the Red Sox, John W. Henry, hired Bill James in their analytics department. With top notch players like Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra on their roster, the Red Sox were successfully able to make multiple playoff appearances for multiple years. However, that’s not to say the task was going to be easy for Theo. He was going to be another person who would attempt to break “the curse of the Bambino.”
The “Curse of the Bambino” began after the Red Sox won the 1918 World Series. The defining moment was when owner Harry Frazee sold his best player, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees to finance a Broadway production (English, 2012). Once Babe Ruth was sold, it would begin the ascension of “the evil empire” with their first World Series title in 1923. In fact, the Yankees would go on to win 26 more titles while the Red Sox failed to win another title from 1919-onwards (86 year span).Under the management of Joe Torre, the Yankees would win the World Series in 1996, 1998-2000, and make a World Series appearance in 2001. Despite making World Series appearances in 1975 and 1986, the Red Sox would go on to lose both series against the Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets in heartbreaking fashion. The most heartbreaking defeat for the Red Sox came in 2003 in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. In the bottom of the 11th inning, Yankees player (and now General Manager) Aaron Boone would hit a walk off home run off Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield to eliminate the Red Sox and advance to the World Series. These heartbreaking defeats would stun the baseball culture in Boston, longing for another World Series title and ending this curse. The reasons behind this belief was explored by Wann ; Zaichkowsky (2009) when they conducted a questionnaire involving 250 students (84 male, 166 female) at a University in the Boston area. Based on their findings, it was found that “highly identified fans often report a belief that their team had been cursed, due in part to assist in their coping with the team’s poor performance” (Wann ; Zaichkowsky, 2009, 498). For the Red Sox’s fans, it was bad enough they would suffer another year of this curse due to poor performance; they would be eliminated by their ultimate rivals and watch them advance to the World Series 6th time in the years span from 1996-2003.
Under Theo Epstein’s management and Bill James’ ideas, the Red Sox would have another chance at doing that. Unlike his predecessors, Theo would utilize all the information and statistics to his advantage. Donald Moynihan (2006) examined the parallels and offered insights to how the public sector can be similar to understanding performance information in baseball. Moynihan interprets that the motivation behind this quest for new baseball knowledge was the “belief that useful performance information has the power of language—it communicates, enlightens, and increases knowledge” (Moynihan, 2006, 648). What would be the most useful performance information for the Boston Red Sox? The answers would vary, depending on what information scouts accumulated on certain players using the 20-80 scale.
Plus, it became extremely vital that the Red Sox drafted really good prospects. Longley and Wong (2011) used a data set over a 20-year period, based on current information, to decide which players would become stars. Measuring pitchers based on the numbers, they found that “it’s difficult for all organizations to predict the future success…” and the minor leagues “provide modest insights into how they’ll perform at the advanced level” (Longley & Wong, 2011, 203). In short, Theo was going to be getting a sneak preview of all prospects he would draft and their performance in the minor leagues will determine the amount of success in the major leagues. Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci wrote in his book The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building a Winning Team and Breaking the Curse that Theo had to turn Boston into a “scouting and player development machine,” and put his entire effort into drafting the Red Sox’s future (Verducci, 2016, 47). Over time, he would sign players from free agency like David Ortiz and Curt Schilling; as well as sign prospects like Anthony Rizzo, Manuel Margot, Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Xander Bogaerts. In the 2004 playoffs, the Red Sox would eliminate the Yankees to advance to the World Series and beat the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first title in 86 years. In 2007, the Red Sox would win another World title under Epstein.
In connection to popular culture, the Red Sox and Yankees have one of the most heated rivalries in all sports. This rivalry has created an “us versus them” scenario between these teams and their fans. To showcase this divide, YouTuber Hammy conducted a social experiment wearing the team jerseys all over Boston to see how fans reacted. When he wore the Yankees jersey, he was heckled and even punched in the face by a Red Sox fan. As one of the fans told him, “You should really take that shirt off dude before you get hurt or something” (HammyTV, 2015). By using the media, this video clip really showcases the passion that Red Sox fans have for their team and hatred of the Yankees.
As his success in Boston grew, so did his disillusion about the direction the Red Sox were going. Because of their respective World Series wins and winning culture, when they weren’t winning games, things got messy. As Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci documented, “The more they lost, the more they broke apart from within. Players feuded with one another. The egos that had created cracks in the clubhouse…caused deep fissures as they lost” (Verducci, 2016, 40). This divisiveness cost them the chance to advance to the playoffs in 2011, the final year Theo would be manager of the Red Sox.
Theo Epstein (Chicago)
Once his time in Boston came to an end, Theo received a phone call from Thomas Ricketts, the owner of the Chicago Cubs about becoming President of Baseball Operations. As Chicago radio host David Kaplan wrote in his book The Plan: Epstein, Maddon, and the Audacious Blueprint for a Cubs Dynasty (2016), Theo wanted to “change the culture, & we’re going to make building a foundation for sustained success a priority” (Kaplan, 2017, 91-92). In other words, by creating that foundation and changing the culture of the Cubs, he was going to ensure that he wouldn’t make the same mistake in Boston and take player’s chemistry into account. Mast et al. (2014) examined the question of what constitutes good leadership and conducted multiple studies on what people expect from good leaders. In the first study, 71 participants (34 females, 37 males) filled out a questionnaire about the specific qualities that are desired from a leader. Based on the results, it was found that superiors were “expected to be innovative, interpersonally sensitive, and criticize actively” (Mast et al., 2014, 1051). For the Cubs, they were going to need a leader with a track record of success and successful team rebuilds; as well as someone who was innovative and interpersonally sensitive. However, once again, the task of helping the Cubs wasn’t going to be easy.
Like the Boston Red Sox, the Cubs were going through a long drought without a World Series title. In fact, the team had not won a World Series title in 1908. Similarly, the Cubs were also going through a supposed curse. Instead of the Bambino, it was a Billy Goat.
The curse of the Billy Goat began for the Cubs in 1945 after William Sianis wanted to bring his Goat into the stadium to watch the Cubs play the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. According to the story, P.K. Wrigley, the owner of the Cubs at the time, told security to tell William to get rid of that barn animal because it stinks. As Mitchell explained in the video, William reacted angrily and told the security guard that “it’s not my goat that stinks, it’s the Cubs that stink, and they’ll never win anything” (BuzzFeedBlue, 2016). In effect, William would put a curse on the Cubs which cost them the 1945 World Series and would not make another appearance since.
While Theo Epstein would do his best to re-create the success for Chicago he did in Boston, he would incorporate a new strategy he didn’t before: drafting high-character position players. There were two reasons behind this move. The first was best said by Epstein when he was interviewed by Verducci: We are going to define our identity. We’re going to define it through our best players. We’re going to define it through our young nucleus” (Verducci, 2016, 80). Under Theo Epstein’s Cubs, that young nucleus would be the following players: Anthony Rizzo (acquired from a trade with the San Diego Padres in 2011); Kris Bryant (drafted 2nd overall in the 2013 draft); Kyle Schwarber (drafted 4th overall in the 2014 draft); and Addison Russell (acquired from a trade with the Athletics in 2014). All four of these players were under the age of 25, energized, and would continue developing into superstar talent.
In 2016, all of the pieces were together. In Game 7 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians, the Cubs would win the series for the first time in 108 years ending the curse of the Billy Goat. The same exact number of years had passed from baseball’s beginning to Bill James self-publishing his Baseball Abstract. The overall reaction to the Cubs winning was absolute pandemonium. Fans who had a strong identity with the Cubs team no longer had to cope with poor performances. (For a video compilation of fans reacting to the Cubs winning the World Series, click here).
Does It Work?
Since Billy Beane brought Bill James’ idea into the mainstream of the Oakland Athletics, and Theo Epstein garnered success using them under the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, are there other teams that have used these tactics when making decisions? According to ESPN writer Ben Baumer, there are other teams using these strategies, and he highlighted the following teams: “Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Oakland A’s, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, and Tampa Bay Rays” (Baumer, 2015). This is extremely important to consider because in the last 15 years, beginning in 2002, most of these teams have either made playoff appearances or won the World Series. Interestingly, the Houston Astros are the latest team to win the World Series after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers using the same strategy. (For a more complete list of World Series winners, click here.)
Overall, my reflection of all the research conducted compliments my research question because using sabermetrics (aka Moneyball) has made teams more efficient and operate at a more optimal level. What this teaches me is that mass media’s engagement with religion is that it’s always evolving. In his book After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950’s, when discussing the characteristics of a practice-oriented spirituality, author Robert Wuthnow writes that it requires “a significant amount of time and effort…learning the rules of the game, developing skills…and by practicing” (Wuthnow, 1998, 178). By taking the time to learn the rules of the game and practicing, Billy Beane, Theo Epstein, and Bill James were able to fundamentally change the religion of baseball.
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