The curse of being first

Bob Moon: Given the threat to the NBA season we mentioned earlier, you might want to enjoy this while you can: We've still got the final few days of baseball's regular season. Several teams are on the playoff bubble. And they need to win or they won't make the postseason.

Today, the movie "Moneyball" opens in theaters. It's the story about a team that changed the business of baseball a few years back. That would be the Oakland Athletics. And as commentator Jon Wertheim points out, their cleat prints are all over what we'll see this weekend.


Jon Wertheim: Statistical modeling, algorithms, and 20-somethings tooling around on their laptops. It doesn't sound like the elements that can be alchemized into cinematic gold. But who knows? "Social Network" was among the best films of last year. And now here comes the sports version, "Moneyball." It tells the story of the turn-of-the-21st-century Oakland A's and hard-charging general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt.

Note the past tense here. Today, the A's are still constrained by a small payroll and a tight budget. They are a team devoid of stars, with a record well south of the .500 mark, and they are about to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season. As such -- without giving too much away -- "Moneyball" doesn't end with a dramatic and triumphant World Series victory for the underdogs.

But the story does feature a classic business-style ending. The "Moneyball" strategy entailed applying new metrics to discover undervalued talent, to find those unmined gems. The tactic, if that's what you want call it that, enabled the A's to hold their own against teams with more cavernous pockets, such as the Yankees and Red Sox. For five of seven seasons -- around the time Michael Lewis reported and wrote his excellent book on which the movie is based -- the A's made the playoffs.

In business terms, the A's front office found an inefficiency in the market and took advantage of an opportunity. But much the same way nature abhors a vacuum, markets dislike inefficiencies. Soon enough, the other firms, er teams, used similar "Moneyball" techniques, and Oakland's competitive advantage eroded.

The Red Sox, for instance, hired seminal baseball statistician Bill James -- and, not coincidentally -- ended the franchise's World Series curse in 2004. Baseball front offices became the provinces of newly minted MBAs and Wall Street refugees using metrics and strategies once used to find value in securities to find value in switch-hitting shortstops. Today, every team in major sports has an analytics department. Today, everyone is playing "Moneyball."


Moon: Jon Wertheim is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. It's your ball now. Send us your comments -- write to us.

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