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Monday, October 15, 2012

Trouble with the Curve

When I was in high school, there was a local kid who attracted the attention of professional and college scouts. I can't remember if he was drafted out of high school, but he was big college recruit and, in fact, ended up attending one of the top programs on the West Coast. Unfortunately for him, it turned out that he couldn't hit a (college) curve ball, and as such, his (college) career didn't live up to expectations.

The inability to hit a curveball, is the theme of the new Clint Eastwood movie, "Trouble With the Curve." It tells the story of an aging baseball scout played by Eastwood, who is is given one last assignment to prove he still has what it takes. His nemesis is a superior who is more enamored with computer-generated statistics rather than flesh and blood ballplayers. I don't want to give too much about the movie away, but "Trouble With the Curve" is the anti-Moneyball movie. I've written about Michael Lewis's book, Moneyball, before ("Moneyball and Conventional Wisdom"). It is the story of how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane who, working with a limited budget, used computer statistics to identify players who don't have great arms, run like deers, or hit a lot of home runs, but are very good at either generating runs (i.e., position players) or keeping opposing players off base (i.e., pitchers).

In short, then, "Trouble With the Curve" is critical of those who rely solely on statistics to judge the worth of a ballplayer, and it appears to have Billy Beane as the unnamed target. However, I don't think Beane would disagree with the film's premise that it's important to see players in person. To be sure, Beane consults a wide variety of statistical measures when it comes to evaluating talent, but he also watches game films and, as far as I can tell, has his scouts watch ball players play.  However, Beane also believes that computers can help bring to light players who don't attract a lot of attention (because they aren't "flashy") but are effective at creating (or preventing) runs, which, in the end, is the name of the game. And, if anyone doubts the wisdom of Beane's approach, one only has to consider the year that the 2012 "no-name" A's just had ("I Couldn't Resist..."); it was nothing short of remarkable.

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