I recently re-watched the Hollywood adaptation of “Moneyball,” a good movie that captures one of the great seismic shifts in baseball as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane embraces the work of longtime statistician Bill James to newly evaluate and find overlooked and inexpensive talent in a game that favors wealthier teams.
All went according to plan: The A’s 2002 season was marked by a 20-game winning streak, 103 total wins and a playoff berth opposite the Minnesota Twins. But that’s when the best laid plans of sabremetrics fell apart, leading to a Twins win in the best of five game series. In the movie, the final out of the 2002 American League Division Series falls to Twins third baseman Corey Koskie, who was nowhere near the ball in the actual game. No matter. All Twins fans know the final out fell to second baseman Denny Hocking, who, by the time he caught the ball, was near the right field foul line. The Twins won 5-4 and advanced to the American League Championship Series against the Angels.
In Game 5, the Twins took a 5-1 lead over the A’s going into the bottom of the ninth inning, which led Twins manager Ron Gardenhire to call on closer Eddie Guardado to save the game. It was a rocky inning for Eddie, who allowed three runs, all earned, including a home run. But Gardenhire stuck with him. After all, Guardado had recorded 45 saves that season.
“I am telling you that was an emotional last inning,” Gardenhire told the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Oct. 6, 2002. “I was torn, whether I should go get (Guardado). This is about winning and I left him out there.”
It was the right move and the Twins won, and it’s a reminder about how different the postseason is when compared to the regular season. Sabremertrics can tee up a team for success over the course of a long season, but how does that play out when the object is to win the first three or four games in the playoffs as quickly as possible? It doesn’t necessarily go as planned.
According to Moneyball, the book:
Pete Palmer, the sabremetrician and author of ‘The Hidden Game of Baseball,’ once calculated that the average difference in baseball due to skill is about one run a game, while the average difference due to luck is about four runs a game. Over a long season, the luck evens out and the skill shines through. But in a series of three out of five, or even four out of seven, anything can happen. In a five-game series, the worst team in baseball will beat the best 15 percent of the time; the Devil Rays have a prayer against the Yankees. Baseball science may still give a team a slight edge, but that edge is overwhelmed by chance. The baseball season is structured to mock reason.
In other words, shit happens in the playoffs.
Hall of Fame second baseman and broadcaster Joe Morgan was critical of the A’s during their series with the Twins, saying the team needed to manufacture runs rather than wait for the game to come to them. The A’s Paul DePodesta — the Jonah Hill character in the movie — defended the A’s, adding they couldn’t account for what happened to pitcher Tim Hudson, who lost two games in the series after he went 15-9 with a 2.98 ERA during the regular season.
Both are right. Perhaps the A’s should have put the game in motion to prevent being overwhelmed by chance, while Hudson’s struggles represented the luck of the Twins.
Or was there more to that for the Twins? There’s something to be said for a team playing with its back to the wall in the form of league contraction.
“We’re sick and tired of hearing how we can’t hit lefties and we don’t have any power and our pitching staff is unproven and we are too young. We are moving on and are one of four teams left,” Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz told the Strib after that Game 5 win.