In a review of the movie Moneyball, David Denby writes:
Lewis, Miller, and the screenwriters may have gone too far in their gleeful celebration of Beane and their denigration of scouts. Beane has never made it to the World Series (in 2002, the A’s were eliminated in the playoffs by the Minnesota Twins). Oakland has had a mediocre record for the past five years, and it’s finishing a lousy season this year. Success in baseball remains something of a mystery (though pots of money continue to help the Yankees and the Sox). Sabermetrics is a fascinating approach to winning, but it’s one of many approaches, not the ultimate answer. It can’t explain why some teams with the right stats catch fire and others fade. In the movie, the scouts say some dumb stuff, but they know that statistics, no matter how they’re broken down, can’t predict everything.
Denby generally likes the movie and is supportive of its message, so I shouldn’t really complain, but . . . the above passage is just silly. Nobody is saying that statistics can explain everything. In fact, Bill James wrote a lot about prediction error (for example, his so-called Plexiglass principle). Beyond this, the ideas of Moneyball are anything but a secret, so there’s no reason you’d think that Moneyball tactics would help the A’s after the ideas had been widely spread and accepted. I mean, really: Oakland is “finishing a lousy season this year” and that’s supposed to be evidence that sabermetrics isn’t all that?
P.S. The real question, I suppose, is why I read the review at all, given that (a) Denby is neither an insightful reviewer nor an interesting writer, and (b) I almost never go to the movies. I have no good answer to this one.
P.P.S. The real real question, I suppose, is why I bothered to blog this at all (beyond the usual explanation that I have a lot of things to procrastinate this week). As I’ve written before, you can learn a lot about a person by looking at what irritates him or her. Denby’s review irritates me for two reasons. First, as a statistician I don’t like to see statistics disparaged or overly hyped. (A little bit of hype is ok, but not too much!) Second, I hate hate hate that “humanistic” attitude in which people without scientific training try to justify their existence by going all mystical on us. It doesn’t have to be that way—John Updike, for example, was able to appreciate the mystery of life without disparaging science.