Baseball hits the big screen this week with the release of Moneyball, based on the 2003 book of the same name by Michael Lewis. The story follows Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, who used computer-generated analysis to build a winning team by drafting or acquiring players generally unwanted by others team, who he could sign on a shoestring budget.
Unlike the current team, which is headed toward 90 losses, the A’s won a total of 301 games between 2001-03, and finished first in the America League West twice (but lost in the AL Division Series each season). In 2002, Miguel Tejada was named AL MVP and Barry Zito won the Cy Young Award.
The film also features Phillip Seymour Hoffman as A’s manager Art Howe (pictured below) and Jonah Hill as the assistant GM based on Paul dePodesta.
During the time covered by Moneyball, the A’s pitching coach was Rick Peterson, who helped to develop Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson into 20-game winners.
Peterson, who subsequently was the pitching coach for the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers, now works as an advisor to Bloomberg Sports on their analytic programs for teams, players and fans; and operates his own business, 3PSports, which helps individual players use analysis to improve their game.
Big League Sports spoke with Peterson about Moneyball then and now.
Big League Sports: When you were their pitching coach, the A’s were one of the first teams to really embrace analytics. How are we seeing that strategy used today?
Rick Peterson: It’s amazing how quickly technology has advance the game, almost like what people were doing with the first big bulky cell phones and looking at where we are today with smart phones. What we have today is so user friendly that players can adapt very quickly, because technology is part of their life. They understand, they link data with video and as a result things can be done so much quicker in terms of player analysis. It is not much different from the business world overall, where now technology drives everything. We may have been the first club in, but now even what we were doing then pales in comparison to what teams can do today.
RP: There were several. One [who benefited] the most was Kenny Rogers. Here was a guy who was a wreck when he left New York [Yankees], for a number of reasons. Yet he came to Oakland, and led the AL in ERA under Billy’s leadership and what we could do with him by showing him different things. Part [of the reason] was the environment but part was the change in philosophy.
Another was the late Cory Lidle, who because of Billy’s genius as a GM, came to us in a risky trade from Tampa for  Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve. He fit our system, they saw the value, and he became a huge piece of our turnaround because of how he fit into the system.
BLS: In the movie there is a feeling that Billy was this maverick who didn’t want to listen to the scouts and created his own system. How accurate is that?
RP: No not at all. The core of our pitching staff were players like Hudson and Zito who our scouts found and they grew in the system. The input of the scouts both then and today is invaluable. The game is played by people with emotions and heart and that does not change, and there is no better way to see that than with great scouts. We would not have been successful without good scouts, no one can. What changed was the use of analytics combined with scouting, and that was Billy’s greatest skill, as well as Paul and the other guys in the front office. The combination of the two is what makes a great system.
BLS: Were you involved with the movie at all?
RP: Not with the current film. I talked to the guys a lot when [Steven] Soderburgh was involved [as director, subsequently replaced by Bennett Miller]. But when they made the change I wasn’t involved. I heard you get to see my back in some shots.
The great thing is that fans who may not remember will see a story that was truly amazing, as much for those players buying into a system and thriving as for what the front office and the coaches did. It is a game played by athletes and people, and that team had guys with big hearts who believed in the system Bill and his staff created and Art Howe managed, and the results were really historic as we know.
I was invited to go out for the premiere, but to be honest I have so much going on now with Bloomberg and all our clients at 3P sports I’m happy staying here and working.
RP: That’s hard to say, because everyone has access to the same data. It’s like going to Home Depot to buy a tool box, or going to a grocery store to buy ingredients for a great meal. Not everyone can take the tools and build a house, and a master chef can create meals that a normal person can’t. Some people are just more gifted than others, and the teams that have the gifted people at the top are the ones that can get things going and use the data that exists in the best possible way.
BLS: In what way will current teams take analytics, data and technology to the next level?
RP: The ease of use of technology is making the game better. What Bloomberg has done with MLB to give players the ability to download all their information with video on a tablet minutes after a game is amazing, and has already started to change the game. Next I think will be closer to real time analysis, where you will be able to identify fatigue in a pitcher as he throws in a game, and how he needs to adjust almost from batter to batter. You won’t see laptops getting feeds in the dugout, but that feed will be right down the hall just like the video room is now, and that will give coaches and players a huge help in making adjustments and even avoiding injury.
BLS: Any thoughts on getting back into the dugout?
RP: This year has been great for me to grow in many ways that I normally would not have gotten if I was still with a team. If the right opportunity comes up, sure. I love the game and always will, and I am proud to have been part of the A’s system, just like I was proud to have worked to help the Mets and the Brewers.