An Unfair Game

There’s a movie coming out this week. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s based on a book that Bill James didn’t write. It goes by many names: Joe Morgan’s Book of Nightmares; The Joy of Stats; The Unbearable Lightness of Beane; Eat, Pray, OBP. Most people just know it as Moneyball. But it’s the subtitle that interests me as this Cubs season comes to a close:

The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

Now, the unfairness pointed out in the book (or to anyone who knows that $20 million is less than $200 million) is the economic imbalance in Major League Baseball. Billy Beane has been charged with the seemingly impossible task of winning on a budget that other teams could spend on a single free agent. The unfair game Michael Lewis describes is the business of baseball. But the game itself is pretty unfair as well.

That’s what I love about it. Baseball is unfair. At least in small samples it is. Baseball is a game designed to allow the lesser team the opportunity to win a good portion of the time. It allows relatively poor hitters to have storybook success. Scott Podsednik hit a walkoff homerun in the World Series. That’s not fair. It shouldn’t happen. In a controlled scientific environment, you could put the mass of Scotty Pods’ offensive production opposite the weight of a World Series victory on the scales of probability and never tip the balance in his favor. But on the field of play, unfair things happen. The best team wins most of the time, but not so much that the Cubs can’t ever fly the W flag.


Take Reed Johnson. Please. At least that was the sentiment I had coming into this season when the Cubs brought him into spring training as a non-roster invitee. Only, a funny thing happened on the way to fifth place: Reed Johnson proved to be more solution than problem. That’s not fair. It isn’t fair to opposing pitchers, opposing managers, naysaying Cubs fans, or the betting public. Here were the ZiPS projections for Reedz heading into the season:

.306 .360 .666 .101 5.7 .309 21.8 -7.0 .295 76

So, you know, not good. His OPS was supposed to be downright evil. If baseball were a fair game, the bearded wall crasher would not have made much of a contribution to the Chicago National League Ball Club. But here’s what happened between the white lines where cruel injustice reigns:

.355 .479 .834 .164 4.1 .398 38.4 9.4 .362 124

Maybe Reed Johnson is better than we thought. But if that’s true, his last several seasons lied to us about how good he is. . . . Unfair! Maybe he’s just been lucky this year. Also unfair. Or maybe Reed just became a more talented player, or his circumstances this season were better. Maybe he read Moneyball. I don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s not disappointing to see someone outperform his projections or defy my morbid skepticism. It’s unfair, but it’s cool. As much as anyone likes to see their predictions come true, I think we all like to watch the games both to see the most talented players play really well and to occasionally see guys we like perform better than how we know we should.

Unless you don’t like Reed Johnson, in which case 2011 has been patently unfair. But that’s really what being a Cubs fan is all about.

Overall, it’s just part of why baseball is fun, the unpredictability of it. It’s a game in which the win is unreliable statistic. The best team doesn’t always win. The team who plays the best doesn’t always win. Right now, looking forward to 2012, that’s really the only hope we have.

Now it’s just a matter of watching the movie to see if the A’s can win it all.