Does “Moneyball” work? Yes, but …

Although director Bennett Miller cast some real baseball scouts to lend authenticity to his movie “Moneyball,” he used actor Ken Medlock to represent the old hidebound scouting ethic when it clashes with the “new” statistical analysis, as preached by Oakland general manager Billy Beane, author Michael Lewis and, closer to the fountainhead, Bill James.

When Beane, as played by Brad Pitt, urges his scouting department to think outside the player-evaluation box when time comes to replace three stars who are leaving the A’s for free agency, he is challenged by Medlock’s character, who says, “Boy, that sounds like fortune-cookie wisdom to me, Billy.”

And soon enough, Beane fires him.

Art hardly duplicates life here. Medlock was portraying Grady Fuson, a 31-year baseball lifer who was the A’s real scouting director when the club drafted and developed pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, the anchor for the Oakland teams that finished first or second in the AL West seven consecutive seasons. He was the club’s national cross-checker when the A’s drafted Jason Giambi and signed Miguel Tejada.

And not only was he never fired by Beane, Fuson actually came to appreciate new statistical thinking, an old-school bush-beating scout who worked his way up into the front office just as sabermetrics was becoming influential.

When asking the question whether the “Moneyball” philosophy really works, Fuson’s career arc makes an interesting answer. Saber-stats like WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched) are bona-fide tools in player evaluation. But they are only tools, and tools are only as good as the people who wield them.

Jeremy Brown became a “Moneyball” poster boy, the pudgy catcher from the University of Alabama whom the A’s surprisingly selected with the 35th pick of the 2002. Coveted by Beane — and not so much his scouting department — for his power potential, his willingness to take a walk and his affordability, Brown spent six season in the minors, appeared in only five major league games and promptly retired in 2007.

Was Brown proof that “Moneyball’s” thinking is distorted? Hardly. But he makes the case that traditional scouting has not nor will it ever lose its value. Too ignore baseball’s new math is folly, but the clubs have come to learn that over-relying on either its time-honored scouting reports or sabermetrics, well, that’s fortune-cookie wisdom.

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