MoneyBall Angst

If there has been anything as controversial as the issue of steroids in baseball, it’s been the reception of Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. It seems that many pundits and self-appointed experts continue to insist that Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane wrote the book. Joe Morgan, the veritable bane of the baseball analysis component of my existence had this to say in an chat:

“I read an excerpt in the NY Times. It’s typical if you write a book, you want to be the hero. That is apparently what Beane has done. According to what I read in the Times, Beane is smarter than anyone else.”

I’m apparently not the only one who noticed this frequent misattribution relating to Moneyball. It’s both frustrating and confounding that so many — writers included — can make such an obvious mistake. Beane’s name doesn’t even appear on the book jacket.

Of greater annoyance to me is what seems like a fundamental inability to understand the principles in Moneyball. Although the book focuses on baseball, the bigger issue of finding and eliminated systemic inefficiencies to establish a competitive advantage is something that could be applied to businesses, governments, school systems, etc. Essentially, systems become self-reinforcing and once accepted as the gospel, escape scrutiny. In baseball, this means players who hit .300 with on-base percentages of .330 will almost invariable be better paid than a player with comparable power numbers, an average of .275 and an on-base percentage of .400. Practically every statistical regression shows that on-base percentage is far more important than batting average in generating runs, but the institutional powers in baseball continue to reward the player with the flashy average.

Michael Lewis spends a good portion of the book focusing on how Billy Beane and the A’s front office exploit the difference in perceived value and real value of baseball players. Is this earth shattering? In baseball, it seems so, but in any free market, if all things are equal, those who make the best use of information will end up on top. As human beings, we are prone to viewing the world in a biased fashion. In particular, we tend to see and remember outcomes that support our preconceived notions. What the “Moneyball crowd” and sabrematicians have done is toss aside conventional wisdom and begin analyzing anew. Billy Beane has a big personality and it comes across in the book. There is no arguing that some people have been turned off by this, but the question is this: Does disliking Billy Beane render invalid his methods? I don’t think so.

Bob McCullough recently wrote a piece on the baseball steroid scandal for He writes, “If steroids have played as large a role as many believe in the home run binge during the last decade, a strict testing program could spell the death of Moneyball, the offensive success formula used by the likes of Billy Beane, Theo Epstein and a host of other young GMs. Here’s why: In addition to drafting college players with a track record of success, one of the key tenets of Moneyball is accumulating players with a high on-base percentage who can supply a modicum of power (i.e., 20 HR or more a year), whether or not they can also add speed or hit for average.”

Even writers outside of the baseball establishment don’t always get it. (Don’t get me started on Tracy Ringolsby.) The fundamental argument in Moneyball is not that high OBP players with some power are the best. In fact, it’s not a baseball issue at all, but rather an economic one. Market inefficiencies can be exploited to better one’s situations. That is the crux of Moneyball.

Were homeruns to drop by even 20%, would that change the rules of player evaluation? Not too dramatically. But the beauty of what Beane does (and likely what DePodesta, Epstein, and Ricciardi do) is that it’s not written in stone. The value of the system employed by this “new breed” of GM is the constant evaluation and reevaluation. Based on the information I have, I’m not inclined to believe that Billy Beane thinks he’s figured it all out. As baseball wises up around him, he’ll have to find new and interesting ways to gather and apply information to keep his team competitive.

Back to the McCullough article. The most important thing a hitter can do is get on base. This benefits the batting team in two ways. One, the batter moves closer to scoring. Two, the batter has saved a team an out. Since in a nine-inning game, a team has just 27 outs, therefore making them a precious commodity. McCullough goes on to talk about Seattle’s being a “little ball” club and the possibility that with drug testing, “bunting could come back into fashion.” Let’s look at Seattle’s recent run of excellence:

Year	Wins	 OBP	    SLG		RUNS
2000	91	.361 (2)   .442 (8)	907 (4)
2001	116	.360 (1)   .445 (4)	927 (1)
2002	93	.350 (2)   .419 (9)	814 (6)
2003	93	.344 (4)   .410 (10)	795 (7)

The Mariners have not been a slugging team, ranking generally near the middle of the pack. But they have done fairly well scoring runs and this is largely attributable to their consistently strong on-base percentage. Even if homeruns decline, players who are selective at the plate will get hits and draw walks. Base hits and bases-on-balls will result in scoring runs and that will hold true whether there is a league-wide homerun drought or not.

As for the possibility that bunting may return to prominence, it just might. But that wouldn’t make it a smart strategy, which is what McCullough implies. Pete Palmer and John Thorn demonstrated in The Hidden Game of Baseball that swapping an out in order to advance a base is a net negative. There are certain situations where sacrifice bunts may make sense, but in general the established probabilities demonstrate that it’s better to let guys go up to the plate hacking. A return to the glory days of “giving yourself up for the team” would mean that managers value conventional wisdom over mathematical analysis. And I would suggest that they go pick up a copy of Moneyball — it’s coming out in paperback next month.

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