Wednesday, July 26, 2006


A book that came out three years ago, Moneyball by Michael Lewis has sidled up next to other baseball books like Ball Four in controversy and influence. Just this past Monday, I bought the book, blew through it, and probably like most who have ever read this, felt some need to say something about it.

I don't understand how anyone can fault Oakland A's GM Billy Beane for his methods.

One of the comments from a Braves announcer I heard a couple of weeks ago kept ringing through my head as I read this, as he talked about the Braves success owing to good scouting, something like, "They aren't about that Moneyball stuff. Far from it," and I could be completely butchering what was said, but the spirit is there. And this, I feel, is a typical wrong-minded way to think of Moneyball. The philosophy employed by Billy Beane is not a decision made by a team with large wealth. If the A's spent money, then we would have never read Moneyball. Beane took over in 1997, and though versed in Bill James, the full-blown sabermetric method for the team didn't begin until 2002.

The problem is, I can see where people get the wrong impression--the argument sounds like a new religion. It sounds like, "Why isn't everyone else doing this?" especially when the guys paid to do this kind of research (like Paul DePodesta in the book) are non-baseball guys, and to throw even more venom in their direction, Ivy League guys. But none of the people in the book hope that this catches on, and this sentiment is mentioned several times, because their methods depend on other teams not valuing what they value. If the other 29 teams did what they did, then the market value of these "no-name" players would be unaffordable. By definition, Beane and company hopes that everyone continues to rely on "overpriced" statistics.

The other tendency is to look at the A's and compare their stats and when you don't find any "bests" wonder why they bother with this experiment. It's another misconception that the A's need to find the "best" of anything--it's really more of a consistency model, playing the percentages, or as Lewis mentions, card-counting at Blackjack.

The dust hasn't settled on the influence of Moneyball. There are still experiments that need to be done. For instance, J.P. Ricciardi, the player personnel guy under Beane took the job as Blue Jays GM a few years ago taking his sabermetrics bible. I don't think anyone can look at the Jays and say they are fiscally responsible (although they did get rid of pricey veterans at the beginning like Carlos Delgado), but they don't have the same restraints as the A's do. If only a fly on the wall could write down the way the Jays approach business, so that we might see the little differences. DePodesta himself got the Dodger job and quickly got fired. That was no place for a sabermetrics guy to start. Too high-profile, the moves instantly questioned and fretted over (the big one being Paul Lo Duca, Juan Encarnacion, and Guillermo Mota to the Marlins for Brad Penny and Hee Sop Choi).

Theo Epstein of the Red Sox is a disciple who never worked under Beane, and you also can't call the Sox fiscally responsible. But it makes me wonder in some ways if having sabermetrics and money might be a most lethal combination (obviously, Dodger management didn't think so). They won a Series and are always a contender, and it's not like their offense is filled with name guys--David Ortiz is a Moneyball transaction the Twins gave up on and is being paid well below market value ($6.5 million, he gets paid less than Mike Lowell, Trot Nixon, Matt Clement...) for what he brings to the table--and has only become a name guy since putting on the Sox uniform. The Red Sox aren't the best example of tight budgets at work, but they are an interesting experiment for the next few years.

One thing about the Moneyball philosophy I take a little issue with is stolen bases. I think the A's are right not to spend money on guys who steal bases as their chief contribution, after all, many stolen base guys have poor OBP and you might as well get a guy who hits doubles just as frequently. I also understand the risk involved with running. But this stat is something a sabermetrics team could exploit. I think they don't for a couple of reasons, but I'll argue why they should. I have not read Bill James but I intend to, and through various half-assed research I noticed he had a stat concerning pitchers and catchers who allow the most stolen bases. This is the kind of thing sabermetricians should milk for maximum value. Don't run when the chances of being thrown out are high, do when they are low--it all depends on the battery.

The reason I don't think they do it is that most of the guys they draft, trade for, get in free agency, so on are slow. But when I read the part about Ray Durham and how he and some coaches got into a discussion about stolen bases and how the A's don't do it, I wondered, in the case of Durham, why not play the percentages with someone like him? And it should only be if you need one run, in a tie game, or something. You would still not run much, but you could maybe take a game doing something simple. The other reason is, even though the A's front office seems to run that team off and on the field, you start stepping on the manager's toes and confusing the issue of when it's right to run, when it's not, and who should do it. You'd have to make a call from the office to the manager and tell him, "I think he should run." So maybe my argument that you should take advantage of certain situations is moot.

Anyway, I read this book and wondered why anyone cared why Beane did this--and there's an excellent afterword at the end that I think explains this well. Lewis talks about how baseball is "The Club," derisively calling it the Women's Auxiliary. It's a game steeped in traditional beliefs and respected men who played the game who are beholden unto those beliefs, and when you have someone trying to do something new, it's like, "You are spitting in the face of baseball tradition!"

The best part is where Lewis takes Joe Morgan to task in one of the last chapters and the afterword. Lewis talks about the playoffs where the A's lost the first game of the 2002 ALDS to the Twins, where the A's were criticized by Morgan for not "manufacturing runs," and at the beginning of game 2, was still making this point as Ray Durham singled, didn't steal, Scott Hatteberg doubled, and Chavez homered, and continued ranting even as the A's took a 3-0 lead in Game 2, "as if the play on the field had not dramatically contradicted every word that had just come out of his mouth." Lewis, along with DePodesta, make a strong case, practically inarguable, that the A's lost because of their suddenly bad pitching, not their offensive philosophy, where they scored more runs per game in the series than they had for the season, granting it was a smaller evidence sample.

In the afterword, he makes mention of Morgan's perception, like many in the media, that Beane had written Moneyball. Even after many attempts in print, I guess unheeded or unseen, pointed out to Morgan that Beane didn't write it. I love the passage where he is asked, a week later, if he were Billy Beane, how he would improve the A's. Lewis's venom comes out here, as he writes, "...after summoning all of his wit, Joe replied, 'I wouldn't be Billy Beane first of all. I wouldn't write the book Moneyball!"

It's clear that the book has been misunderstood, and I hope either Lewis or someone else is tracking the progress for a new chapter.


At 7/28/2006 11:55:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

You know I love this book. I agree with most of what is in it, and agree with your take on the Red Sox. The stolen base issue is interesting. I think it can be overused by managers who don't realize how precious a base-runner is, even if only on first base. But, there is a time and place, as you say.

My opinion of Joe Morgan as an analyst remains low.


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