Friday, September 16, 2011

Why Those Claiming Moneyball "Didn't Work" Are Wrong

Typing the term "moneyball" into the Twitter search bar will yield a number of results, especially in the wake of the upcoming film based on the Michael Lewis bestseller. While a good portion of the results will come from people with vested interests in baseball that may actually know what they're talking about if one were to delve into a conversation of Sabermetrics with them, it is difficult to ignore the immense percentage of people tweeting about Moneyball without any hint of what the book meant. A large portion - perhaps the majority of these people, have little knowledge of the 2002 Oakland Athletics (or baseball in general) other than the fact that Brad Pitt plays their GM in a movie, and they didn't win the World Series. This is completely understandable, since I doubt Columbia Pictures greenlit Moneyball so a niche market of baseball nerds and stat geeks could could boost their confidence for two hours. But seeing sportswriters like Jason LaCanfora, albeit an writer, say "So I'm watching the trailer for Moneyball, and, remind me what the A's won again? Or what they did better/differently than say, the Twins?" is rather disconcerting because it insinuates that even those with vested interests may have failed to understand the somewhat simple objective within the complex design of Moneyball.

In the world of movie-goers, Moneyball appears to be well-received. In the baseball world, it seems as though "generally well-liked" may be an appropriate description of the films reception. I'll be the first to admit that, as an A's fan, it will be hard for me to not like Moneyball, and I certainly want everyone else to like it as well. I was disappointed when Keith Law, someone I admire quite a bit, gave his review, but it was quite fair and very honest. In fact, I was thrown more off-guard when Michael Lewis responded with his attack on Law, when it wasn't Lewis' work being criticized initially, it was Bennett Miller's; Law actually recommended the book at the end of his critique on the film. It seems as though Law may have taken Lewis' comments personally, (understandable since they appeared quite personal) but goes on to say Billy Beane is a man who used to be a scout, but fails to respect them. Although Law probably knows Beane a lot better than I could even pretend to, his remark seemed presumptuous and unwarranted. On the other hand, Ken Rosenthal and Aaron Gleeman gave the film positive reviews, warning that baseball people should keep in mind that Hollywood's presence is certainly felt in the movie. Dodger Thoughts gave what is perhaps the most glowing review of the film that comes from a credible baseball-minded source. These reviews come from people who are not film critics; they're smart baseball people. Regardless of their feelings about the film, I can accept their opinions because they've shown their understanding of Moneyball in the past.

When people claim that Moneyball "didn't work" because the A's haven't won anything or that their recent failures illustrate such sentiment, not only are they taking the term out of context, but their claims are completely incorrect. "Moneyball" is a book, for one. Secondly, Billy Beane utilized a system that emphasized statistical analysis to determine what was overvalued and undervalued so that he could pinpoint inefficiencies in the baseball market. It's simple economics; the demand for two units of labor produce the same output, yet the demand for one was inexplicably higher for one unit and not the other. Different variables distinguished each unit's value to teams depending on how they evaluated players. Beane's system was doomed as soon as other teams or "firms" adjusted, which could not have been for much longer, though was likely precipitated by the book. In the off-season going into 2002, Scott Hatteberg, someone who posted a .771 OPS in 7 season with the Red Sox was not worth $1.5 million to the Rockies. Regardless of inflation, and while .771 may not scream "offensive centerpiece" it's a near guarantee that a 32 year-old with his numbers would be tendered a contract of more than $1.5 million in the current market. Hatteberg went onto post OPS' of .807, .725, .787, .677, .826, and .868 after the Rockies rights to him expired in 2001.

The point is, Billy Beane implemented as system whose focuses were on undervalued skills at the time. When people think of "Moneyball" as a team-building strategy, they think of walks, OPS, and a number of other non-triple crown stats. At the time, those things weren't universally valued the way they are now, and were quite radical in the eyes of baseball traditionalists. Today there isn't a team that thinks On-base% is a useless statistic. Moneyball accelerated the value of statistical analysis, but the baseball market has since adjusted to the point where a player's ability to draw walks is no longer an undervalued skill. So if we were to take the term "Moneyball" out of context and turn it into the strategic system of running a Major League Baseball team, then we're talking about a system whose purpose is identifying market inefficiencies through objective analysis. In that regard, the Athletics of 2002 may have been the most well-documented team to implement this particular system, but certainly were not the only ones doing it, like the film may imply. Since then, every team utilizes statistical analysis (sabermetrics) to some extent. I'll let one of my favorite, baseball writers, author of The Baseball Economist, J.C. Bradbury, comment on the 2002 A's, as well as the current market adjustment.

With that said, here is what I am trying to emphasize: The system documented in Moneyball did work. It was successful only because of how radical it was though. Since 2002, teams have found the value in statistics like OBP and OPS, depleting the market of it's original inefficiencies.

Are there still inefficiencies in the baseball market? Perhaps. There are probably very few inefficiencies that exist in the statistics area today, however. There are still operational practices that have yet to be evaluated as thoroughly as players were in Moneyball. Perhaps teams overvalue (or undervalue) top prospects or relief prospects. Some sort of extensive marginal analysis to determine the total wins minor league prospects may have compared to MLB trade candidates could be the next step in the Moneyball saga. The area of Minor Leauge Equivalencies seems as though it may have plenty of room to become more efficient. Thorough analyses of transitions from the minors to the Majors could be a breakthrough in baseball. Pinpointing the differences between guys like Matt Holliday or Robinson Cano (guys with pedestrian minor league numbers and incredible MLB numbers) and Bobby Crosby (former top prospects with impressive minor league numbers and awful MLB numbers) could renew the level of competition between small markets and large ones.

Whether or not there truly are inefficiencies that exist in the current market, I'll still probably have to wait for a book about them to come out before I know what they are though.

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