6.18.2007

Moneyball: an astonishing read

Well, "astonishing" isn't how I'd describe Moneyball, but if Michael Lewis was describing my reaction to the book, he might use "astonishing" because damn near everything is worthy of being deemed "astonishing." The low cost of on-base percentage? Astonishing. Billy Beane admitting a mid-season shake-up was unnecessary? Astonishing. Bill James' Baseball Abstract? Astonishing. Greg Maddux's reaction to giving up cheap hits? Astonishment. Chad Bradford's AAA stats? Astonishing. And on. And on. And on.

OK, so railing on the author's penchant for astonishment is pretty nitpicky. But it did seem strangely out of step with a narrative that's all about removing a certain level of astonishment, mysticism, and stupidity from the game and replacing it with rationality, logic, and "science"--however loosely that last term may be employed. And it was freaking annoying.

Anyway, I realize I'm years behind the curve here, but I'm gonna jot down a few thoughts about the book anyway. New to me, new to FTG. So it goes.

Overall, I did find Moneyball a really enjoyable, light read... and fairly well-written, as sports writing goes (my field of judgment as far as books is about as limited as it gets here--I remember reading Andre Dawson's (auto)biography... along with the Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann SportsCenter book way back in the day). In any case, it was a nice read after being liberated from the shackles of 19th century literature.

It illustrated exceedingly well the institutional and individual inertia built around received knowledge, evident in so many walks of life, can be completely and utterly illogical and destructive. And it showed how difficult rationality and logic is to adhere to sometimes, no matter how much you're committed to your system (there are many exceptions to the rules Billy Beane sets up for himself).

As much as I've come to trust Kenny Williams (despite his adherence to "small ball" and his strange affinity for guys like Darin Erstad and Scott Podsednik), do I wish Billy Beane was the White Sox's GM? Undoubtedly yes. But those things aside, I think reading Moneyball was one of those cases of having a book built up so much--by friends, media, whomever--that I couldn't help but be disappointed.

For me, the most disappointing aspect of the book was its intention to disprove the idea that economic disparity in baseball is a serious problem. I don't care that however many different teams have won the World Series in however many years, creating more winning diversity than other professional sports leagues--as Billy Beane says, winning in the playoffs is something of a crapshoot. Just look at the Cardinals last year.

It can be incredibly demoralizing to a fan base to continually lose superstars, developed in the farm system, to free agency because your team can't afford to pay them. It's even more demoralizing to fail to be competitive year after year after year. Yes, Billy Beane has been able to make the Oakland A's successful despite a low payroll. Yes, he has done it by being smarter than a bunch of dumb GMs. But that does not logically mean that baseball doesn't have a huge problem in payroll disparity.

Here's why: if Billy Beane had the money that Brian Cashman had, he'd mop the floor with the league, year after year, instead of having to scrap and claw his way to the top. In other words, money doesn't automatically make winners, but it makes winning a hell of a lot easier. To argue that because the Oakland A's of the world exist we don't need some sort of salary cap or more drastic revenue sharing is akin to arguing that, because some families are capable of living a happy life below the poverty line we don't need to address the growing disparity of wealth in this country. It's absurd.

For all the awareness of problems surrounding small sample sizes Michael Lewis seems to show throughout the book, he ignores the fact that the time encompassed in Moneyball is an exceedingly small sample size--a sample that worked particularly well to illustrate the supposed "genius" of the way Billy Beane and JP Ricciardi ran the A's. From 2000-2003, the A's made the playoffs every single year. The next 2 years, while they were certainly competitive, they missed the playoffs. Does that mean Billy Beane was any less genius those years? No, I don't think so. But what happens when the richer teams get smarter?

Theo Epstein, who makes a cameo appearance at the end of Moneyball, is held up as an example of the type of GM that employs the same strategies as Billy Beane. The thing is, Theo has roughly two to three times as much money to play with as Billy--which means he can hang onto and buy guys like Manny, Big Papi, Schilling, Beckett, Matsuzaka, etc., etc. These are the kind of guys--guys like Tejada, Giambi, and others--that Beane has continually been forced to let go. The Red Sox won the championship in 2004 and, despite suffering a third place finish due to a rash of injuries last year, have set themselves up to succeed far into the future. It's something that's a lot easier to do when you've got that much money to play with.

And don't think the Yankees aren't taking notice--Brian Cashman is running his team with more and more sense, which is kinda scary. Of course, money combined with supposedly Moneyball-type roots won't guarantee that you're competitive. The Blue Jays and JP Ricciardi have made and been burned by some questionable investments the past couple years--AJ Burnett, BJ Ryan, Frank Thomas, to name the most prominent. So there are no guarantees no matter how you run your team.

But still (and I realize I've got no hard evidence to back this up), I don't see how you can debate my core point: money makes it easier to win. Who do I blame for this? Bud Selig, naturally. I hate you Bud.

6 comments:

Notorious B.O.B. said...

Andre Dawson wrote a book? Is there anything the Hawk can't do?

Also, did anyone see Sportscenter last night? Their two featured teams that the said need to wave the white flag and trade their talent were the White Sox and the Reds. A proud day for FTG.

MBQ said...

I read Moneyball when it was the cool thing to read and came away impressed but not converted. The core of Moneyball seems to be that you constantly have to shift your approach to winning so that you keep your payroll down. In an era of power, Beane went with the .OBP approach. The genius of the .OBP approach is that it de-emphasizes not only power but batting average, steals, sacrifice bunts, and elevated "lesser" stats like doubles and .OBP.

Presumably, if the situations were reversed and it was guys like Kevin Youkilis pulling in $17 million a year contracts and Adam Dunn's making $500 thousand Beane would move the other way, because with small market teams it's about maximizing your payroll by signing under-valued players into a system where they can flourish.

The money argument, however, can't go away. As you point out, it's not that money guarantees success but rather that it gives you the freedom to build your club however you want. Theo and Cashman have that option, Beane doesn't.

It says something, though, about something (the unpredictability of baseball players? the predictability of general managers?) that not having money has helped Beane where you would figure it would hurt worst - the pitching staff. Beane has no decision to make when his young arms become eligible except "Do I trade him, or do I let him walk?"

After a Mulder-esque 2005, Mark Mulder went 6-7 last year and might not pitch this season. Barry Zito is 6-7 in Oakland. Tim Hudson's 33-25 in 2-plus years in Atlanta.

In contrast, Dan Haren is 36-27 over the same period as Hudson (8-2 this year) and costs a whole lot less. Rich Harden is 15-6, though has suffered with arm issues. Joe Blanton is 31-28 (7-4 this year).

If Beane had money would he have kept all of his former Big 3? Two of them? One? None? Who stays who goes? Would he draft less pitching than he does now knowing he's got a wallet to save him?

One nice thing about Theo is that, for all of his mistakes, he doesn't get sentimental about players or worry about where players will end up. He's as much a Belichick (pre-2007) Disciple as Beane in that regard. The Sox determine Player X is worth Value Y for Z Years and that's it. And while his big free agent signings haven't always panned out (Edgar Renteria, JD Drew), he's been almost universally correct about the players he's let go (Damon, Pedro, Lowe).

There are no guarantees, as you say, but money undoubtedly makes it easier because you don't have to be right all the time.

trout said...

You have to shift your approach, yes, definitely. But what happens when teams more correctly (whatever that means) value the stats--OBP, slugging, ability to strike people out and limit the homer--that help you to win? Beane is left rolling the dice on young talent and that, to an extent, is always a crapshoot.

You can still up your chances of success by drafting and trading wisely, but for every Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton, there's a Jeremy Brown. Beane, it would seem to me, has gotten extremely lucky by getting guys like Dan Haren. Granted, there's more than a little "science" that goes into "luck" like that, but I don't buy it when people try to argue there's nothing lucky about things like that. Some guys pan out, some guys don't.

Maybe Beane and his lackeys saw something in Hudson, Mulder, and Zito before he let them go--Mulder's walk rate and homer rate were both up his last year with Oakland, for example--but I honestly find it hard to believe that Hudson wouldn't have been re-signed if money wasn't an issue. The other guys had some warning signs, but it looked like Hudson was just as great as ever.

The sort of baffling case for me is JP Ricciardi, who seems to be throwing money down a rat hole up in Toronto. Perhaps he was trying to fill holes with free agent talent while the farm system got rebuilt, but man... those big money signings are not looking Moneyball-type smart right now.

trout said...

I still believe the White Sox are best off trading away most of their talent this year, but I think they'd be foolish to give up before mid- to late-July. Yes, it's awfully late in the season to be 10.5 back and 4th in the division, but stranger things have happened. I don't think guys like Buehrle and Dye are going to lose much of their trade value by hanging on to them until much closer to the deadline. It's much easier for bloggers and sportswriters to give up (and give up sooner), but the smart thing from a management perspective is to ride it out for awhile longer.

I still believe Detroit is the team to beat in the Central... I've got leagues more faith in their pitching staff than in Cleveland's. And if Kenny Rogers is able to come back and pitch to 80% of his ability, look out.

Gage said...

What's astounding to me is the shockingly low number of competent GM/organization pairings. GM's and managers get three years from ownership and then the next guy comes into a fucked up system with no money to spend and is supposed to win right away. Grrr...

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