Saturday, October 22, 2016

Moneyball 13 Years Later: What Have We Learned?

I learned a long time ago that in order to avoid arguments and lost friends, one should refrain from discussing three subjects: religion, politics and Moneyball. But since some very smart people I know recently brought up Moneyball as part of their baseball book club, I decided to read it again. And now that 13 years have elapsed since it's release, maybe this is a good time to look back and attempt to judge dispassionately whether or not it was correct in all it's establishment-shaking claims.

At this point I should disclose in all fairness that I did not particularly like Moneyball when I first read it. It made me mad. It challenged a lot of beliefs I had held dearly, number one being that I knew everything I needed to know about baseball and what was important in winning a baseball game. In general, people do not appreciate beliefs such as these being challenged; especially not by a bunch of smart-looking Ivy League nerds with computer printouts claiming to support their positions.

Yet, when I wanted to reread the book, I knew exactly where to find it. There is a small shelf at my house on which you will find Ball FourThe Boys of Summer, Leigh Montville's Ted Williams book, The Glory of Their Times and a few other books of similar stature. This is where I went to retrieve my copy of Moneyball; where it has rested undisturbed for 13 years. After reading it once more I realized why I had immediately recognized where it belonged and placed it there--it's that good of a book. Damn it. I didn't want it to be. I hoped it wouldn't be. But there's no denying; it was.

But conceding that the book is highly entertaining and well-written, several questions remain. Does Moneyball actually work? Is Billy Beane and his computer able to find quality, inexpensive future major league players in the draft better than the old scouts of the days of yore?  What became of the men and the ideas upon which the book was based? Were the basic tenets espoused in the book concerning which statistics are most important correct? Will computer-wielding nerds entirely replace baseball-savvy veterans who actually played the game? Is Billy Beane really a genius and, perhaps most importantly, does he still look like Brad Pitt? These are the sorts of questions we can now use 13 years of enlightenment to try to answer.

We can assess the first question fairly easily by looking at the good-old fashioned black-and-white numbers of wins and losses. Since Billy Beane took over the A's in 1998, they are 1621-1455 (52.70%), a very respectable number for any team. When compared to other small market teams, none of which have come close to breaking even, the results are stark. Over this period, the Twins are 1497-1580 (48.65%), the Reds 1489-1590 (48.36%), the Brewers 1442-1634 (46.88%), the Pirates 1394-1679 (45.36%) and the Royals 1369-1707 (44.51%).

Over this period the A's have had 8 seasons of 90 or more wins, the Twins 5, the Reds 4. Obviously something is working here. For nearly two decades, Billy Beane has helped the notoriously shallow-pocketed, penny-pinching A's outperform every other small market team, and also a lot of large market ones, by a considerable margin of regular-season wins.

More impressive about Beane's results is the fact that he has maintained his success for almost two decades--long after his secrets got out. The Moneyball of 2016 is not the Moneyball of 2002. Sports executives are some of the biggest sponges known to man. Other smart teams, teams with much deeper pockets, found out about Beane's methods (especially after the book spilled the beans) and so the things he prized were no longer undervalued, and many became so overvalued by the market that he could no longer afford them. He has been forced to continually look for other sources of market-undervalued traits with which to win ballgames. Yet he has consistently been able to stay ahead of the curve (and the slider, the fastball and the change up).

The Moneyball A's made the postseason 8 times in 19 seasons; far more than any other small market team (Twins 4, Reds and Pirates 3, Brewers and Royals 2). Unfortunately, this is where the wheels fall off  the Billy Beane Magic Show. The A's have ended their season with a loss in all 8 of those postseason forays and, in fact, have won only a solitary postseason series, sweeping the small-market Twins in 3 games in the LDS in 2006. In compiling a 1-8 record in postseason series, the A's have won a total of 15 games and lost 23. A maddening 6 times they have lost series 2-3--dropping the pivotal 5th game.

In the book Beane readily admits, "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs; my job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is . . .  luck." We should not allow Beane to cop a plea and get away with this generic blanket mea culpa for postseason failure, however.  Especially we should not be so quick to accept the excuse of being on the wrong side of pure luck. Once, twice, maybe. But 8 times? Someone is in serious need of a rabbit's foot. Beane's "shit" certainly has proven itself over the course of 19 major league seasons. What's different in the postseason? Apparently a lot.

There are hints in the book. A's half-season rental speedster Ray Durham says, "Cautious doesn't work in the playoffs." A's coach Thad Bosley states, "If you say base running isn't important, you forget how to run the bases." Many feel that in the playoffs, when faced with other playoff teams' aces, there is a need to manufacture runs, using speed and occasionally bunting--the small ball that Beane disdains so fervently as a counterproductive waste of important outs. As of 2002, Beane felt that speed and defense were particularly overvalued by the market and, thus, unavailable to his shallow pockets. The past two years we have watched as the small-market Royals continually use small ball tactics, along with superlative defense, to win game after game in the postseason.

The book admits that the trade-off for obtaining players cheaply is that each has a flaw. And anyone who has ever tried to manage a Little League team understands that if you have a flawed player on the field, eventually the flaw will show itself; and often at inopportune times. In a short series against a good team, flaws become magnified.

Perhaps the problem with the postseason for Moneyball teams is that inevitably they run into teams that do not have obviously flawed players. They run into great teams that were put together without an eye on money, who have retooled late in the year to repair deficiencies. In short, just the kind of team that Billy Beane has never been able to field. Besides the impressive runs by the Royals the past two years, the other small-market teams have been similarly man-handled in the postseason (the Twins, Reds, Brewers and Pirates are 17-37 overall in postseason games and 2-9 in series).

How about the draft? The book goes into great detail covering the excitement of the 2002 draft and makes many claims supporting the revolution Beane and his computer team were about to unleash by their ability to sniff out signable, undervalued specimens in the amateur baseball world. Their new methods were supposed to be particularly superior to that of traditional scouts who, invariably, allowed their past experiences and personal biases to interfere with what should be a cold, dispassionate evaluation. In short, scouts tended to rely more on the visual perception of a prospect's "tools" and their pipe-dream projection of what these tools may produce in the future rather than the indisputable truths of the numbers produced in amateur competition.

Every fantasy league player understands that professional sports drafts are a risk-laden endeavor. And the major league baseball draft is much less reliable than that of any other major sport. A man with Beane's budget cannot afford to pay above-market money for unpredictable talent in the draft. But has Beane and his computer actually enjoyed more success in the draft since 2002? In a word: nada, nien, nyet, nicht so gut. Or in plain English: not even close.

First, Beane's draft strategy. He was adamant in his belief that it was folly to draft high school players, particularly pitchers, because no one knew what they would become in four years. That may or may not be a valid strategy, but it does seem reasonable not to pay overpriced agent's wages to high school phenoms. Of course there are exceptions, such as Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Ken Griffey, Jr., Joe Mauer, Chipper Jones, A Rod. . .

In general, Beane has stuck to his guns on this thought, rarely taking high school players anywhere in the draft. Inexplicably in 2005 six of the first nine Oakland picks were high schoolers. As if to emphasize the craziness in this, only two ever made a major league roster, and neither had any impact. Thereafter, Beane has stayed with college players but his draft results have been uniformly dismal.

Since 2002, the only Beane draft picks who have gone on to quality major league careers have been Andre Ethier, a second rounder in 2003 (who Beane traded 2 years later for Milton Bradley), Kurt Suzuki, a second round pick in 2004, and Huston Street, a first-rounder in 2005. There have been a few others who went on to short mediocre major league stents, however none were impact players. In order from 2003 to 2010, the A's first picks were: Bradley Sullivan, Bryan Snyder, Richie Robnett, Landon Powell, Clifton Pennington, James Simmons, Jemile Weeks, Grant Green and Michael Choice. If you ask, "Who?" you're not alone.

In 2012, Beane did astutely pick a high school shortstop, Addison Russell, but apparently undervalued him and traded him to the Cubs for half-season rentals Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija in July, 2014. Russell appears to be a fixture for the Cubs now.

We should give Beane a little wiggle room with the reasoning that, due to very limited resources, he is probably not able to sign the first round studs who employ the likes of Scott Boras. He has to look for players who not only may make the majors some day, but have a flaw that makes them signable by his team. Unfortunately for Beane, modern agents are very good at identifying any kid with the potential to be a major leaguer and surrounding them with a Beane-proof protective shell of unreasonable salary demands. This has led Beane to getting essentially nothing in the draft for a decade. At the same time, from 2004-2011, the small market Pirates were able to select and sign Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole. The Reds got Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier and Mike Leake and the Royals copped Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar and Eric Hosmer. Quality major leaguers all.

We can conclude that Billy Beane has not proven to be able to use his stats and computers to select affordable future major league players any better than the old scouts with which he held so much disdain. Beane's draft picks appear to have been born more of buffalo chips than computer chips. Apparently there is still a place for the grizzled old, tobacco-spitting, cliche-spewing human scout.

The book discusses a number of players and executives. It is interesting to look back at some of the prominent personalities and see what became of them:

Jeremy Bonderman was a good-looking high school pitcher whose selection in the first round of the 2001 draft by the A's head of scouting Grady Fuson caused Beane to demolish a chair and spew obscenities and. since he couldn't order his summary execution, fire Fuson not long afterwards. Bonderman, not valued by Beane, was soon dumped to Detroit, but became a member of a major league starting rotation with the Tigers by age 20 in 2003, when he went 6-19 for a very bad Detroit team. He had a nine-year career as a major leaguer, finishing 69-81 with a 4.91 ERA. His best year was 14-8 in 2006. Not bad and certainly better than a lot of Beane's picks over the next decade

Nick Swisher, Beane's prize first pick of the 2002 draft had a very solid, 12-year major league career, retiring after 2015 with 245 home runs, 803 RBIs and a career on-base percentage of .351.

Jeremy Brown, the fat college catcher with the great on-base percentage stats that Beane took in the first round bonanza of the 2002 draft, played six seasons in the A's minor league system and produced pretty much as advertised: a career .268 batting average with 288 walks in the six years, and a .370 OBP. He made it to the show for five games in 2006, going 3-for-10 with a walk. Despite this he was never deemed appropriate for the bigs, possibly because the green A's uniform made him look like a bat-wielding avocado. He retired after the 2007 season.

Pitcher Joe Blanton, taken in the first round in 2002, is in his 12th major league season and has been a very reliable, if not spectacular pitcher over that time. When last seen, he was still flinging in the 2016 postseason for the Dodgers.

Mark Teahen, also taken in the prized 2002 draft, was soon traded by the A's but went on to a fair seven-year major league career, spending 5 as a starter on some bad Royals teams as a third baseman and outfielder. His best season produced a .290 average with 18 home runs and 69 RBIs.

Brant Colamarino, the University of Pittsburgh outfielder who Billy's computer said was the best hitter in the entire 2002 draft, fell to the A's in the late rounds, possibly due to  his less-than-svelte  appearance. When he showed up in the A's locker room, his full-figured bare chest prompted a discussion of whether a male brassiere should be called a "manzier" or a "bro." Colamarino had some good hitting years in the minors but never made it to the majors. He retired after 6 minor league seasons with a career .273 batting average and .350 OBP.

Chad Bradford, the retread submarine pitcher with confidence issues who Billy's computer said would do great if someone only gave him a chance, had four very good years for the A's as one of their top men out of the bullpen. When his performance and tenure caused the market price for his services to reach a million-and-a-half a year Billy did what he had to: he traded him for younger, less expensive talent. Bradford pitched well for several other teams and retired at 34 with a 12-year career ERA of 3.26 in 561 games.

Paul Depodesta, Beane's right-hand man with a computer, has had a mixed post-book career. In 2004 he parlayed his way-with-numbers into the general manager's job of the Dodgers and, using what he had learned, led them to the playoffs in his first season. In 2005 injuries and the loss of some high-priced talent caused them to fall to their worst record since 1992 and the impatient owner gave him the ax. Depodesta worked for the Padres from 2006-2008 and Mets from 2010-2016 with mild degrees of mediocre success and then, in a stunning crossover to the dark side, was hired by the football Cleveland Browns as chief strategy officer in January of 2016. Most amateurs realize that the chief strategy for the Browns should be something along the lines of getting a decent quarterback who is more mature than a 12-year-old and performs better on the football field than in sorority houses and, once they have found the guy, to maybe to stick with him for more than one season. Unfortunately, tradition and all human logic dictate that Depodesta is destined to fail spectacularly in Cleveland.

Kevin Youkilis (aka the Greek God of Walks), was the young player in the Red Sox system coveted so dearly by Billy Beane's computer. The A's were never able to pry him loose, mainly because a young nerd in the Boston office, Theo Epstein, was paying attention to what Beane was doing and continually parried his overtures. Youkilis had a very good major league career and helped to end the curse of the Bambino, playing a minor role in the Red Sox World Championship in 2004 and a major one in 2007.

Scott Hatteberg was the sore-armed ex-catcher whose tendency to draw walks made him so valued by Beane that he converted him into a first baseman. Hatteberg gave Beane four solid seasons of well-above average OBP as a first baseman with no power, then was released and signed with Cincinnati as a free agent. Playing until he was 38 years old, he had two more solid seasons for the Reds.

A's infield coach Ron Washington, whose patience and folksy wisdom helped Scott Hatteberg's psyche as he adjusted to the demands of first base, left to manage the Texas Rangers in 2007. He took them to back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011.

J.P. Ricciardi, A's director of player development, was hired away by the Blue Jays to work his Moneyball magic as their general manager in 2001. He remained in that post until 2009, having the modest success of a few .500 teams but never made the playoffs.

Theo Epstein, mentioned briefly in the book as a young Yale graduate recently hired by the Red Sox who aspired to be the next Billy Beane, was promoted to GM by the new Boston owner after the 2002 season and quickly proved to be a forward thinker. He indeed became a Billy Beane, albeit one with money--a scary thought. After leading the Red Sox to the promised land in 2004 and 2007, Epstein jumped to another well-endowed reclamation project, the Chicago Cubs, and immediately positioned them to break another longstanding curse, this one a bit more than a century.

A large part of Moneyball, dealt with numbers; mainly the use of numbers and formulas to try to find and exploit inefficiencies in the market and thus to help win ball games. Some of the claims attached to these numbers were the major source of emotional gnashing of teeth caused by the book: the ones that attacked several long-held beliefs by the baseball establishment. How do they look 13 years down the road?

The book  helped immensely to popularize the importance of two previously underappreciated offensive categories: on-base percentage and slugging percentage. While SABRites had been touting these for years, Moneyball helped move them in to everyday vernacular, alongside other more traditional stats. It was relatively controversial when the book advocated that OPS, on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, was one of the most accurate assessments of offensive performance, much more important than things like RBIs and batting average.

 I admit that I am never the first to embrace new formulas and stats. The old ones were popular for a reason. I have a simple test, a baseball litmus test if you will, that I apply anytime a new formula is proposed. I call it the Babe test. Simply explained, any method that does not result in Babe Ruth being ranked as the most devastatingly efficient baseball player of all time is completely flawed. And it turns out that OPS ranks the Bambino firmly atop all major league players in history. Test passed: that's enough for me. And apparently everyone else. Today, most baseball discussions include OBP and OPS.

Another concept the book asserts, that I strongly agree with, but apparently some general managers still do not, is that plate discipline can not be taught and a strike out is the most expensive thing a batter can do. For over a century, baseball scouts have looked for certain tools and rationalized that hitting can be taught. This explains to Reds fans who watched helplessly as Drew Stubbs, a former first round, five-tool player, was presented with the center field job, based solely on the appearance of those five tools. He proceeded to strike out as much as 205 times a year and had an OBP of .277, yet was allowed to continue to play everyday for 3 long years, much to the detriment of his team. The appearance of talent does not necessarily mean a guy will be a good ballplayer who will help his team win. And a guy with no plate discipline who strikes out a lot will most likely continue to do so. Millions of dollars and countless games continue to be lost for failure to realize this.

The middle of the book is almost as much about Bill James and his cohorts as Billy Beane. Bill James has certainly brought a large amount of information to the baseball world and is in a class of his own in this regard. But there are a few things I disagree with. One is the disparaging remarks about the box score and the assault on batting average as a measure of a hitter. I happen to think the box score, while admittedly containing minor flaws, was one of the great inventions of the 19th century. Thousands of kids like me grew up racing to the paper each morning to inhale the previous day's box scores.

The questioning of batting average is not a new thought. It's been more than a century since the Chalmer company stopped giving out cars to the batting leader. I recall an article in Baseball Digest from the 1970s about Rod Carew asking if leading the league in batting average was not overrated. I will concede that there are other more important factors, particularly OPS as mentioned above. But I maintain that batting average is still very important. And I totally disagree with the "luck" factor. The book quotes Bill James as saying "one absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275. The difference is one hit every two weeks." That to me is a gross oversimplification of numbers, the same argument put forth much more eloquently by Crash Davis in Bull Durham. There is a great difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter and it strains the mind to think someone would not intuitively understand that it is about much more than 13 extra hits every 500 at bats.

Mickey Mantle was a .300 hitter, Hank Aaron was a .300 hitter. Pete Rose and Willie Mays were .300 hitters. Rich Aurilla, Corey Kloskie, Shane Victorino and Marlon Byrd were .275 hitters. Can anyone tell me they can't tell the difference, just by watching, and by watching the reaction of others, when the first four walked to the plate compared to the latter four? Yes, this is a gut answer and other examples can be found to support the opposite opinion. Occasionally a lousy hitter will have one year in which the gods smile on him and every seeing eye bleeder leaks through, every off-the-handle-bloop falls in and at the end of the season his average is over .300. But hitting .300 remains one of the toughest things to do in sports and only a very few men can do it consistently; and these are almost uniformly very good hitters. So I can assure you, there is a big difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 one.

The book brings up luck as an important factor once a ball is put in play in determining whether an out, an error or a hit results. It definitely is for certain situations. And there are ballpark factors and defensive shifts and overall opponent-defensive skill involved as well. But the force of how hard and cleanly a ball is struck determines much more than luck and over 500 or 5000 at bats the difference due to luck becomes negligible.

And the mention of luck brings up another point of violent disagreement I have with the book: that clutch hitting is either a fantasy or an ancient religion that has no relevance to modern man. The book states this several times, backed by the opinion of various SABRites who espouse that luck, rather than clutch playing, is the only determinant in tight situations. This may feel true when someone who never looked out at a pitcher from 60 feet, six inches while everyone in the park was on their feet screaming stares at a computer simulation of a game or an unemotional sheet of stats. But I can't believe that anyone who ever played the game, even in Little League, can look back and not believe that certain guys just seem to perform better in tight situations.

Maybe the nerds don't like this because no one has found a way, despite numerous attempts, to completely take emotion, fans, situation and the need-to-produce-right-now-in-order-to-win and reduce it to a reproducible cold statistic for analysis. Each situation is different. Sometimes the most clutch situation occurs in the 5th inning, not the 9th. Sometimes a truly clutch situation doesn't pop up for weeks. Sometimes it inadvertently presents after an over-thrown cut-off as the ball is rolling innocently through the infield. Luck may describe one-time or short-term events, such as Brian Doyle, Gene Larkin, Rick Dempsey or even Bill Mazeroski. But anyone attempting to ascribe what Babe Ruth, Bob Gibson, Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson did all those Octobers to plain luck possesses a severe lack of understanding of human nature and the game of baseball.

I admit this is a completely irrational opinion with no proof to back it up. But I would like to state further that if, by chance, someone finally does come up with a true analysis disproving clutch, I don't want to know about it. Part of the magic of the game is that it is played by human beings, subject to the trials, triumphs and tragedies that humans go through. I want to continue to believe in the nebulous concept of great men, or even very rarely not-so-great men, rising to the occasion. What's next for these nerds: will they enter a kindergarden with a handful of computer stats to prove conclusively to the kids that Santa can't possibly get around the earth in one night? Do we really want to know that?

Um, excuse me. I apologize for the emotional digression--and this is exactly why we should refrain from discussing Moneyball in polite company. It is impossible to remain rational and composed.

Back to the realm of the concrete. To summarize:

Does Moneyball work? Remember it was proposed as a way for a financially-handicapped team to compete in an unfair world, not as the ultimate guide for winning. That being said, it is not the only way to win, but one way that has certainly proved its worth.

Are nerds taking over? They definitely have their place. Ignore them at your own peril. But there is still a place for the traditional old-timer as well.

Is Billy Beane a genius? Maybe--he has won many more games than anyone else leading a small-market team. And has done so repeatedly for almost two decades.

Does Billy Beane still look like Brad Pitt? No. He never did. Actually he looks more like a young, fit Billy Bob Thornton if anything. I wonder why they didn't get Billy Bob for the movie?


  1. Great blog with an excellent analysis. I totally agree with you about batting averages, and especially clutch hitting. Brian Kenny rails all the time about it being a fiction. Like you, I see it-I don't have to have a computer spread sheet to appreciate it.

  2. Insightful post. I would substitute "The Kid" by Ben Bradlee Jr.for Montville's book though."Moneyball was ok but not enough for me to ever want to see the movie.Certainly made a lot of money for Michael Lewis though.

  3. It's consistently in the top ten on Amazon all these years later. The movie certainly helped the book. Like I said, it's entertaining and well-written, but shouldn't be taken as gospel.