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Monday, February 21, 2011
People still don't get 'Moneyball'

By Bill

The headline -- “People still don’t get “Moneyball” -- that’s my takeaway, anyway, from this piece by Monte Poole of the Silicon Valley Mercury News (h/t to Baseball Think Factory).

Poole recalls the A’s (and their GM, Billy Beane) as portrayed in the 2003 book “Moneyball,” a team on which “[d]efense was optional[,] [c]ollege players were coveted, high school stars a risk rarely worth taking.” It was, famously, a team of plodding, out-of-shape sluggers who, as Beane was quoted as saying in the book, were signed to play baseball, not to sell jeans.

Poole says that in contrast, heading into spring training 2011, “plenty of players in camp are fit enough to model.” Poole points out, and Beane confirms, that the style of the team has changed, too, well beyond mere appearances. The team is similarly pitching heavy, but this is clearly no longer an offense that relies, or could afford to rely if it wanted to, on walks and homers. Defense and baserunning matter (perhaps to the exclusion of other skills).

So that’s all true. The problem is that Poole seems to take this to mean that Beane has acknowledged -- as so many other detractors have claimed or assumed -- that “Moneyball” was a failure, that Beane has been forced to fall back on more “old-school” methods. And the problem with that is that it completely ignores history and completely misunderstands what the “Moneyball" philosophy actually was.

“Moneyball” wasn’t about slow, out-of-shape players, on-base percentage and ignoring defense. Rather, it was about exploiting market inefficiencies -- stocking up on players and skills that are undervalued at the current time. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, on-base percentage was undervalued -- vis-a-vis things like batting average and RBIs, while speed and defensive ability were overvalued (or just poorly measured). And, make no mistake, it worked. From 1999 through 2006, the A’s averaged nearly 94 wins a season with a payroll consistently in the bottom 20 percent or so of baseball. No, they never made a World Series, but if you’re looking for a front-office philosophy that guarantees success in the postseason dice roll, you might as well spend that time looking for the best method of picking lottery numbers.

If anything, you might argue that Beane’s method was too successful (and, of course, having a bestselling book written about it didn’t help). By the middle of last decade, virtually every front office in baseball appreciated the greatness of OBP, and a healthy share of them had individuals or departments devoted to advanced statistical analysis. The things that were undervalued when “Moneyball” was written were now valued properly, or possibly even overvalued.

So Beane moved on to the new market inefficiencies -- defense and baserunning. This is absolutely no different than what he was doing when “Moneyball” was written, and what “Moneyball” was all about -- going after the most wins for the least money by latching on to something other teams aren’t properly valuing. And it’s harder than it was (in part because “Moneyball” has made the competition smarter), but it might be starting to work all over again.

So, yes, the “Moneyball A’s” have changed quite a lot. The “Moneyball” philosophy, though, is the same as ever, and it works.

Bill writes for The Platoon Advantage on ESPN’s SweetSpot Network. You can follow him on Twitter.