The Myth of Moneyball

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This weekend features the St. Louis Cardinals in a series against the Oakland Athletics. With that I figured now would be a good time to visit the Myth of Moneyball. We have heard all week about the upcoming series and a chance for fans to view the type of team the A’s have and with that of course talk about “Moneyball”, the idea and strategy that the A’s organization uses to run and develop their team.

Moneyball came into prominence in 2002, for sport fans, and more widely known due to the 2011 movie featuring Brad Pitt as A’s GM Billy Beane. Moneyball is simply an emphasis on the “unseen” statistics and numbers often overlooked by fans and scouts. Moneyball goes hand in hand with sabermatricians in devaluing batting average, runs batted in and stolen bases and places more importance in On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage. With these new “hidden” tools Beane and the A’s supposedly put together their winning teams that would compete with the big boys. The A’s team salary in 2002 was $41 million while the New York Yankees had a pay roll of $125 million. Well let’s take a closer look at that, the Myth of Moneyball.

The A’s Moneyball era began in 2002 after the team lost three prominent players in free agency that off-season. The A’s saw the departure of Johnny Damon, Jason Isringhausen and Jason Giambi. With that realization Beane wanted to put together a team that ventured away from the attention grabbing numbers and he felt he could do this buy acquiring cheaper players that put up better On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage, statistics he felt held a higher importance. The 2002 A’s did go on to win the Division and in fact won again in 2003 and 2006 as well as last year 2012. However correct me if I am wrong but isn’t the goal of any professional team to win the championship and not just reach the playoffs.

Now yes I know winning a championship takes many things to fall in place and many very good teams come up short. But let’s not make more of the A’s than they are, they are a competitive team and have fought well against the power houses. However competition in all sports is becoming more and more equal and in fact in 2000 every MLB team finished between a .400 and .600 winning percentage for the first time in baseball history. So maybe Moneyball isn’t the great equalizer it is made out to be. Maybe just the natural development of organizations into a modern sports world has evened the playing field.

Now let’s take a look and see did Moneyball help create the A’s success. Well this is another point I think has been exaggerated. The A’s in fact in the early 2000’s were arguably the best team in the American League. They made the playoffs four straight years from 2000-03, with only the last two being during the Moneyball era. So let’s not forget that the A’s had a very good team when they lost the three prominent players in the 2002 off-season (Damon, Isringhausen and Giambi). The A’s still had a team of Miguel Tejada, a young and healthy Eric Chavez, Jermaine Dye, the veteran David Justice and a once promising Terrance Long (who was second in Rookie of the Year in 2000). That’s not a bad group of hitters. I will give Beane credit for picking up Scott Hatteberg who went on to hit 15 home runs and played a prominent role in the Moneyball story, but I don’t think he was as much of a factor as the previously mentioned group of hitters. That 2002 team, with their focus in On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage and avoiding the “glory” numbers; well they finished 4th in MLB with 205 home runs and 7th in runs batted in but were 8th in On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage. Could it be the saber-metric numbers are really just how you skew them? I believe so and that is for a talk another day.

So with a solid team in place and hitters that weren’t too shabby let’s take a look at why the A’s truly had success. It was their pitching. The 2002 A’s featured a trio of former first-round picks in Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. This trio combined for 57 wins that year with all three recording at least 15 wins. In addition after the A’s big loss in the bullpen, losing their closer Jason Isringhausen, they went out and traded for Billy Koch a hard throwing reliever from the Blue Jays who had just recorded three straight 30 save seasons and would go on to record a career best 44 saves in 2002 for the A’s. So not a real down-grade there. Again it was the strength of the A’s pitching, the best E.R.A. in the league, and not their focus on the saber metrics and Moneyball.

Another large part of Moneyball, going hand in hand on their focus with the new statistical focus, was the draft. Much was talked about the 2002 draft of the A’s and their new beliefs. The A’s felt a college pick was safer and of course used their new emphasis on On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage to discover hidden gems, such as the talked about catcher with “big thighs” that Billy Beane used as an example of their new player to draft; Jeremy Brown. Now more so than any draft the baseball draft is a crapshoot however here are some of the “hidden gems” names from that publicized 2002 A’s draft: Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, John McCurdy, Ben Fritz, Jeremy Brown, Steve Obenchain and Mark Teahen. Those seven players were all first-round picks by the A’s that year. And the best that comes of it is a journeyman Nick Swisher? Here are some other names that the A’s passed on during that span of picks from #16 to #39: Cole Hamels, James Loney, Denard Span and Matt Cain. Now what do those four players have in common, they were all drafted out of high school, something the A’s claim is not as successful. When you pigeon hole yourself into one way of thinking that is dangerous. Look at the St. Louis Cardinals who have completely redeveloped their minor league system. Just a quick glance shows they take what they need and do a great job of scouting, whether it is high school (Shelby Miller), a college player (Michael Wacha) or a fielder turned pitcher (Trevor Rosenthal). Be open about your organization!

Finally what is the impact Moneyball has had in baseball? I do think it has had some impact although not as much as many like to say. Teams are indeed focused more on the sabermetric numbers but I don’t think you can go away from your standard stats. There is a reason those stats have held strong as the “eye-catching” numbers over the 100-plus years of professional baseball. Teams do look at On-Base and Slugging Percentage more now but it has not revolutionized the game. In fact those two numbers are down since the birth of Moneyball. In 2002 the MLB average for On-Base Percentage was .331, now in 2013 it is .316 and in fact years before Moneyball it was at a 25-year high in 1999 with an average of .345.

Why is Moneyball such a trendy topic? Well Moneyball came along in 2002, right in the midst of the home run barrage. It was the poor little guy going against the rich evil empires. It was a new take on statistics. It was something different. Where Moneyball succeeds is in its emphasize on looking past the numbers and at a player as a whole, putting a more efficient attitude into a team. Where it fails is becoming the go-to organizational strategy on how to build a championship team cheaply.

Side Note: This post was written for Scott, one of the biggest baseball fans I know. Hope you enjoy it Scott and congrats on retiring. Now you can watch as much baseball as you want!!

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