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Monday, June 16, 2008

Games Part Three: MoneyBall

Michael Lewis's book Moneyball has been called scintillating, controversial and "the most important sports book ever written." In fact, it's garnered so much hype over the last few years that, when given a free copy of it, I was actually willing to read it cover to cover... Illiterate though I am.

The book profiles the front office of the Oakland Athletics baseball team... the first team to openly start using modern statistical analysis and probe the question of which baseball skills most directly lead to scoring runs and winning ballgames. Lewis focuses on Billy Beane, the general manager of the team. Beane assembled a team of data crunching Harvard nerds to inform his decisions. He took decision-making responsibilities away from the manager and called most of the shots from upstairs. These pioneers threw out the old cliches and conventional wisdom. Batting average and stolen bases? Worthless... maybe even worse than worthless since those statistics tend to fool old-school talent evaluators... which leads to bad trades and bad contracts. To oversimplify: The new gospel was on-base percentage (which adds all your walks to your batting average - a much more valuable statistic.) And surprisingly, players with unspectacular batting averages often were among the league leaders in on-base percentage. There was a whole crop of underappreciated stars out there... or at least Billy Beane saw them as stars.

Secondly, they looked at how the market compensated athletes for these skills. Players adept at hitting homeruns and stealing bases were commanding disproportionate amounts of money on the free agent market. They went looking for cheap talent, because they didn't have the bucks to compete with the New York Yankees. They signed guys like Scott Hatteberg because he never swung at bad pitches and walked a lot. Wearing down the opposing pitcher (and getting a free base on balls) wasn't an expensive skill in baseball. The A's could afford to sign guys like that... so they did. And they won... a lot.

Michael Lewis spent a lot of time with the A's organization, and learned what General Manager Billy Beane and his assistants Paul DePodesta and J.P. Riccardi were up to. (DePodesta later got a shot to GM for the Dodgers and Riccardi wound up running the Toronto Blue Jays.) And Lewis does not hide his admiration for their zealous adherence to unorthodoxy.

Baseball executives have famously bragged about "not having read the book." Former Mariner's GM Pat Gillick decried it as "in poor taste". Joe Morgan, former all-star second baseman and current broadcaster repeatedly misstated that Billy Beane had written the book, and that he must be one arrogant bastard. Everyone of them felt slighted... since the book implied that the reason Beane was so successful is that everyone else in the old boys network of baseball management was incompetent at best and willfully ignorant at worst. After all, for the A's to beat the odds, they had to be screwing somebody.

However, Lewis's worship breaks down for me when I look at the bigger picture of the importance of games in my life. He sees himself documenting the triumph of reason over stupidity... as if baseball were a reenactment of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Science and reason are unassailable heroes. Lewis salivates at the prospect of Harvard grads with laptops and databases figuring out a smarter way to run a ballclub. He chortles at clubs who were repeatedly fleeced by Billy Beane's famous trades. He points out the genius of Beane's strategy at every point. But it's more like corporate ethics masquerading as science. To be ruthlessly efficient and to exploit market inefficiencies is a pathway to winning ballgames. It's the same path that Wallmart founders used to build an economic juggernaut. There is a science to it, but it isn't a paragon of "the scientific approach." And it may have unforeseen consequences.

The broader impact is that it rips away the facade of baseball. The game of baseball... a child's game played by adults and paid for by fans that want entertainment... isn't supposed to be all about maximizing your market leverage. It's about hometown heroes. It's about clutch performances. It's about which player you want to be when you grow up.

The problem is that no one ever wanted to be Scott Hatteberg.

And I dug up some actual data to make this case:

In the seven seasons from 2000-2006, the A's had a monster run... They sustained a near .600 winning percentage despite their woeful payroll. They made the playoffs five of those seven seasons. During that time span the league-average yearly attendance was around 2.3 million fans. Oakland averaged a meager 2.1 over that time frame. Their season total attendance eclipsed league average exactly once... in 2003, the year after they had won 103 games. In 2006, a year when they won 93 games and the division title, they actually drew less than 2 million fans... one of the worst showings in the league. Despite their amazing success in the win column, fans really didn't care. They didn't show up because watching guys take walks and go from base to base rather than risk an exciting stolen base attempt is boring. As much as I have tried to like this team (I always root for underdogs) I was never able to latch on to any of their players either.

Compare this to 1988-92, when Tony LaRussa's club made it to the post-season four out of five years. Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire powered a high-octane offense. Rickey Henderson stole every base in sight. These were a rip-snorting, steroids-injecting bunch of bashers. The average attendance per year for that half-decade was significantly above league-average (about 2.6 million fans per season compared to a league-average of 2.2 million.) People just 12 years earlier had shown up in droves for this same team.

Billy Beane decided somewhere along the line that winning ballgames was the most important goal... Win and everybody's happy. The Mariner's front office conversely seems to have decided that making money is the bottom line, so they worry more about drawing 3+ million fans every year than they do about winning. They put more thought into their funny advertising campaign each year than they do the annual draft.

Personally, I find that the real bottom line... the line that everyone keeps smudging... is entertainment. Professional baseball shouldn't exist. It's ridiculous that we pay grown men tens of millions of dollars a year to play a kid's game. It's ridiculous that I follow it as closely as I do. The only reason I pay any attention to this game is for its entertainment value.

Beane and company are changing the way the game is played behind the scenes (constantly evaluating the market to see what skills are undervalued.) They're also changing the way the game is played on the field (fewer stolen base attempts, more emphasis on taking pitches.) These changes have resulted in more wins. More wins means that other teams are adapting to this approach. Already on-base percentage has become overvalued and the A's have had to start searching for other interesting stats. It's an ever evolving process of trying to outshark the next guy.

The problem is that walks are a loophole. They are a penalty invented by the framers of the game. They aren't what baseball is supposed to be about. The core of the game, which is what made the game popular in the first place, is a pitcher trying to throw the ball past a guy doing his best to knock the stuffing out of it. Walks are boring. They slow down an already glacial game even more. And yet, Beane's success is changing the landscape of baseball so that more and more players are trained to look for walks. This is, as reflected in the attendance data cited above, BAD FOR BASEBALL... because baseball is still about entertainment and walks can never replace the core dynamic of the game.

Hopefully this has just been a market-correction blip, rather than a permanent change. Otherwise baseball is in trouble. Someone upset the applecart and now Bud Selig and the rest of the game's leadership is going to be hardpressed to fix it. Michael Lewis sees this as something to celebrate... a new kind of enlightenment. I don't think I can agree.

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At 6/16/2008 06:51:00 PM, Blogger shams said...

The problem is that no one ever wanted to be Scott Hattesberg.

well, he has made over $10 million:

so, I want to be Scott Hatteberg. I'll take ball four with that kind of payday.

At 6/16/2008 09:22:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Spelling mistake has been fixed. Oops.

At 6/17/2008 10:57:00 AM, Blogger Walaka said...

Nicely developed essay, John, building on the short description you gave me the other day.

I like your deconstruction of this phenomenon, but I think there are a few chinks in your argument that need to be addressed.

After talking about how winning alone didn't help Oakland put people in the stands (and using the Mariners as an example of valuing marketing more than the wins) you go on to say "these [Oakland's] changes have resulted in more wins. More wins means that other teams are adapting to this approach."

If the approach is misguided, why are other teams adapting it? These clubs are businesses, all bent on maximizing profits. If the Oakland approach is demonstrably not effective at this, why would other teams adopt it? You need to explain this more throughly.

Also, I don't think you have established yourself as the one you gets to decide what baseball is "supposed to be about," at least not until you address the complexities of the game more fully.

You say "The core of the game, which is what made the game popular in the first place, is a pitcher trying to throw the ball past a guy doing his best to knock the stuffing out of it." In fact, until at least 1871, batters called for the pitches they wanted. The relationship between pitcher and batter is not historically as straightforward as you describe.

However, this is still a great piece and I'd love to see you explore it more. Brains v. brawns in baseball is a captivating theme.

At 6/17/2008 01:25:00 PM, Blogger John said...

RE: batters calling for their pitches... this might be true (I don't know) but Candy Cummings developed the curve ball in 1867 much to the chagrin of the Harvard team, which immediately tried to get it banned. In 1859, James Creighton became known as baseball's first "star" by developing what was called his "speedball" pitch... I'm guessing if a pitcher's job was to lob big juicy pieces of cheese in there... they wouldn't become stars, and they wouldn't create outrage and celebrity with their new pitches. But certainly the "gentlemanliness" of the game has deteriorated in the modern, professional era (starting around 1890) and this is the era I'm writing about. In this era, the competition between pitcher and batter has been the most important dynamic of the game.

Regarding other teams adopting Beane's methods: I should have elaborated on that more. Some teams have adopted these theories in attempt to be more competitive. Everyone (except the Yankees) feels like they're at a disadvantage because they can't afford to spend what other teams spend. The Dodgers hired DePodesta but he was ridden out of town fairly quickly. Riccardi and Theo Epstein have been given more time to develop... and (Epstein especially) have shown they can also be successful. Other teams turn up their nose at Billyball... not wanting to associate themselves with those philosophies.

My own angst is that the Mariners (who have the worst record in all of baseball right now) just fired their general manager. They have to hire someone and try to rebuild the franchise. If they hire a Beane clone, they may win more games but they may also alienate a lot of fans. Let's say the new general manager makes it his first priority to trade Ichiro (he's overpaid and he might be attractive to other teams.) This will probaly help the team while simultaneously causing thousands of fans to never come to another game. It's a tightrope. Many of the new formulas for success slice through old values like loyalty between a player and a team.

Around the rest of the league, there's a split between owners that want to try out these methods and traditionalists. The jury is still out on what these new strategies mean to baseball. And even though it hasn't meant a financial boom for Oakland, there are lots of factors that go into that. While there's no clear cut evidence, the Boston Redsox are clearly successfully drawing fans while employing a sabermetrician in the front office. Of course, he's also had the budget to hang onto big name star players and spend $50 million (about Oakland's whole payroll) just for the rights to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaki... a big name pitcher from Japan.

At 12/31/2009 03:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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