The Moneyball Enigma

I’m pretty tired of season previews and player profiles right now (although I am working on my long-neglected prospect profiles), so I want to delve into organizational strategies again.

The buzzword among baseball television analysts in recent years has been “Moneyball”. To some it means geeks pounding away at keyboards in the Oakland front office. Whenever I’m bored enough to turn on “Baseball Tonight,” usually a Moneyball-related zinger gets thrown out by one of the many of their esteemed commentators that is really totally unrelated to the thesis of the book. Sometimes I hear backlashes on radio broadcasts, usually off-hand references to closers or strikeouts or even on-base precentage. It seems that the book has perpetuated a myth that continues to grow to this day; that Moneyball is all about statistics.

No, Moneyball is not about on-base percentage and strikeout-to-walk ratios. The Oakland A’s (much like the Indians are now) were in a situation where they didn’t have the resources to outbid teams for top performers, so they looked for areas where players were under-rated by the market. In the late 1990s, the most undervalued players were those who didn’t have high batting averages, but could take a walk. So GM Billy Beane picked up a lot of players who fit this profile at a discount rate. Guys like Matt Stairs and Olmaedo Saenz and John Jaha were picked up cheap, and rewarded Oakland with several good seasons. But over the past couple of years, the word’s gotten out, and these type of players aren’t as affordable as before.

What’s the moral of the story? It isn’t about OBP or whatever else is in vogue at the time; it’s about finding players who are undervalued by the market. In recent years, defense has become an undervalued commodity. More recently, the Indians seem to have concentrated on injured players as undervalued commodities; they have been among the most-lauded organizations as far as rehab is concerned, and judging by some recent triumphs (Jack Cressend, Bob Howry, etc), they have had some success in this area. They have used minor-league free agency well, grabbling guys like Casey Blake, Matt Miller, and Rafael Betancourt for peanuts. What they’ve done isn’t exactly what Beane did in Oakland, but the spirit seems to be the same; exploiting market inefficiencies to grab undervalued players. The Twins are probably one of the most stathead-phobic organizations around, but they do an excellent job in player development and scouting, which they use to their advantage. The Atlanta Braves have rode their tools-based philosophy to umpteen straight division titles. In other words, it isn’t about OBP or drafting college players per se; it’s identifying what you do best and using it as a competitive advantage.

But of course, your organization has to actually do something well in order to exploit it. If you run a small-market organization just like the Yankees, you won’t win because you can’t run your organization like the Yankees and have success. What works for some teams just won’t work for others. The Atlanta Braves probably wouldn’t be as successful if they went to a statistically-oriented player evaluation strategy. That’s why it’s possible to win in baseball despite the disparity in payrolls; teams do things differently. If you can structure your organization in a way that maximizes your chances of winning, whether that be by constructing a proprietary computer system or building a top-notch training staff, you can beat the big-money behemoths. You won’t win every time, but that sure beats trying hopelessly to win by emulating the same strategy as everyone else.

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