Moneyball still relevant for MLB today
The night the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, one of the team’s senior advisers, Tony Siegle, told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post, “we’ve shown Moneyball is a bunch of garbage.”
The Giants, to an extent, were playing Moneyball, too.
“Everybody is doing the same thing,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean says. “There’s a balance. If you think one team is 80 percent stats vs. 20 percent scouting, or 20 percent stats vs. 80 percent scouting, it’s not that way.”
Eight years after Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” became a bestseller — and with the film adaptation, "Moneyball," starring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane opening nationwide Friday — the philosophical struggle within baseball is not quite over, but the argument has changed.
Unlike in the early 2000s, when the book was written, virtually every team uses advanced statistical analysis to evaluate players. The question for teams now is how best to apply the principles of Moneyball, which to this day are misunderstood.
The book was not about how the A’s, a team at the bottom of baseball’s economic food chain, relied on less traditional statistics such as on-base percentage (OBP) to compete with wealthier clubs.
No, it was about how the A’s tried to find players with undervalued skills so they could acquire those players cheaply, exploiting inefficiencies in the market.
At the time the book was written, a player’s ability to get on base was undervalued. No longer is that the case, and other inefficiencies are becoming increasingly difficult to identify.
Advances in technology created such a wealth of new information, teams have become increasingly adept at assessing virtually every aspect of a player’s performance — and assigning a value to it.
“Those who jumped in early got a head start,” St. Louis Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. says. “But most clubs now, one way or another . . . they’re on it. No one is saying, ‘What is this? What am I missing?’ They’re all on it. Everyone has their different models for success.”
Take the Giants, for example.
Sabean makes it clear that the Giants continue to rely heavily on their scouts, saying, “we’re still in the scouting business in my mind.” But he also notes the contributions of two young Giants executives whose responsibilities include crunching numbers, Jeremy Shelley, 38, and Yeshayah Goldfarb, 33.
The initial fallout from the book created a struggle for jobs at the highest levels, with some teams hiring young, highly educated Moneyball types to replace older, more traditional thinkers as general managers — and dismissing scouts in the process.
Most teams today, however, say that it is important to blend both objective analysis with the subjective views of scouts; Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, speaking in August about his search for a new GM, said, “The sabermetric stuff is important, but it’s just a piece. We’re not running the baseball organization as a computer model.”
The book was less restrained, all but suggesting a revolution in which scouts and their old-school views would be pushed aside.
“(The book) draws the line in a major way,” Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski says. “If that line existed more then, I don’t think it exists as much today.”
Mark Shapiro, the Cleveland Indians’ club president, goes even further.
“The book, when taken in the context of relevance to how teams are currently run in terms of philosophy and strategy, is outdated. It was always one extreme perspective,” Shapiro says.
“What can’t be debated is that the book caused a wide spectrum of people engaged and involved in the game — from ownership to people on the front lines — to at the very least question some of the ways they go about the process of making decisions.”
Before Paul DePodesta became Beane’s top assistant with the A’s and later GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was an advance scout with the Indians in 1997 and ’98.
DePodesta, the inspiration for the character portrayed by Jonah Hill in “Moneyball,” would chart games on paper, then transfer the information to a computer to make writing reports easier.
“Then we dreamed about how great it would be if we could actually link video clips to the data,” DePodesta recalls. “We talked about it for years, and it was such a significant breakthrough that I remember where I was in my car when I got the call saying it was possible.
“Even with that, though, I knew every night I was watching a game that I was missing 95 percent of the action around the league. Today, just a decade later, teams have access to virtually every pitch thrown the entire year in every single game in even greater detail, and yet, they don’t have to chart a single pitch!”
The increased availability of such information created a fundamental shift in the ways that teams could evaluate players — a shift that might have occurred even if Lewis never had written “Moneyball.”
“It was probably inevitable,” says DePodesta, who is now the New York Mets’ vice-president of player development and scouting. “Look at just about every industry over the past quarter-century, how that industry may have been impacted by data.
“That explosion of information was going to impact our game one way or another. Whether we did it or not in Oakland, it was going to happen.
“It was a tidal wave.”
Today, a team facing Roy Halladay can show its hitters, in rapid-fire clips, how Halladay works left-handed sluggers on 1-0 counts — and every other situation imaginable. Hitters can download such video to their iPads and study their craft away from the ballpark.
The sudden accessibility of new information even led to changes in the kinds of people teams hired — changes that, in some cases, rocked franchises.
The ouster of Walt Jocketty as Cardinals GM occurred in part because of conflicts that arose between Jocketty and Jeff Luhnow, who rose through the organization to become the head of both scouting and player development.
The Cardinals had initially turned to Luhnow in 2003, seeking someone with a strong background on the analytical side.
“We were trying to build up that part of the organization because of all of the new data that was coming in,” DeWitt says. “We weren’t geared up for putting it all together. We hired Jeff to put it all together and integrate it.”
Most owners, accustomed to working with numbers in their other businesses, welcomed the infusion of new information.
Virtually everyone in the game understands that luck plays a greater role in baseball than most businesses. But the numbers at least provided an objective tool for owners to scrutinize the multimillion dollar player investments recommended by their GMs. And most GMs embraced the additional tool.
“You can smell a bad deal more quickly than before,” New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman says. “The old-school guys used to say, ‘This guy looks good in a uniform.’ You don’t hear that anymore. Owners should feel good about why they’re spending money other than, ‘He looks good in a uniform.’
“This is a business. It’s more than just, ‘I like this guy, he’s a warrior.’ You can define what a warrior is. Everything can be measured. And if not, we should strive to do so and get to higher ground.”
The Yankees had no choice but to pursue higher ground. They were falling behind their biggest competitors, the Boston Red Sox, in the information arms race.
“(The Red Sox) were having a great deal of success with players of lesser ability,” Cashman says. “I studied what they were doing to some degree, adjusted accordingly, brought the Yankees up to speed, brought us into the 21st century.”
John Henry, whose ownership group purchased the group in December 2001, wanted to apply principles from his success in the investment world to sports — and objective analysis was part of his mandate.
Henry offered Beane a record contract for a GM — five years, $12.5 million. When Beane said no, Henry turned to a Beane admirer, Theo Epstein, who had graduated from Yale and was then 28.
“Even before the book came out, even before Theo actually had the job in Boston, we had been friends,” Beane says. “He believed in some of the metrics available.
“Then, when John Henry bought the Red Sox, you had an owner that had a belief system in objective analysis. When he buys one of the biggest franchises in the game and hires a guy like Theo, that was a big accelerator.
“You could see it coming. There was an underlying current going on with some of the teams, and first and foremost with the Red Sox.”
Beane recalls that other trends were developing at the time. Bright young minds such as Andrew Friedman, Chris Antonetti and Jon Daniels entered the game; all eventually would become GMs. Baseball Prospectus emerged as a go-to website for the statistically minded, and other, like-minded sites launched as well, increasing the level of discourse.
“For me, it started in San Diego, working for a small-market team,” says Epstein, who spent five seasons in the Padres’ baseball operations department before joining the Red Sox as an assistant GM in March 2002.
“I spent the vast majority of time focused on players who were undervalued for some reason or another, trying to build value through small acquisitions, through looking at players through a slightly different lens than the marketplace.
“When I got to the Red Sox, our roster at the time had plenty of star power, but the second half of our roster was not strong. It was a nice opportunity to apply those principles in roster construction to a big-market club.”
Three undervalued players — first baseman Kevin Millar, third baseman Bill Mueller and designated hitter David Ortiz — were among Epstein’s initial acquisitions. The 2003 Red Sox came within five outs of reaching the World Series. The ’04 Sox won the Series, ending The Curse of the Bambino once and for all.
The ’07 Sox featured three prominent Epstein draft picks – second baseman Dustin Pedroia, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and closer Jonathan Papelbon – and won the Series again.
“The 2003-04 teams that Theo assembled had a Bill James-type textbook offense,” Henry says, referring to the influential sabemetrician who is now a senior advisor with the Red Sox.
“The 2007 team had young players drafted with certain principles now widely employed. But our success has been in being very aggressive on all fronts including scouting and player development – all while continually drafting near the bottom.”
The Yankees, a perennial post-season qualifier, also held low draft positions. When Cashman secured more power before the 2006 season, one of his goals was to improve the team’s farm system. At the time, the feeling among many rival executives was that the Red Sox were about to blow right past the Yankees.
Cashman, in his quest to play catch-up, hired Joe Kerrigan, the Red Sox’s former pitching coach and manager who had been replaced at the outset of the Henry regime.
“How they approached their pitching program was of interest to me,” Cashman says. “I was throwing out much more (pitching) talent than the Red Sox had and they were having more success. It goes to execution, game plans, stuff like that.”
Cashman’s shift toward statistical analysis caused friction with then-manager Joe Torre, who said in his book, “The Yankee Years,” that he told the GM to remember the human element, and “never forget that there’s a heartbeat in this game.”
Joe Girardi replaced Torre before the 2008 season. The Yankees won the World Series in ’09. And today, they are among the most aggressive teams on the statistical side, with more than 20 people working on analytics, according to Cashman. The A’s, by contrast, employ one such person — “and he has a host of other duties,” Beane says.
Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers, who worked a special assignment scout for the Yankees last season, says he was impressed that Cashman leans on not only a group of analysts led by Michael Fishman, a Yale graduate who is the team’s director of quantitative analysis, but also on top baseball people such as Billy Eppler, the team’s pro scouting director, and Gene Michael, a special adviser who is a former player, manager and GM.
“Cash does it the right way,” Towers says. “The way he works the room in meetings, it works. If he wants the analytical view, he asks (the analysts) a question and they provide the information. They usually only speak when asked.
“With the Yankees, it’s not, ‘these guys and us.’ They’re all kind of one.”
Which raises an obvious question, particularly at a time when baseball is seeking to enhance competitive balance in its latest collective-bargaining negotiations.
If high-revenue teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox are now as savvy as the A’s once were in exploiting market inefficiencies, what does that leave for the little guys?
“Some of the large-market clubs have learned to exploit their resources across every level of the baseball operation — technology, analytics, everything,” the Indians’ Shapiro says.
“We are seeing the tip of the iceberg right now. I would hypothesize that if you flash forward to the next five, six or seven years, you’ll see the (further) dominance of the big-market teams that are run well.
“That doesn’t preclude small-market teams from winning. But they’re going to go in and out, go through cycles of winning, then violently remaking their rosters.”
The Brewers’ Doug Melvin is among the game’s most thoughtful GMs, open-minded to new metrics even though he advanced through baseball’s traditional system of scouting and player development.
Yet Melvin says, “I’m losing a little faith in the numbers.”
Melvin isn’t alone in his skepticism. While objective analysis is now standard within the industry, some teams remain wary of assigning too much importance to the data.
In fact, some teams that adopted a more numbers-based approach have shifted direction again.
The Toronto Blue Jays made perhaps the most stunning change, at first de-emphasized scouting with the hiring of J.P. Ricciardi — one of Beane’s top assistants, yet a former scout himself — as GM in November 2001.
Eight years later, the Jays replaced Ricciardi with Alex Anthopoulos, a 34-year-old who is savvy to both objective and subjective analysis — and reversed their earlier course by hiring an unusually large number of scouts.
Critics of the sabermetric movement are quick to point out the failures of Beane, the GM who became a celebrity because of the book, “Moneyball,” and now is the subject of the movie.
The Athletics, after reaching the postseason five times in seven years between 2000 and ’06, have not had a winning season since.
“When (people) say we haven’t ‘won’ . . . (never) won a championship?” Beane asks. “That’s a fact. What we’re most proud of is our run of playoff teams. (Getting to the postseason) is the most difficult thing to do.”
Beane’s detractors, though, say that his initial success stemmed not from his new ideas, but the extreme talents of pitchers such as Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder and hitters such as Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, none of whom is featured prominently in the book or movie.
If anything, though, the Athletics face even more disadvantages today than they did at the time the book was written.
Free agents shun their ballpark. The team’s future in Oakland is dicey. The gap in payrolls between the A’s and big-money teams like the Yankees only has widened.
Then again, the Tampa Bay Rays and Florida Marlins have faced similar challenges and enjoyed greater success. The Rays recently had a book written about them — “The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First — but granted the author, Jonah Keri, far less access than Beane gave Lewis.
Even today, many in baseball express surprise that Beane was willing to have his secrets revealed.
“It’s always good to know what one of your fellow clubs is doing,” DeWitt says.
Adds Cashman, “Once the book came out, it was like Coke’s secret formula.”
But Beane, who says the rise of objective analysis would have occurred anyway, points to the Athletics’ inability to prevent injuries as a more legitimate criticism.
“It certainly is something here that we’ve never completely gotten our arms around,” Beane says.
So, is Moneyball simply a myth?
While the Red Sox’s World Series titles in 2004 and ’07 helped validate objective analysis as a significant tool, some in the game remain less convinced.
“If someone thought they’d build a better mousetrap, let’s look at it,” says John Schuerholz, who built one of the top scouting organizations in baseball as the Braves’ GM from 1990 to 2007, but also used statistical analysis during the team’s run of 14 straight division titles.
“I think everyone looked and I don’t think many considered it a better mousetrap. You look at the won-loss records of the teams that adopted and the teams that didn’t, I don’t think you’ll find much of a difference in the impact.”
The Giants’ Sabean says nothing in baseball is simple; circumstances change as clubs evolve. The Brewers’ Melvin rattles off examples from his own club of how the human element can alter a player’s career.
Closer John Axford incorporating a minor-league coach’s advice. Second baseman Rickie Weeks working hard to become a better defender. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain evolving from a raw talent into a prospect the Royals wanted in their package for pitcher Zack Greinke thanks to the Brewers’ strong player-development plan.
Sometimes, Melvin says, statistics are misleading.
“I’ve had some bad experiences with possible deals that I might have made based off numbers,” Melvin says. “I’m an avid listener. I’m still checking the numbers. But they have to tell me a little more. I’ve got to be sold a little more.”
Despite the misgivings of Melvin and others, there is no turning back.
“Moneyball,” Cashman says, “opened up an old-school industry into today’s business environment. And it exploded.”
So, what comes next? What does the future hold?
The biggest inefficiency in the game remains health. It’s not only the A’s who crumble seemingly every season due to injuries.
Just look at the current standings: The Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, both of which lost a number of key players, are in jeopardy of losing postseason berths that seemingly were assured on Sept. 1.
“There is probably a lot of opportunity there,” Beane says. “Preventing injury, (reducing the) length of time missed, advances in rehabilitation — it’s completely wide-open territory. Whoever creates some advantage will be creating a huge advantage for themselves.”
Beane has tried to exploit every last conventional inefficiency, moving from on-base percentage to defense to high-school pitchers in the draft. To some, it might appear that the gig is up, the game is done, nothing else can be accomplished.
But Beane isn’t so sure.
“What accelerated things over the past decade — and will continue to accelerate them — is technology,” he says.
“Stats essentially are measurements. If you’re able to measure in a more accurate way, it gives you more opportunities to create metrics for analysis. As we become more accurate with the use of technology, you’ll continue to see more and more progress.”
DePodesta — who now works under Beane’s forerunner, Sandy Alderson, with the Mets — agrees.
“New inefficiencies arise all the time,” DePodesta says. “Circumstances change.”
The new collective-bargaining agreement looms as one such wrinkle. The current deal expires Dec. 11, and a new one could be in place by the end of the World Series.
Revenue sharing likely will be tweaked. The draft could undergo a major overhaul. Free-agent compensation also figures to be altered.
“Every time a new CBA comes out, the fundamental rules of the industry change,” DePodesta says. “That impacts how people view their players, their organization. It’s a natural thing. It happens every five or six years.
“On top of that, the game ebbs and flows. We see a much different game on the field now than we did six or seven years ago.”
DePodesta is referring, of course, to the post-steroid era, the increased emphasis on pitching and defense now that baseball tests for performance-enhancing drugs.
Defense is among the final frontiers of objective analysis; some of the data is drawn from subjective judgments. But progressive teams use their own models to measure defensive performance, and develop other proprietary information as well.
The information arms race is on.
“There are certainly some things that we are studying now where we know we can get better,” DePodesta says. “Put it this way: We know how little we know. Which is probably the first step.
“We’re probably just scratching the surface of what we could know over the course of the next 10 to 15 years.”
Could be another book. Or a movie.