This off-season, the Moneyball backlash has been in full swing. From the White Sox supposed small ball approach to the game to the disastrous firing of Paul DePodesta in Los Angeles, pundits have been haring on the downfall of the theories espoused in Michael Lewis’ controversial and influential book.
There’s only one problem: These writers are wrong.
This week, Murray Chass, a venerable columnist for The New York Times who is generally on top of the game, wrote anti-Moneyball column. Entitled “When ‘Moneyball’ No Longer Pays Off,” Chass’ column completely misses the mark.
First, he bemoans the Athletics’ recent playoff misses. Under Art Howe, the anti-Moneyball manager, the team made the playoffs, but under Ken Macha, Chass notes, they’ve missed the postseason for the past two seasons. Maybe it was Howe and not GM Billy Beane, the key character of Lewis’ book, Chass theorizes. Then, he criticizes Kevin Youkilis, a key player in Moneyball, for not showing the Red Sox that he can contribute on a daily basis. Finally, he dumps on DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, two Beane disciples who have not yet overseen success on the field.
I’m going to dissect Chass’ claims backwards. Ricciardi, the Blue Jays GM, does not deserve the scorn heaped on him by Chass. Ricciardi is competing against the Yankees and the Red Sox. No amount of statistical analysis would allow him to match the funds available to these two teams. He’s put together a decent offensive team in light of these challenges, and 2006 will be the biggest test so far for the Blue Jays. Don’t write him off just yet.
The Dodgers were an utter disaster, but that’s not because of DePodesta. DePodesta developed a strong farm system and tried to put together a competitive team. But injuries left the Dodgers struggling to find suitable Major Leaguers for much of the season. While the LA media – and Bill Plaschke in particular – drove DePodesta out of town on a rail, it’s hard to blame the Dodgers’ 22-game slide on DePodesta unless he personally injured each of his high-priced players. Yet, Chass conveniently overlooks this fact.
Kevin Youkilis, the Greek (Jewish) God of Walks as dubbed by Beane, has a career OBP of .376 and just 345 plate appearances in two big league seasons. He will be 27 on opening day, and the only reason he hasn’t show the Red Sox he can contribute on a daily basis is because the Red Sox have yet to give him a chance to play on a daily basis. Again, Chass omits this distinction.
And then, finally, we arrive back at the crux of his column: an unfounded attack on the Oakland Athletics that completely and utterly misses the point of Moneyball. Chass wants to assess the success of Moneyball by analyzing the A’s postseason successes. He’s choosing to highlight the extreme limits of Moneyball success at the cost of a real analysis of the ideas set forth by Beane in Lewis’ book.
The success of a team following the Moneyball approach should not be determined by postseason appearances or postseason victories or World Championships. This point is often glossed over by those who do not subscribe to the Moneyball view and see the Red Sox as pursuing a Moneyball approach similar to that of the A’s. That is a gross mischaracterization.
Moneyball is about using performance evaluation metrics in order to find players who can help your team remain competitive while keeping payroll within fairly tight constraints. It’s about taking a chance on low-risk, high-yield investments that could help propel your team into a pennant race while competing against teams with better finances and a higher payroll.
People point to the A’s 2005 season as a clear sign of Moneyball failure. I take the other approach: The 2005 season vindicated, yet again, the Moneyball approach to low-payroll team construction.
In 2005, the Oakland Athletics had a payroll of $55 million, ranking them 21st in all of baseball. The Angels of Wherever, their competitors and eventual AL West champions, had a payroll of $95 million, fifth highest in baseball. While the A’s fell short of the playoffs, as late as September 20, they were 1.5 games behind the Angels.
The fact that the A’s, a team with 57 percent of the financial resources of the Angels, could even turn this ridiculous financial situation into a playoff race speaks volumes of the Moneyball success to team construction. Furthermore, the A’s actually outscored the Angels. The Moneyball offense built around OBP was better than the Angels’ high-priced star-studded lineup.
So then where do the A’s and Dodgers and Blue Jays, teams run by so-called Moneyball disciples, develop this bad reputation? I believe it stems from the success of high-profile teams that rely on statistical analysis.
Take the Red Sox and to a lesser extent the Yankees. These two teams clearly worship at the altar of OBP (and the altar of deep pockets). The Red Sox have been able to integrate statistical analysis into their draft and advanced scouting. When team management combines rigorous performance analysis with deep pockets, it is possible to produce a perennial winner.
When columnists see the Red Sox and the A’s square off, they tend to look past the fact that the Red Sox have a payroll that is more than twice that of the A’s. Rather, they see two teams on even playing fields that both employ statistical analysis. But for some unknown reason, what works for the Red Sox doesn’t work as well for the A’s. And I’ll be damned if Billy Beane isn’t the one shouldering the blame for that season after season.
In an era of payroll disparity, the A’s have remained competitive year after year in the face of overwhelming odds. That is the success of Moneyball.