FIRE JOE MORGAN: Hey, Murray Chass Wrote Something! And I'm Feeling Long-Winded!


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Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Hey, Murray Chass Wrote Something! And I'm Feeling Long-Winded!

I wonder if Murray Chass wakes up in the morning and thinks, Murray, old fella, today you're gonna write an article in a real special way: you know the scientific method? That thing where you make observations and marshal data before you draw conclusions and say things are true? Well, the way you're gonna write this real special article is by reversing that -- you're gonna take an idea that's been rattling around in the old upstairs for awhile now (here's the idea: that that darn Moneyball book isn't all it's cracked up to be) and then do your damndest to find evidence -- any wisp of a scintilla of evidence -- to support that idea.

You think that's what he thinks in the morning? I sort of do. Because his latest article is called -- I kid you not -- "When 'Moneyball' No Longer Pays Off." And I know this is shocking -- fasten your seatbelts and place your babies in baby safety chairs and fasten their baby seat belts -- he doesn't really support this title with good, solid evidence.

Look, I realize that this is baseball. It's not particle physics or oncology or the study of a hypothetical technological singularity. But if you're going to take a way of thinking seriously and then criticize it in the New York Times for all to see, I reserve the right to criticize your criticism. Let's begin.

ART HOWE lives in Houston, whose wild-card Astros won the National League pennant last season, and he grew up in Pittsburgh, whose wild-card Steelers won the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Fantastic. Carry on.

"To a large degree," Howe said, discussing the playoff success of wild-card teams, "I think they have less pressure on them when they get into the postseason because no one expects them to go far, and they have a chip on their shoulder so they play harder."

Okay. Sounds good. Wait a minute. No, it doesn't. No one expects the wild card teams to go far? Are you kidding me? The Boston Red Sox were the 2005 AL Wild Card team. You're telling me no one expected them to go farther than, oh, say the mighty 82-win NL West Champion San Diego Padres? We've passed the point where the wild card is a stigma. In general, all of the teams in the playoffs are just teams. They're just there, and they're good, and most reasonable people acknowledge that almost any of them could win it all (except maybe the 2005 Padres). It's not big, bad division champions and weakling wild cards. The AL East proves that year in and year out. Chip on their shoulder? The Braves are going to sit back and play crappily because they eked out another Division title by two games over the Phillies? Jesus, Art, talk some sense.

Oh, maybe he's talking about football. Well, in the sixteen years of the current wild card format, a wild card team has won the Super Bowl a whopping three times. So all those lowered expectations and chips on their shoulders must not be too overwhelming in terms of contributing to actual, tangible football results. Also, bear with me, I haven't even gotten to any Chass opinions yet.

Before the Mets, Howe managed the Astros for five years and the Athletics for seven years. The end of his tenure was described in none-too-flattering terms in the book "Moneyball."

Describing the frustration of General Manager Billy Beane after the Athletics' 2002 playoff loss to "the clearly inferior Minnesota Twins," the book's author, Michael Lewis, wrote that at such times, Beane would make a trade.

I don't have Moneyball in front of me (in fact, believe it or not, I've read it but don't own it), but my guess would be that Lewis used the phrase "the clearly inferior Minnesota Twins" in a passage that describes Beane's thinking, not his own. That is, Lewis was probably saying that in Beane's head, he was frustrated that he was losing to a team he believed to have inferior personnel to his own. Of course, I could be wrong entirely. It just seems like that Lewis wouldn't arbitrarily slam the Twins' roster (while it would make sense that the absurdly confident Beane would believe that about the two respective teams). Can an intrepid FJM reader contextualize this quote for us?

"Moneyball" extolled the talents of Beane, portraying him as superior to other teams' general managers. Lewis celebrated Beane for his ability to produce winning teams with small payrolls, but Terry Ryan has done the same thing with the Twins, a fact Lewis didn't acknowledge.

This is a fair point. But here's the thing: a lot of the anti-Moneyball crowd bemoan the fact that Billy Beane gets a book while poor Terry Ryan sits alone, completely media coverage-less and underappreciated. My question is, what's the story when you're talking about Terry Ryan? Is he doing something different and unconventional enough to fill a 200-some-odd-page book intended for the general reading public? If you lined up the two guys' stories (while assuming, as I think is fair, that their baseball results are relatively similar), whose is more compelling? I bet the answer is Beane's. (Admittedly, I know nothing about Terry Ryan. He could be the league's only GM with Asperger's Syndrome for all I know. That would make for a pretty good book.)

If Chass' point is just that Lewis should have put in some token mention that the Minnesota franchise has done pretty well with a small budget, just like Oakland's, then I don't really disagree with that.

As little as Beane might have thought of Howe, the Athletics reached the playoffs three straight seasons under him and have not been there the last two years with Ken Macha as their manager after making it in his first year.

Aaaargh. To me, this paragraph is smug self-satisfaction disguised as understatement. It seems like they teach that style to every Times writer. You think you're so smart, Beane and Lewis? How about this little fact? I'll write about it very drily so its devastating truth can do all the damage by itself.

Oakland isn't going to make the playoffs every year. And although no one likes to talk about it, a baseball manager contributes very little to how many wins a team finishes with. The fact that Howe went to the playoffs three out of seven years, while so far Macha has gone one for three? I mean, it's pretty much meaningless. Doesn't say anything about either guy. Thanks, Murray.

Again, not that I think the men themselves are remotely responsible for these records, but for what it's worth:

Howe Winning Percentage (7 seasons): .529
Macha Winning Percentage (3 seasons): .566

I'm pretty sure that just means Macha had slightly better baseball players on his teams, but you brought it up, Chass, so there you go.

It has been three years since the publication of "Moneyball," and it is worth assessing other matters the book discusses.

Do tell.

Several times, Lewis wrote about the Athletics' infatuation with Kevin Youkilis, a young player who had a high on-base percentage, the gold standard of Beane's player evaluation.

In limited playing time with Boston the past two seasons, Youkilis has compiled a .376 on-base percentage but has yet to show the Red Sox he is ready to help them on a daily basis. They are planning to try Youkilis, a converted third baseman, as a platooned first baseman this year.

Yes, he did compile a .376 on-base percentage. That's pretty good. It's .025 better than the league average for the last two years. Also, he OBP-ed .400 last year in limited action and he should have played more. He also continued to absolutely mash AAA pitching, OPS-ing a ridiculous 1.051 (.459 of it OBP) in Pawtucket. In what way is that not showing the Red Sox that he is ready to help them on a daily basis? Because Tito Francona, a guy who has never shown any interest in adhering to Moneyball principles, stuck with the steady, professional, entrenched-at-third-base Bill Mueller? Because he refused to take out Kevin Millar for whatever crazy, intangible clubhouse chemistry reason?

Kevin Youkilis should be a serviceable MLB player. I don't think Billy Beane ever expected him to become a superstar.

Jeremy Brown, an overweight college catcher but a high Oakland draft choice in 2002 because of his high on-base percentage, was viewed as a Beane type of pick. But he is still working his way through the minor leagues at 26, having spent the past three seasons at Midland, Tex., in the Class AA Texas League.

Yes, this player appears to have not panned out. Shall we go through a list of players Terry Ryan has drafted who have not panned out? I'm certain it's extremely long. Prospects, as a rule, don't pan out. Check the percentages.

Scott Hatteberg was another on-base guy Beane found attractive. But after four seasons and last year's Oakland-low .334 on-base percentage by Hatteberg, Beane cut him loose as a free agent.

Yes, this other player appears to have not done very well for himself. Now you have named two players who have not done well and one who has done pretty well given a limited opportunity. In other words, you have done nothing to convince me that Moneyball, if you insist on calling it that, no longer pays off. Every team has guys who stop playing well. Every team has draft picks who never amount to anything. To show that something doesn't "pay off," you have to at least begin to show that there is a systematic failure -- that in a long-term, far-reaching sample, things are tending to go poorly using this particular method of scouting and drafting and valuing players. That isn't happening, I don't think. The A's played very well last year with a very young roster. They had the AL Rookie of the Year, and a bunch of their young dudes are good.

Two Beane disciples became general managers with other teams, Paul DePodesta with the Dodgers and J. P. Ricciardi with the Toronto Blue Jays.

"Moneyball" credited DePodesta with great statistical dexterity, but it didn't help him with the Dodgers, who fired him two years into a five-year contract after some highly questionable moves a year ago left them with a weakened team that won 22 fewer games than their division-winning team won the year before.

The Dodgers are idiots. Seriously. DePodesta got run out of town by sportswriters like Bill Plaschke. It also didn't hurt that his team was decimated by injuries and he apparently has piss-poor interpersonal skills. Anyway, Chass' point seems to be that Moneyball isn't working so well because see? The Dodgers fired DePodesta! To me, a guy getting fired doesn't mean anything. You have to look at the decision-making ability of the people doing the firing. In this case, I have some serious questions about Frank McCourt and his judgment.


The caption under the picture of Billy Beane accompanying this article reads, "Billy Beane, the Athletics' general manager, considers on-base percentage the best gauge of a player's value."

This is, I believe, categorically false. I can think of 100 different metrics that are better than on-base percentage at gauging a player's value, and I am willing to bet Billy Beane can too. Like VORP. VORP is a thing. Remember VORP? No, you do not. You are a caption writer for the New York Times Online. And now, back to Chass.

Ricciardi has fared better from an employment standpoint but hasn't finished first in four years.

Really? Not one time has he finished first? In FOUR WHOLE YEARS? In a division with the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox? This is a travesty. Burn all copies of Moneyball immediately. Burn all libraries that have ever housed a copy of Moneyball and all people who have ever read its dust jacket or accidentally run their fingers over its cover at Costco. Travel back in time and prevent Mr. and Mrs. Lewis from conceiving their son Michael. Kill Mrs. Lewis, just to be safe. J.P. Ricciardi has failed to finish first in four years in the AL East.

That's pretty much the end of the article. Chass concludes by mentioning that the Blue Jays aren't any cheaper than they were when Ricciardi got hired. Now, having read the article and/or my crazy, barely coherent rants about selected passages from said article, doesn't it seem like Mr. Chass started with an ax to grind and found a couple of anecdotal pieces of evidence to help grind it? Yes, again, it's baseball, and yes, it's a short newspaper article, not a research paper, but I just wish he tried a little harder. I wish he would look at information and then write an article with interesting conclusions and reasonable inferences drawn from that information. Murray, I know you're not a Celizic or a Dibble or a Morgan. You can't be, because those men, as far as I can tell, are functional illiterates who have palsied Cambodian children in sweatshops write their articles for them. You're better than that. Please don't disappoint me again, Murray.

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posted by Junior  # 2:49 AM
It's no longer suprising to me that sportswriters like Murray Chass still fundamentally misunderstand "Moneyball" as "OBP-ball." To suggest that Billy Beane feels that OBP is the best metric for measuring ballplayers is wrong, and the Paper of Record should do its research. Beane thought, back in 2001, that OBP was the most undervalued stat. Then he shaded toward defense. Now, he seems to believe its a stockpile of young arms and Frank Thomas. The point is that basbeall can be viewed as a market, and no market stays static for 5 years. Why can't baseball writers understand this point? Because they still like to say that Tony Perez is a Hall of Famer because he smiled and collected 1600 RBI over like 25 seasons, that's why.

I feel that if Michael Lewis had titled his book "Basemarkets," or "Cheap Player-Ball," or "Art Howe Sucks" all of this confusion would be cleared up.
When you go back in time to Kill Michael Lewis's parents so he can't write "Moneyball," you should totaly kill Hitler, too! Then, if we espouse unpopular theories about how baseball works and people are screaming at us, we can go, "Hey man -- take it easy -- we're the ones who killed Hitler." And you know what they'll say? This is going to blow your mind. They'll say...

"Who is Hitler?"

What is my point? Unclear. I just woke up and I'm a little groggy.
One thing about that article,compositionally, is that it ends so abruptly that I literally had to reload the site two times just to make sure I was logged into correctly and was being allowed to see the whole thing. Maybe there was some copyediting going on, but at this point, I assume Murray Chass just fell asleep in his rocking chair, afghan pulled up to his chin, with a slowly-warming unfinished can of Ensure by his side.
The funniest thing to me about this kind of "Moneyball" criticism (I've been up for a while now, and am more clear-headed) is that, as we all know, "Moneyball" basically means: "finding untapped value and inefficiency in a competitive market and using it to your advantage." Thus, saying "'Moneyball' no longer pays off" is tantamount to saying "intelligence no longer pays off," or "it's no longer good to be good at something," or "buy stocks high and sell them low," or "you should throw more cash into that sewer" or "you should buy stamps and not use them" or "sure, I'll melt some gold bars and pour them into the ocean" or "I would like to invest in Murray Chass's future as a sportswriter."
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