FIRE JOE MORGAN: It's Time for the Backlash

FIRE JOE MORGAN

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Monday, September 11, 2006

 

It's Time for the Backlash

Now, I think, is the time for people who rejected and misunderstood Moneyball to come out of the woodwork and start crowing "I told you so." Paul DePodesta's been fired. The old-school baseball man who replaced him is flourishing. J.P. Ricciardi's higher-priced Blue Jays still aren't doing anything. Theo Epstein has seemingly traded away the Red Sox' future while simultaneously casting an injury hex on the guys he still has. Billy Beane's A's ... well, they're still doing pretty good. And so we get articles like this one by SI.com's Jon Heyman. Get ready for an ambitious title:

Beyond Moneyball
Why A's Beane succeeds where others have failed


Let me just say right now that I already don't believe Jon Heyman is going to satisfactorily explain why Billy Beane is succeding where others have failed. Especially because by "others," Heyman almost certainly means the three men I've just mentioned, and that it's hard to say definitively that any of those three have actually failed. But I'll try to keep my mind open.

It's the man, not the methodology.


I see. You didn't like Moneyball?

Moneyball was a superbly written tale,


Oh, okay. You're going to say you liked Moneyball, but deliver it a backhanded compliment by saying it was "superbly written" (read: entertaining but perhaps not true) and a "tale" (in other words, a fantasy).

and while the book got it right in that the stunning achievements of the Oakland A's should indeed be attributed to their great general manager Billy Beane, the Moneyball concept isn't proving to be one that transfers easily. If it really is even a tangible, definable, worthwhile style.

Heyman actually gets close to an interesting point at the end there. "Moneyball" isn't really a style. If he would just read our glossary, he would find out that the book is really about exploiting market inefficiencies and finding baseball-playing value where others are missing it. Again, what Moneyball is not: Finding guys who walk a lot. Finding guys who are fat. Finding guys who hit a lot of home runs. Drafting only college guys.

Since 2000, the A's have logged more victories than anyone except the Yankees (they are only 14 wins behind the so-called "über-team").

This is amazing.

But according to one National League executive, the key to Oakland's startling small-market success has little to do with stats or drafting college players, as Moneyball suggests.

I would argue that's not what Moneyball suggests at all. Maybe that's what Beane was doing five years ago. But there's an overall philosophy here that I think Heyman is missing.

Furthermore, that executive asserted that if other teams try to duplicate the book's blueprint -- and several have -- they are wasting their time.

Okay, sure. That makes complete sense. Because a goddamn book was published about that so-called "blueprint." Of course those high-OBP guys aren't going to be so undervalued anymore. The most popular and influential book about baseball general managing ever published focused on that aspect of the game. So yeah, Kevin Youkilis might be going for market value now.

The book, according to that executive, is "somewhat fraudulent" in that Beane's true strength is the same old skill that's basically blown off in the book: the tried-and-true formula of procuring the right players by scouting.


This NL dude certainly has a lot to say about Beane and Moneyball, doesn't he? Here's the real "money"-quote, though (you like how I worked that in? I am a professional):

"Billy Beane has got a way of finding winning players," the executive said. "The A's don't have anyone who stands out for talent, except maybe Frank Thomas. But they have a lot of winning players. Take Nick Swisher, for instance. He knows how to play to win."

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Remember that subhead? Why A's Beane succeeds where others have failed? He "has got a way of finding winning players." There's your story! Fuck Moneyball! Fuck it all to hell!

Also, let's do "take Nick Swisher, for instance." He knows how to play to win? That's what you're going to give me? How about we do some stat nerdery instead? I know I just said that Moneyball's not about OBP, but you can't really ignore the simple fact that last year, Nick Swisher posted an OBP of .322, and this year his OBP is .373. He's also hit 10 more home runs. But would you still like to talk to me about knowing how to play to win? Too bad. I've thrown my phone into the nearest saltwater aquarium and it's been eaten by a shark.

Additionally, at least two of the key components of Moneyball are just about out the window now, at least in my book.

Your book, Jon Heyman's I Pretend to Like Moneyball But Secretly I Actually Hate It.

One of Moneyball's concepts is that it's better to draft better-prepared college players than high-ceiling high school stars

IF THEY ARE CURRENTLY BEING UNDERVALUED BY THE MARKET. I cannot stress enough how important it is that you not forget about that part.

Beane has gone the other way; lately, he's been drafting undervalued high school players

SOMETHING ACCOUNTED FOR IN AN ACCURATE REPRESENTATION OF WHAT THE MONEYBALL PHILOSOPHY ACTUALLY ENTAILS.

Fortuitously for Beane, the prep stars are now the undervalued ones because so many others are following the book's college-first advice.


Right. Exactly. We've gone over this. Thank you. Whew.

Another Moneyball notion is the extreme emphasis on stats, particularly walks, on-base percentage and home runs, which were sold as keys to success.


AT THE TIME, BECAUSE THEY WERE UNDERVALUED AAAAARGH.

While that strategy worked especially well in the steroid era, with Jason Giambi and previously Mark McGwire (both kings of homers and OPS)

This is a complete steroid non-sequitir. Steroids have nothing to do with why walks, OBP, home runs, and/or OPS aren't as undervalued as they were before. The market and current GM's ability or willingness to look at those stats determine value.

"Billy Beane is a very bright individual who knows there are many different ways to skin a cat and find a way to be successful," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "Every year he comes up with a different game plan and finds a new way to win. He's no one-trick pony. The A's ownership and fan base should consider themselves very lucky to have Billy Beane."

I never thought I'd say this, but thank you, Brian Cashman, for being the voice of reason. Seriously. "There are many different ways to skin a cat" may be a cliche, but it's a much better distilliation of what Moneyball actually means than some lockstep adherence to OBP or walks or college players. You try to find value where you think it is as best you can and hope your methods are slightly more accurate than other people's, no matter if it's fielding, plate discipline, power, speed, or intelligence.

While Beane continues to succeed, his very smart, Ivy League-educated, twentysomething Moneyball disciples have faltered lately. Paul DePodesta (Harvard) was out after two years of running the Frank McCourt-owned Dodgers and is now back working under Beane's old boss, Sandy Alderson, in San Diego. Boston GM Theo Epstein (Yale) helped the 2004 Red Sox win in the World Series before a series of unfortunate trades and injuries decimated them this year.

Ha! Did I mention these guys went to Ivy League schools and yet they're failing? Try to study your way out of this one, fellas!

Epstein and Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, another Beane protégé, recently complained that they didn't have enough money to compete with the Yankees, a gripe you'd never hear from Beane and an unwitting admission that Moneyball isn't always the whole answer.

Jesus, whoever said that Moneyball is a "whole answer"? It's just a way to try to compete with the Yankees, who should be the favorites to win the World Series each and every year.

If you think about it, their public remarks put the entire concept on trial.

I've thought about it, and no, they don't. No one ever said "Aha! This newfangled Moneyball will put us on exactly equal footing with the Yankees! Doom unto them!" It's just a philosophy that might help smaller market teams do better than say, the Royals and Pirates and Brewers are doing.

After all, wasn't the main point of Moneyball that you could compete for less?

Yes. Compete. Not dominate. Not win the World Series every year.

The point surely wasn't to outspend your competition but to outsmart them, and Beane, an intellect who needs no sheepskin from Harvard or Yale to prove his smarts and who learned his baseball as a ballplayer and a longtime A's advance scout, still does.


As far as I can tell, Billy Beane not only didn't go to Harvard or Yale, he didn't even go to college. How nerdy could he be? He must be a great GM.

Most of the recent World Series winners were built with scouts, not stats, from the 2002 Angels to the '03 Marlins to the '05 White Sox.

I've assembled two lists:

Teams People Might Say Were "Built With Stats"

Oakland Athletics
Boston Red Sox
Toronto Blue Jays
Los Angeles Dodgers (from February 16, 2004 to October 29, 2005)

Teams That Were "Built With Scouts"
All other Major League Baseball teams

So to be honest, the odds are in the "Scouts" teams' favor, no? One out of the last four World Series winners isn't so bad when you look at it this way, is it?

Beane took hits for making no major deadline deals despite the fact that the team was floundering around .500 at the time. "I didn't really think the elixir was out there. That's why we didn't do anything," Beane said. "The key was health. If we got healthy, we'd be all right. If not, we wouldn't."

Pretty simple, huh?


I refer you again to the (possible overstatement of a) subtitle for this article: Why A's Beane succeeds where others have failed.

I'll print the rest of the article here for thoroughness' sake:

With closer Huston Street back last Friday and potential ace Rich Harden starting to throw, the A's might get even better. Beane's A's have never gotten past the Yankees in October, even when they had stars almost to match them (Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder are all gone for greener pastures), and it's hard to imagine them doing it now. However, it's still quite an accomplishment to get as far as they have without any of those stars.

Beane is not perfect (trading Andre Ethier to the Dodgers for Milton Bradley doesn't look good today, and you could argue that he would have been better keeping Tejada long-term rather than Eric Chavez), but his knack is undeniable. Hard as it is to believe, trading Hudson and Mulder has barely cost them. Dan Haren and Kiko Calero, acquired for Mulder, have actually outperformed the ex-A's star, a fact that doesn't please Beane as much as you might think. "I don't necessarily view trades as a zero-sum game. I don't feel so insecure as to root against guys," Beane said. "Mulder's one of my favorites. I just want my team to win."

To that end, no matter the game plan, hardly anybody does it better.


I'm still waiting to find out why Billy Beane succeeded where others have failed. But thanks for the information that he a) has got a way of finding winning players, b) did not go to Harvard or Yale, c) uses scouts, and d) has an "undeniable" "knack" (you didn't really specify for what). I'll keep those things in mind when I hire my next GM.

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posted by Junior  # 7:34 PM
Comments:
Where did J.P. Ricciardi go to college? I'm serious. I kind of want to know, just to know.
 
So far all I've managed to find is that he played college baseball for two years somewhere in Florida. Billy Beane, of course, as several Cardinal alums have pointed out to me, turned down Stanford to play in the minor leagues.
 
Scratch that. He played two years in the minors, not two years in college.
 
J.P. Ricciardi went to Saint Leo University. You don't want to know how much research it took me to find that out. (Hint: one of the steps was Googling "jack gillis" baseball coach florida.)
 
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