Against 'Moneyball'

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OCTOBER 17, 2009

Against 'Moneyball'

Whatever happens in the National League and American League Championship series unfolding over the next week or so, one outcome has already been decided--the effective end of the theories of Moneyball as a viable way to build a playoff-caliber baseball team when you don't have the money. That no doubt sounds like heresy to the millions who embraced Michael Lewis's 2003 book, but all you need to do is keep in mind one number this postseason: 528,620,438. That's the amount of money in payroll spent this season by the teams still in it--the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Angels, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Moneyball? You bet it's Moneyball, true Moneyball, like it always has been in baseball and always will be.

The Lewis book was vintage Lewis--smooth, glib, smart, and unfailing in never letting anything get in the way of his argument. The protagonist of the book, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, was hailed as a genius in a land of cave-dwelling front office men, managers, and scouts too stupid and stubborn to understand the statistical nuances of the game and what they truly reflected. The basic thesis of the book--the finding of inefficiencies in the marketplace through expert computer analysis--no doubt resonated. As Lewis told it, what Beane and his minions did was usher in the baseball equivalent of a new period of painting, the Age of On-Base Percentage.

The sabermetricians, unloved and unwanted for so long, scorned by the baseball men brotherhood for their nerdy obsessions, fell to their knees like attendees at a revival: Finally someone understood them. Looking largely at the narrow time frame of 2000 through 2002, Lewis attempted to explain the phenomenon of how the A's had done so well (they made the playoffs all three of those years) with such little dough. The explanation was dazzling, although Lewis barely mentioned the three reasons the A's had been so successful--pitchers Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson. The three won an astounding 149 games during that span. Each of them were 20-game winners in at least one of those seasons. The odds of three young pitchers coming together like that on one team was basically a matter of baseball luck, in the same vein at least of Beane saying success in the postseason was a matter of luck because of the limited number of games played (his teams during the 2000-02 period never got past the first round).

Lewis carefully and calculatedly stayed away from the pitching triumvirate. He concentrated on journeyman players like Chad Bradford and Scott Hatteburg as the key to the A's rise. He showed his greatest infatuation for Jeremy Brown, a Beane first-round draft pick in 2002. He was a fat and slow catcher from Alabama, but Beane was dying for him because his meticulous analysis had discovered something everyone else had missed: his statistically anomalous ability to draw walks. Of all the examples in the book, this by far was the most riveting because so many scouts had simply dismissed Brown. It certified Beane as a miracleworker, and Lewis further confirmed it with a memorable scene at the end in which Brown hits a home run.

Beane had seven first-round draft picks that year, each of them extolled by Lewis for their buried-treasure status. Three of them are still playing in the majors, none with anything close to superstar careers and all of them long gone from the A's. Three others were busts. Poor Jeremy Brown never stopped being fat and slow and finished with a grand total of 10 major league at-bats before retirement.

There is no question that Beane greatly advanced the game in terms of how front offices began to judge players on the basis of on-base percentage (although, ironically, the A's have generally been terrible in the category). But that wasn't the primary thrust of Moneyball: The key element was the ability of Beane to do it all on the cheap, and win by doing it all on the cheap. This is what made his innovativeness so exciting.

Except it just hasn't proven itself to work consistently. His theory that only college pitchers should be drafted over high school ones because of their experience sounded plausible. But it flew in the face of the Atlanta Braves, who won their division 14 years in a row from 1991 to 2005, and relied on pitchers drafted straight out of high school all the while. Beane was also flippant, especially to the ears of anyone who'd ever faced the Yankees' Mariano Rivera in the postseason, about how there was no need to pay exorbitantly for a closer because just about anyone could close--but then he traded away one of his vaunted draft picks for a reliever who turned out to be lousy anyway.

And yet, Billy Beane will always be something of a patron saint in baseball. Within the endless repository of the Internet, there are still dozens of studies extolling his virtues even now. They conveniently avoid the fact that Beane has never won the World Series, or even got to it. His teams have only made it to the playoffs in two of the last seven seasons. The last was in 2006. Since then the team has never been above .500, including a particularly dismal 75 wins and 87 losses this season.

Two of Beane's greatest disciples, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, moved out from the long shadow of their boss to become general managers. DePodesta lasted two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his last season in 2005 marked by 91 losses and a team chemistry so healthy that barbs of racism were traded back and forth among players. He is now with the San Diego Padres. Ricciardi went to the Toronto Blue Jays and was recently fired after eight seasons. He never made the playoffs, a difficult feat to accomplish when you are in the same division as the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. But he also made some hideous decisions, signing Vernon Wells to an insane seven-year deal for $127 million and Frank Thomas to a two-year $18 million deal.

Without the money necessary to compete, all Beane can really do now is churn. It is a terrible position to be in no matter how astute you are. Market inefficiences are harder and harder to find, one of the ironies of Beane's brief but successful reliance on on-base percentage from 2000 to 2002 is that it has made players with such skill far too expensive for his pocketbook. The real moneyball of baseball also makes it impossible for Beane to hold on to the quality players that he does discover. As a result, he ends up trading a superb pitcher such as Dan Haren and a potential superstar such as Matt Holliday for questionable players and prospects. If one of them pans out, the high-price of free agency forces Beane to trade again and the cycle simply repeats itself.

For the four teams in the championship series this year, parsimony is not a problem. Each ranked in the top ten in baseball payroll. All of them topped the $100 million mark and the Yankees went over $200 million. The Yankees this season signed free agents Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett to multi-year contracts totaling $423 million. The Dodgers were willing to spend $105.9 million on multi-year signings this season, including Manny Ramirez, Rafael Furcal, and Casey Blake. The Phillies agreed to part with $47 million, of which $30 million belonged in a three-year deal to Raul Ibanez, who hit the winning home against the Dodgers in the first game of the NLCS on Thursday. The Angels decided to pay out $38.9 million. The A's agreed to deals worth $13.5 million and two of the players they signed, Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Giambi, were largely worthless.

Billy Beane is a forward-thinker. He takes risks. In an environment where most players and front office personnel only read the sports section and then only read the stories within it that mention them, Beane's literary tastes are far more erudite. But he is not the man who changed baseball, and Lewis's Moneyball did not chronicle the revolution. Since Beane has compared himself to J.D. Salinger, just wanting to fade away, maybe the best thing for him to do is retire and write a book about how, in the end, it all really didn't work.

Buzz Bissinger is the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August, about the strategy of baseball through the eyes of St. Louis Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa. His most recent book, Shooting Stars, was released last month and co-written with LeBron James.

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posted in: entertainment, human interest, sports, technology, los angeles, oakland, oakland a, person career, alabama, barry zito, billy beane, chad bradford, j.p. ricciardi, jeremy brown, mark mulder, michael lewis, paul depodesta, scott hatteburg, tim hudson, baseball, catcher, general manager, usher, los angeles dodgers, new york yankees, philadelphia phillies, national league

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