"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

‘The Moneyball Myth’ strikes out; A's finish 43 1/2 games ahead of next best poor team for decade as Brewers clinch home field

The Wall Street Journal’s criticism of ‘Moneyball’ has similarities to criticisms of some responding to the ESPN piece on my Value Add system. Whatever the sport, some just don’t buy the stat revolution.

In celebration of the Brewers clinching home field for the playoffs tonight, I wanted to unite with my baseball colleagues in the world of stat geeks. Since the A's turned to Sabermatrix to replace superstars Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon after the 2001 season as portrayed in 'Moneyball,' they have gone 852-767 - at least 43 1/2 games better than any of the other 14 teams with below-median salaries:

Lowest 15 SalariesWinsLossesGB
Oakland Athletics8527670
Toronto Blue Jays80981143.5
Florida Marlins80881244.5
Houston Astros79982053
Arizona Diamondbacks78783365.5
Cleveland Indians78483668.5
San Diego Padres77584678
Milwaukee Brewers77384679
Cincinnati Reds77085183
Seattle Mariners75886294.5
Tampa Bay Rays750868101.5
Washington Nationals726893126
Baltimore Orioles696923156
Pittsburgh Pirates679938172
Kansas City Royals668952184.5

As in basketball, the doubts of stat critics just don't usually hold up - we really can know with pretty good precision that DJO, Jae Crowder and Davante Gardner are three of the top returning players in the country, and Billy Beane knew what he was doing with the A's.

Strike 1 against the stat critics – not much difference between Yankees and Pirates?
The 1st strike against the WSJ criticism of ‘Moneyball’ is the claim Beane’s 103-win season on a meager payroll wasn’t that big a deal because the disparity isn’t that great between the Yankees and the “so called poorer ones like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s.”

FACTS: The Oakland A’s team featured in the ‘Moneyball’ movie was the only of the 150 poor teams of the decade to win 100 games – coming in at 103 wins – while the Phillies just became the 11th rich team to reach 100 wins. Overall rich teams have been 3.5 times as likely to make the playoffs. This year six more rich teams made the playoffs to make it 62 teams in 10 years, while the Brewers became only the 17th poor team to make it and Tampa Bay became the 18th team to make the playoffs late tonight.

Strike 2 – The drop in OBP from .333 to .323 since 2001 shows 'Moneyball' hasn’t worked.
When everyone else had given up on David Justice and Scott Hatteberg, Beane picked them both up cheap because no one realized how many runs they could create based partly on their high on-base percentages. The article proposes that if ‘Moneyball’ had worked, then there would be higher on-base percentages throughout baseball.

FACTS: That completely ignores that Beane applied the same theory to pitchers, having lightly regarded Chad Bradford take the mound an incredible 75 games because he only issued about one unintentional walk for every nine innings. Likewise, when Billy Koch issued too many walks during his 'Moneyball' season, Beane gave up his 100 mph fastball for Keith Foulke’s 87 mph fastball but better control the next year. Foulke finished 7th in voting for the Cy Young Award before leaving for more money like the other A’s stars. 'Moneyball' era pitchers who throw fewer balls are trumping ‘Moneyball’ era batters who have better eyes for the strike zone – no evidence here to discredit 'Moneyball.'

Strike 3 – Little space is given in ‘Moneyball’ to the fantastic pitching of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson.
Let me get this straight. The A's had six great stars on the 2001 team. Three of them leave and three stay (Mulder, Zito and Hudson), and you win more games without the three stars that left (Giambi, Damon and Isringhausen). Why would the story focus on the three stars that stayed? The anti-stat guys are really grasping for straws at this point.

FACTS: The amazing feat was replacing the three stars the A’s could NOT afford to keep. Jason Isringhausen (2.65 ERA, 34 saves), Jason Giambi (.342 BA, 38 HRs) and leadoff hitter Johnny Damon (34 doubles, 27 SBs) left to get an average of $33 million a year between them each of the next seven years – the same amount of money Beane had TOTAL for all 25 players in 2001. The fact is that Beane had to replace these three stars with two players that the other teams thought were washed up - Justice and Hatteberg – as well as the lightly-regarded Bradford and a rented leadoff hitter in Ray Durham for the last 52 games of the season. And after replacing superstars with leftovers, he improved the A’s to 103-59.

As I’ve stated in previous posts, systems like Value Add in basketball and Runs Created in baseball are precise measurements that weight stats to give a very accurate measurement of how much players help their teams win games by affecting the score. There are things that cannot be measured, but modern teams cannot ignore these measurements as a big part of determine who should play, and in the pros be traded, etc.

The fact is that as much as other baseball insiders apparently despise Beane, they all have stat guys trying to duplicate what he does – determining how valuable each player is based on their statistics. No, modern stats will not guaranty you win a best-of-five playoff series, which Bobby Cox once called a “crap shoot,” but it will increase your chances dramatically of earning the right to be there after 162 games.

The one legitimate point raised by critics is that the science is much less accurate when trying to translate the performance of high school prospects to how they will perform at the next level. This is true, but the same point could be made about how much less accurate baseball scouts throughout history have been compared to their counterparts in other major sports where speed and strength are so paramount.

To this same end, I would never suggest that some of the measurements I’ve played with of high school players are nearly accurate enough to guide recruiting decisions. Davante Gardner did not play against top flight competition in Suffolk, VA, so he probably would not show up as a top prospect based on pure statistical conversions, and many of Beane’s draft choices did not pan out as the translation from aluminum bats to wooden bats changes the entire game.

It’s fair to hang bad draft picks like Jeremy Brown on Beane, but traditional scouting passed over Mike Piazza for 61 rounds and Keith Hernandez for 41 rounds, and even more recently has had several No. 1 overall picks that never panned out.

However, the overall record of Bill James statistics helping to deliver the Red Sox their first two World Series in 86 years, and Beane so outperforming all other poorer teams makes it clear that Hollywood rather than the WSJ have it right – so go watch the movie. But you can read the Wall Street Journal too – even the best strikeout once in a while.

Good luck Brewers - and try to complete the sweep of the NL Championship Series on October 13 so that everyone can still go to March Madness on Friday, October 14!

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