Buzz Words

I interrupt your regularly scheduled Phillies coverage here for some Buzz Words. Yes, Buzz Bissinger — the one who got really angry at Will Leitch on HBO — is back to get really angry at Billy Beane and Michael Lewis and Moneyball. I’m a bit late, as the article was posted a few days ago, but I’d like to refute it nonetheless, FJM-style.

Ahem.

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.

[snip]

…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.

Florida Marlins: 87 wins

Minnesota Twins: 87 wins

Texas Rangers: 87 wins

Tampa Bay Rays: 84 wins

Each of those four teams had payrolls under $70 million, in the bottom-third of the league.

Bissinger’s overall point, I guess, is true: rich teams, no matter what the Athletics or Twins or Marlins do, are once again enjoying consistent success. The Philadelphia Phillies and their $130 million payroll are about to reach the World Series for the second year in a row. The New York Yankees are likely to reach the promised land as well with a payroll north of $200 million.

Why is that?

Consider a generic example:

There exists Team A, who is rich, and Team B, who is poor. Five years ago, Team B used Ideology to gain advantages over Team A’s monetary edge. Team A noticed Team B’s Ideology was providing an advantage, and adopted some or all of the tenets of Ideology as well. So now Team A and B both have Ideology but Team A still has much more money. Team B must go back to the drawing board to come up with a new-and-improved Ideology.

Pointing to the recent struggles of the Athletics and screaming, “See? Moneyball doesn’t work!” is A) cherry-picking; B) short-sighted; and C) dishonest.

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.

But it’s not just on-base percentage. It’s whatever skill a baseball player has that is being undervalued by the market.

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.

[snip]

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.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Everyone knows that “the pitching triumvirate” — and Jason Giambi — were a huge part of the Athletics’ success. But as a team like last year’s World Champion Phillies can attest, it is one or two role players that can push a team over the top. The Phillies picked up Matt Stairs from the Toronto Blue Jays and Joe Blanton from the Athletics. Everyone knew that Chase Utley and Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge were the biggest contributors, but would the Phillies have won it all last year without Stairs and Blanton? I don’t think so.

Lewis wasn’t intending to equate Bradford and Hatteberg with Hudson, Mulder, and Zito; he was simply giving due credit to some role players who did have a hand in the team’s success.

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.

Matt Swartz found out in an entry for Baseball Prospectus that 51% of first- and second-round picks make it to The Show.

Bissinger will go on to criticize Beane because Brown never panned out, but based on the odds, it shouldn’t be surprising. Disappointing, sure, but not surprising.

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.

Bissinger dismisses off-hand that Beane had anything to do with those draft picks leaving Oakland. Those draft picks, by the way: Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Mark Teahen, Mark McCurdy, Ben Fritz, Stephen Obenchain, and Jeremy Brown.

For Swisher, Beane acquired Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Sweeney, and Fautino de los Santos. For Blanton, Beane acquired Adrian Cardenas, Josh Outman, and Matt Spencer. For Teahen, Beane acquired Octavio Dotel. While Dotel wasn’t exactly lights out and battled injuries, I find it hard to say that Beane made a bad deal anywhere here.

Furthermore, that three of Beane’s seven draft picks here made the Majors pretty much follows the 51% cited above.

Except it just hasn’t proven itself to work consistently.

Because it requires taking chances on unproven players. That’s the difference between rich teams and poor teams: rich teams can afford to acquire players with predictable levels of production. The Yankees went out and acquired C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett prior to the 2009 regular season. They have all produced as we would have expected them to.

The Athletics, meanwhile, had a starting rotation where Dallas Braden, all of 25 years old, was the oldest. That rotation also included two 21-year-olds in Brett Anderson (a Rookie of the Year candidate) and Trevor Cahill. Going into the season, the A’s had at best a cloudy idea as to what they would get out of their starters.

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.

To quote the aforementioned Matt Swartz of Baseball Prospectus:

If something did change in MLB front offices as a result of Moneyball, there was good reason—from 1978 to 2008, 59% of players drafted in the first two rounds out of college made the majors, and only 42% of high school players.

The counter-argument to the Moneyball idea of drafting college players is that high school players have higher upside and are more likely to succeed while in the majors. But research shows that’s not true for the first two rounds. Of the college players drafted in the first two rounds, 17% of them reached a career WARP3 of 10.0, and only 12% of high school players did. It seems pretty clear that the A’s must have known what they were doing.

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.

This is a mystifying paragraph. He starts out criticizing Beane for devaluing the closer’s role. Presumably, to support that statement, he cites that Beane traded a draft pick for a reliever (Dotel) who didn’t produce the way he was expected to. Doesn’t that support Beane’s position?

From a logical standpoint, saving a reliever to start the last inning with a 1-3 run lead isn’t the best way to leverage the best arm in the bullpen. It is much smarter, say, for the Athletics to use Andrew Bailey when they absolutely need a strikeout or to otherwise escape a jam.

They conveniently avoid the fact that Beane has never won the World Series, or even got to it.

Bissinger conveniently avoids the fact that getting to the World Series is extremely difficult. Just ask the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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.

Cherry pick.

What Bissinger glosses over: the A’s made the post-season four straight years from 2000-03. Each year, they lost in the fifth game of the Division Series. They were above .500 from 1999-2006. They won 90 or more games five straight years between 2000-04 and did it again in ’06. All with a small payroll.

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.

Bissinger uses DePodesta and Ricciardi as examples of how Moneyball can’t work, because the two were not extremely successful as GM’s.

Under DePodesta, the Dodgers in 2004-05 went 164-160. In ’04, they won 93 games and went on to lose in the NLDS to the 105-game-winning St. Louis Cardinals. DePodesta drafted Scott Elbert and Blake DeWitt in ’04 and Luke Hochevar in ’05 (did not sign), all familiar names. He also drafted David Price, now with the Tampa Bay Rays, but was unable to sign him. Clearly, talent evaluation isn’t a weakness for DePo.

The Blue Jays, under Ricciardi, went 642-653 (.496) from 2002-09. Ricciardi drafted Aaron Hill, Shaun Marcum, David Purcey, Adam Lind, Casey Janssen, Jesse Litsch, Ricky Romero, Travis Snider, and Brett Cecil. Like DePodesta, he is no slouch when it comes to evaluating baseball players. His problem was that he wasn’t good at dealing with people; he lacked communication skills.

At any rate, to attribute the lack of long-term success of DePo and J.P. to their use of “Moneyball” is exquisitely ignorant. It’s like if I looked at the high school transcripts of two Mets fans and said they had subpar grades because they like the Mets. People fail for many reasons aside from one specific point of view they happen to take on a subject.

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.

That’s the point: you find market inefficiencies, exploit them until they are no longer market inefficiencies (because other people catch on), and then you move on to the next one.

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.

That’s the point. If Beane had $120 million to work with, he wouldn’t have to trade Haren and Holliday. But he doesn’t have $120 million, or at least he didn’t when he was enjoying his success in the early aughts.

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.

MLB teams have been employing more and more number-crunchers. Tom Tango, of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, now works for the Seattle Mariners. Bissinger just cited two of Beane’s disciples that admittedly didn’t have exorbitant levels of success, but did not exactly fail either. Clearly, what Beane started and popularized has caught on with other teams who have seen the benefits that can be had by adopting a more calculating approach.

Bissinger finishes out his article by saying, “it all really didn’t work.”

To reiterate what I wrote above:

They won 90 or more games five straight years between 2000-04 and did it again in ’06. All with a small payroll.

I wonder what would constitute success to Bissinger. One would think that five years of 90+ wins, being hamstrung by a small payroll, would qualify. I guess not.

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3 comments

  1. Eh

    October 20, 2009 09:33 PM

    nice job. I love some A’s love.

    Two quick points.

    1) Dotel replaced Rhodes who was signed to close, and was terrible at it, it was a huge upgrade.

    2) A’s traded Haren for Brett Anderson, Chris Carter ( a top 10 prospect), Greg Smith( a part in the Holliday deal) Aaron CUnningham( a top 75 is prospect) and Dana Eveland. Do you think Mr. Byrnes wants that trade back?

    Calling Brett Wallace Questionable is moronic. He was said to have the most sure bat in the draft a year ago.

  2. Eh

    October 20, 2009 09:34 PM

    Also, he traded holliday bc

    a) he was not going to resign, and hated oakland.

    b) the a’s gamble didnt pay off

    c) they valued Wallace more than comp picks.

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