Moneyball, 15 years later

“Moneyball”, by Michael Lewis was released 15 years ago today.  All baseball fans should take note of this for a few reasons:

One:  It’s a great – not good, great – book.  Michael Lewis is a fantastic writer and this is one of his best works.  It’s a great story that’s funny at times, frustrating at others, and always interesting.

Two:  In spite of it being one of the best baseball books I’ve ever read, most baseball fans have not read it.  This is obvious when they talk about either “Moneyball” or Billy Beane.

Three:  It’s had more influence on changing the game than anything in baseball history outside of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.

No, Moneyball and Billy Beane didn’t invent Sabrmetrics, analytics, and statistical evaluation.  They didn’t do anything that Henry Chadwick, Earnshaw Cook, Allan Roth, Branch Rickey, Earl Weaver, Pete Palmer, Bill James, Sandy Alderson, Gene Michael and a host of others had done previously.

What Billy Beane and Michael Lewis did was make the stupidity of most MLB front offices public.  It embarrassed the shit out of franchises who should have been embarrassed and forced them to improve.

It showed that basing personnel and strategic decisions solely on “gut feelings” and “the eye test” was imbecilic.

Insert the “But Billy Beane never won a World Series!” cries from the intellectually lazy.  Seriously, if you believe that’s a sound argument as to why you think sabermetrics don’t work*, you may as well wear a t-shirt that says “I have an extremely superficial understanding of baseball, and I love to publicly display it.”  *Besides the obvious:  using analytics to make decisions works.  I mean, we’re not really having that discussion anymore, are we?

Just to use Beane as an example:

His first season as the A’s General Manager was 1998 – the A’s won 74 games.  They followed with consecutive seasons of 87, 91, 102 and 103 over the next four years, with four straight post season appearances.  This was done with a payroll that was between the 4th lowest and the actual, literal, dead last lowest in the AL over that stretch.  (Insert Brad Pitt voice:  “There are rich teams, there are poor teams, then there’s 50 feet of crap…then there’s us.”)

Then the rest of the world caught on.  Most teams were asking “How are we getting our asses kicked by a team with a fraction of the resources we have?”  Emboldened by Beane’s courage to eschew the status quo, the Red Sox hired Bill James and Theo Epstein, and the world changed.

And despite the Red Sox and many other teams in baseball catching on, the A’s have still made the post season four times in the past 11 seasons.  Basically, A’s fans, despite rooting for a team with among the lowest payrolls in baseball and the worst stadium in baseball, know they have almost a 50/50 chance of making the playoffs under Beane’s watch.  Ask Mets fans if they’d sign on for that.

And as for the never won the World Series logic:

For the last time, 162 > 7.  Playoff series are not about finding out who the best team is – we already know the answer to that, as every team just played 162 games.  Playoffs are made for TV reality shows designed to maximize income and create answers to future trivia questions – they aren’t designed to determine the best team.

And if you’re unsure of the extent to which other teams caught on…

  • The Red Sox hadn’t won anything since before electricity existed.  (I’ll pause while you re-read that.)  Then with Epstein essentially using Beane’s methods, they won 3 times in 10 years.
  • The Yankees, after one disappointing season after another despite lapping the field in money spent on payroll, changed their front office operations, parted ways with a very popular manager – and won a World Series two seasons later in 2009.
  • The Cardinals, after winning two World Series in 2006 and 2011, thought so much of their analytically minded staff, decided to hack the computers of that staff when they moved on to Houston.
  • Someone remind me – how’s Houston doing since Jeff Luhnow has brought analytics to Houston?
  • And if one pathetic franchise turnaround wasn’t enough, Epstein and Jed Hoyer moved their act to the Cubs and added one ring (so far) to their ring collection there.

But again, it isn’t just about rings.

  • After hiring Andrew Friedman, the Tampa Bay Rays made the playoffs 4 times out of 6 seasons – while playing in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox.  Given the comparative payrolls of the three teams, to me, that is the most amazing accomplishment of any listed on this page.
  • Then after moving to the Dodgers, Friedman has turned what was baseball’s version of a Ferrari broken down on the roadside into a team who’s been in the post season five years in a row.
  • After hiring Neal Huntington, the Pirates made the post season three years in a row…after not having been once in over two decades.

The examples are endless.  Moneyball completely overhauled how the game is evaluated, played, and won and lost.

Michael Lewis showed us that Billy Beane had the combination of courage and intelligence to say there’s a better way.  It worked.  It rightfully embarrassed a lot of teams.  Among other things, it showed you don’t have to have played baseball to understand baseball (see; Luhnow, Epstein, Friedman, Huntington).

As a result, we have a completely different game today than we did in ’03.  Teams and players that adapt succeed.  Those who don’t are gone.

Isn’t that the point?  Shouldn’t we all strive to get better?  Shouldn’t we all use whatever resources we have available to us to help us win?  I would think in a zero sum game like baseball that’d be obvious.

Unless of course, you’re Paul O’Neill and think there’s “too many numbers in baseball”.  Ironic, considering he was a Moneyball player if there ever was one.

Here’s to Billy Beane and Michael Lewis for making the sport better, and here’s to the future leaders who have the smarts and courage to show us there’s a better way.


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