Baseball’s New Dirty Little Secret

March 14, 2013



In 2003, Michael Lewis published his book, “Moneyball”, about the Oakland As and how they were going to revolutionize baseball by exploiting statistics that the rest of baseball undervalued, namely on base percentage.  In fact, they were going to do so at the expense of traditional scouting valuables like speed and defense.  The book became such a sensation that a movie studio made a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt as As GM Billy Beane.  But a funny thing happened on the way to movie stardom: the As stopped playing “moneyball”.


Moneyball was about finding market inefficiencies and exploiting them.  Even though the movie was different from the book (even had to create a character ‘based’ on a real person because the narrative had drifted too far from reality), more people were exposed to the ideas in the movie than have been in the book.  Still, the impression on the larger populace is that the A’s (and according to the movie’s end credits, the Red Sox) win because they are the only smart guys paying attention to on base percentage.  People of all stripes were marveling at those amazing Oakland As and their Moneyball philosophy winning again last year, making a mockery of the rest of a luddite league.  Only the As didn’t accomplish it by focusing on getting on base, the single most important stat in the Moneyball philosophy.  In fact, quite the opposite as the As ranked 12th in the American League, and 24th in the majors in that category! 


So if wasn’t using on base percentage, how did the As do it?  What market inefficiency did they discover?  Well, for lack of a better word, they discovered luck.  For much of the season, just about every pitcher on their pitching staff had an ERA below 3.50.  As late as early September, they had 18 different guys (nine of whom were rookies and four of those pitched in the starting rotation) who had pitched for the team at some point during the season with an ERA below 3.5.  After some cursory research, I have yet to find a team in the live ball era (since 1920) that had more than 10 pitchers so effective.


They were also incredibly lucky when it came to driving in runs.  Brandon Inge, for example, drove in 52 runs in 311 at bats.   Over the course of a full season that would project to about 92 RBIs.  That in and of itself is not that amazing, but doing so while batting .218 with a slugging percentage of .383 is, especially considering how terrible the rest of the As line-up was at getting on base.  How did he do it?  He had 98 plate appearances, nearly a third of his opportunities, with runners in scoring position, a remarkable achievement given the team performance.  In those at bats, he batted .333/.398/.643 with an OPS+ of 178, which was better than Miguel Cabrera had (.330/.393/.606) in winning the triple-crown.  In those at bats, Inge drove in 47 of his 52 runs.  So with men on base last year, Brandon Inge was the equivalent of one of the best hitters in major league history.  With the bases empty, he hit .186/.236/.310 (an OPS+ of 55).  But wait - it gets better.  Before he joined the As, Inge had been released from his contract with the Detroit Tigers because he had been so ineffective with the bat.  How ineffective?  He had batted .100/.100/.300, which grades as an OPS+ of 2!  League average OPS+ is 100.  That means he was 98% worse than a league average player while he was with the Tigers, yet with men in scoring position while he was with the As, he was 78% better than league average and better than the best hitter in the majors.   It was a transformation that would make Dr. Bruce Banner jealous.


And let’s be honest – the As never really were about Moneyball in the first place, at least the getting on base aspect.  In team on base percentage among American League teams, the As have ranked:
2002 – 5th

2003 – 10th

2004 – 5th

2005 – 5th

2006 – 7th

2007 – 6th

2008 – 13th

2009 – 11th

2010 – 9th

2011 – 12th

The last time they were among the top three was 2001 when they still had Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, the two guys they were reportedly replacing cheaply by using the clever strategy that became known as Moneyball.  And the reason they kept winning after the free agent defections of those two was not because of some magical formula that involved the resurrection of Scott Hatteberg’s career.  And it wasn’t because they scooped the league on great cheap talent in the amateur drafts of 2002 and 2003.  In fact, that particular matter reveals a complete failure to repopulate their farm system with competent prospects given the number of first round picks they had at their disposal.  In a draft that yielded Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Jon Lester and Josh Johnson, to have seven of the top 40 picks (17% of the first round) and only come away with Joe Blanton, a mediocre innings eater, has to be considered a failure.  From the hitting side, BJ Upton, Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Brian McCann and Curtis Granderson were taken in that draft yet the only major league regular the As got was Nick Swisher, and the latter three stars were taken after the As seventh pick.  Seven picks of the first 40 and all they came away with was two mediocrities.  


No, the reason they continued to win those next few years was because they had three very good starting pitchers who had been pitching significant innings for them since 2000 (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito), and two All-Star players on the left side of their infield (Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez) who were the near-antithesis of the Moneyball philosophy, hitters who were not previously college players whose value was tied significantly to their superior ability with the glove.  The truth of it played out in full when those five players moved on either due to injuries, trade or free agency.  By 2007 all but Chavez were gone and he was but a shell of his former self due to injuries; the As did not have another winning season after that until last year.


At the end of the Moneyball movie, the filmmakers suggested that it was because Red Sox adopted the Moneyball philosophy that they ended their longtime drought of World Series championships in 2004.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  At that point in the Moneyball revolution, defense was still viewed as over-rated and a "scouting thing".  The Red Sox won that championship only *after* they benched or traded away on base offensive standouts (and defensive liabilities) like Kevin Millar and Nomar Garciaparra in favor of low on base, defensive standouts Orlando Cabrera, Pokey Reese and Doug Mientkiewicz.  And they certainly would not have won without a base-stealer like Dave Roberts, something the Moneyball philosophy eschewed.


The proof is in the pudding. The Red Sox scored 949 runs that season and allowed 768, which projects them winning between 96 and 98 games using the Pythagorean system; they actually won 98.  At the July 31st deadline they had scored 573 and allowed 495, which yields a projected record of 57-45; their actual record was 56-46.  Had they continued with that team and not made any changes they would have projected to finish with 92-93 wins.  After the trade they scored 376 runs and allowed 273, resulting in a predicted 39 wins.  Over the course of a full season they should have won between 104 and 106 with their revised line-up.  I’m not a big fan of the Pythagorean theorem’s application to baseball, but that’s what the Moneyball proponents like to use so I’m just playing by their rules.  One of the reasons for the big difference in the projected win total is the 32 runs they saved on defense by making the changes.


As it happened, Mientkiewicz became the Red Sox late inning defensive replacement for Millar and a huge upgrade defensively.  Cabrera took over for Garciaparra, who was traded away in a four-team deal.  Some would suggest that Garciaparra had become an injury risk with a bloated contract and the Red Sox were looking for a cheaper solution, but the previous two years he averaged more than 700 plate appearances and had gotten MVP consideration both years.  After the departure of Roger Clemens in 1997, he had become the face of the Red Sox franchise, hardly a popular choice to trade when your team is sitting outside the playoff picture.  It would have been equivalent to the Yankees trading Derek Jeter during a pennant race.  It’s true that the Red Sox led the league in on base percentage that year, but they also led the league in doubles, were 4th in homers and first in batting average (a stat Moneyballers dismiss as irrelevant).  On the pitching side they were 3rd in ERA and 2nd in strikeouts.  In the field they were 4th in total zone rating.  This wasn’t a Moneyball team; they were simply a very good team in all respects.  They just happened to do the Moneyball things well also.  And while it’s true the Red Sox did employ stat guru Bill James to head up their analytics department, they also had hired legendary scout Bill Lajoie to head up their scouting side and placed both at an equal level of influence to GM Theo Epstein.  But it wasn’t just in Boston.  The Yankees late 90s dynasty was built on many of the same principles and even going back into history one can find the same some of the same principles of blending stats with scouting as far back as Branch Rickey’s Dodgers in the 1950s. 


As for the As in 2004, they finished 2nd in the AL West and missed the playoffs by one game.  Some have suggested that the As were only interested in undervalued abilities regardless of what they were, and that if they had felt that base stealing had been undervalued they would have capitalized by grabbing a player like Dave Roberts.  Given that the A's as a team stole 47 bases that season (a league-low and 40-ish shy of league average) with 22 caught stealing, I think we can safely say they did not value what Roberts would have brought to the team.


The fact is there are no undervalued abilities.  Some are valued less than others but that is because they are worth less.  Pennants are often won by a single game and anything a team can do to give itself as many opportunities to win that extra game is worth investigating.  Any team that eschews one aspect of the game in an effort to “exploit” another is shooting itself in the foot, as the As have capably demonstrated for the better part of a decade.  The fact is that about the only thing Moneyball has really changed is the number of stats in the player graphic they show during the TV broadcasts.