Has Michael Lewis Struck Out?

Moneyball

The irony of the success of Michael Lewis’ wonderful Moneyball is that it should bring the Oakland A’s back to earth. The justice is that Oakland’s demise doesn’t appear imminent. This is baseball, after all, and there’s no reason to change something just because it’s never worked very well.

The book describes what could be a revolution in the way teams are run. The A’s, led by General Manager (and big-league bust) Billy Beane, have re-written the rules on how baseball talent should be evaluated, and how the game should be played. In the process, Beane has turned the small-budget A’s into a big-results ballclub, an anomaly in an era when major-market teams such as the New York Yankees try to buy a championship each year. (Fuckin’ Yankees.)

With its unlimited access to the A’s brain trust, the bestselling book provides a model to any team that wants to mimic Oakland’s success. In other words, Moneyball could destroy the A’s.

If Beane and his cohorts are correct in their thinking about the game, in the long run other teams will follow the A’s lead. They, like Oakland, will begin to value on-base percentage and walks more than batting average and stolen bases. In pitchers, they’ll look less at ERA and miles per hour and focus more on bases on balls and home runs allowed. The end result is that the players Oakland has been able to steal in the draft and from other teams — the players they’ve been able to keep because nobody else wants them — will become coveted properties. Their prices will go up, and the A’s will no longer be able to afford them.

The A’s have turned baseball scouting and strategy on their heads. Instead of scouts focusing on skills and body types — the M.O. for nearly all major-league teams — the Athletics look at how a player has performed in college or the minor leagues. And Oakland eschews traditional baseball strategies for moving runners forward such as sacrifice bunts and stolen bases.

Oakland comes to these tactics from the statistical study of baseball, known as sabermetrics. The field has over the past few decades explored ways to evaluate players more meaningfully than with baseball’s clumsy and often misleading stats — batting average, RBIs, ERA, and the like. One key concept underlying this study has been that a baseball team has one finite resource each game — outs — and the best offensive players are the ones who get out the least frequently.

This scientific approach sounds perfectly logical, and it’s amazing that it’s taken this long for some baseball team to try it. (What, really, do the Milwaukee Brewers have to lose?) Yet these ideas are largely sacrilege to the old guard of baseball, and shockingly, Moneyball seems to be making a splash everywhere except in baseball. (The book essentially uses baseball as a metaphor for doing more with less, for thinking differently. It could provide tips to any small business looking for a way to compete with their muscular but tradition-bound competitors.)

The first hint came in an anecdote in Slate.com’s recent discussion on Moneyball. One of the panelists related that a major-league-team executive basically banned Lewis’ book.

And then there was last week’s broadcast of a game between the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays on ESPN2, in which color commentator David Justice’s ignorance of Moneyball was shocking.

For one thing, Justice finished his playing career with A’s in 2002, when the Beane-ball experiment was in full swing. More importantly, the Red Sox and Blue Jays are the two teams that to date have followed the Athletics model. (And they lead the major leagues in runs at the All-Star break.)

In one discussion about one team’s late-inning strategy the night before, Justice expressed bewilderment that a runner wasn’t bunted from first to second. That’s just the way it’s done, he argued. And he wondered why a team didn’t run more, considering the speed of some of its players.

This was not somebody who simply hadn’t read Moneyball. He sounded as if he’d never even heard of the book. (Only a former player — hired for star power rather than incisive commentary and on-air acumen — would be able to get away with that.)

The Blue Jays don’t bunt players over because, logically, it’s stupid to waste one of your precious outs to advance a runner one base. And statistically, a team that doesn’t sacrifice bunt scores more runs than the team that does. (Again, Boston and Toronto lead the majors in runs.) This is a basic concept in Moneyball. That Justice couldn’t even fathom it shows that a well-written, lively book about contemporary baseball might land high on bestseller lists, but it will have a difficult time making it to the big leagues.

Still, this is essentially a short-term stay of execution for the Athletics. If Oakland keeps winning with its relatively paltry budget and Toronto and Boston are able to unseat the Yankees in the A.L. East for an extended period of time, executives will eventually start discovering Moneyball (albeit years after the rest of us) and hiring stat geeks to run their teams. And then Billy Beane will be fucked.

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