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Friday, August 27, 2004

Beane on Moneyball

Here is an excerpt from the Billy Beane interview on Athletics Nation. I was alerted to it by David Pinto's great blog

"Blez: How does a team like Oakland continue to stay competitive? The book talks a lot about OBP and my personal perception, and in talking to Michael Lewis, was that the A's have evolved beyond that into defense and other things.

BB: That's what's interesting when you talk about critics. We've never really sat down with any of these guys and explained to them what we're doing. They assumed they know what we're doing, which is great because they're out there blasting on the airwaves and they don't really have a clue what we're doing. But the closest thing I can say is that we're in a finite market and we're always trying to take advantage of any inefficiencies. Right now, you take on-base percentage and it's en vogue. It wasn't 10 years ago. We could get guys like Matt Stairs and Geronimo Berroa.

Blez: And guys like Scott Hatteberg.

BB: Exactly, guys like Scottie Hatteberg. Now people are recognizing the value of that and they're paying for it. And if we're in a bidding war, we're going to lose that. So we have evolved. If you look at some of our first playoff teams, the '99 team that won 87 games, it was a power, on-base team. Now we're tops in the league in defense and pitching. For us, it's all about filling in on the backend and figuring out what people are undervaluing. You know, one day we're going to have a team with guys who steal 50 bases because people aren't paying for it. But it's all about wins. That's all that matters. "

I agree that one of the underlying messages of Moneyball was that the A's had found ways to exploit the market inefficiencies in baseball - inefficiencies caused by the conservative nature of "baseball people" made more exploitable by the information age. I'm not so sure, however, that Beane is correct in his assumption that there will continue to be skills that are undervalued, meaning skills that are both cheap and that lead to winning baseball games.

A second message of Moneyball, brought out beautifully in The Numbers Game in the discussion of Eric Walker, is that the realization that OBP was important in winning baseball games coincided with the A's Sandy Alderson exploiting the fact that it was undervalued. The A's have also exploited the overvaluation of high school pitchers, closers, and pitchers who throw hard. However, each of these items may be a one time discovery and therefore there might not be too many more times in history when both vectors - importance and undervaluation - meet.

I know this may sound a little like the physicist in 1899 saying that there was nothing more to discover but to illustrate, imagine if the A's did field a team of speedsters who were great defensively (I'm not considering pitching here because pitching has never been undervalued). The value of stolen bases in terms of run production is pretty well established using Linear Weights, Base Runs, Runs Created and other run production estimators. Would the A's score more runs if the team stole 300 bases or hit 200 homeruns? Obviously, the latter. Likewise the difference in run prevention between a great and an average defensive team pales in comparison between teams with average and stellar offenses. In other words, the gains made by focusing on speed and defense are smaller than those made when you have a great offense because of the inherent structure of the game. Perhaps if baseball reverts to a dead-ball like style of play and changes a bunch of rules (for example calling a batter out who fouls off a two-strike pitch) there will be a set of skills (contact hitting, bunting, and the hit and run for instance) that are undervalued but short of that the game is what it is and the value of certain offensive events are pretty well fixed.

Now as Beane says it's true that as the skills talked about in Moneyball become more valued teams like the A's will have a harder time securing those skills because of the vast disparity between revenues in small and large markets. Turning to other lesser skills, however, is not going to help them win more ball games. It seems to me that in the long run small market teams would do well to press the large market teams into a workable revenue sharing structure.

1 comment:

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