Jun 022003

I just finished Michael Lewis’s terrific book about Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager who consistently fields a great team with one of the lowest payrolls in the major leagues. The A’s are baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s particular albatross. Selig harps on the need for more baseball socialism (“revenue-sharing”) because of the alleged “inability of small market teams to compete,” when in fact it is only incompetently managed small market teams who can’t, Selig’s own Milwaukee Brewers prominent among them. Beane must drive him to drink. Now to anyone who has played fantasy baseball and read Bill James, which seems to be half of the male portion of the blogosphere, how to put together a winning baseball team with little money is no secret. You exploit inefficiencies, which is to say, you take advantage of the fact that many baseball executives are stupid. Certain traits are overvalued by other teams, like sculpted physiques or blazing speed or cannon arms. These don’t translate very well into on-field success anyway, and you ignore them. Other, more useful traits, like a deceptive pitching motion or the ability to draw walks, are undervalued, and these are what you look for.

The golden rule is that past performance indicates future performance, and ugly doesn’t count. Essentially you work from the spreadsheet instead of the scouting report. Scouts hate that. So do fans, stat geeks like me excepted, because it slights any knowledge of the game that comes from actually watching it. When I played in a fantasy league I would regularly tell other owners that they watched too much baseball, and that they needed to stop believing their own eyes. I was delighted to note that Beane often tells his scouts the same thing.

Beane himself is a former major-league player and hot prospect of exactly the type that he has trained himself, and his staff, to ignore. He was a high-school “tools” player, the type who looks better playing than he actually plays, and so highly regarded that many scouts and executives wanted to draft him first in his class, ahead of such future luminaries as Darryl Strawberry. But Beane’s tools never translated into major-league success. By his own account, his temper destroyed him as a player: he couldn’t cope with failure, and one bad at-bat would wreck his game, or his week.

In other words, Beane, instead of hiring in his own image, has become a brilliant success by doing the opposite. If there are other executives who have done this, I don’t know who they are.

(Dr. Manhattan reviews the book at greater length.)

(Update: Floyd McWilliams comments.)

(Update: Robert Birnbaum has an interesting interview with Lewis.)

  8 Responses to “Moneyball”

  1. I forget where I read this, but part of the problem with Beane’s appraoch is that it’s built for a regular-season strategy of taking advantage of the other pitchers’ mistakes, mistakes which come far less often in the playoffs, hence the conspicuous lack of recent pennants flying in Oakland.

    As for whether other executives have followed his path, outside of sports there aren’t a lot of fields where somebody to rise to the ultimate level of management after failing so conspicuously at its entyr level (maybe an unsuccessful actor running a movie studio?).

    I do agree with Mike & the Mad Dog’s opinion that before we put Billy "Genius" beane in the Hall of Fame that maybe we can wait until he gets to a World Series?

  2. Beane is a bright guy who had the flexibility to apply player-evaluation techniques that had been lying around gathering dust for twenty years. This puts him miles ahead of other baseball executives but doesn’t make him any kind of genius.

    I sympathize with Beane’s self-serving argument that playoff success is mostly luck. In the current three-round format, even the overwhelmingly best team, say a 3-1 favorite in any given series, is still a distinct underdog to win the World Series. And I see no evidence, Joe Morgan notwithstanding, that playoff baseball is any different from the regular season.

    That Beane’s strategy is to beat up on weak teams, as you imply, is a testable hypothesis: simply calculate the A’s regular-season record against stronger teams and compare it with that of other teams that have had more playoff success. I don’t know what the results would be, but I’d be surprised if you found any significant differences.

  3. You say football’s neither here nor there, but it is a sport with an extreme form of revenue sharing (due to the centrally administered media rights), and the teams there do seem to try and win fairly hard. One reason could be because the solely realized profits from the resale of a successful team is almost certainly higher than that same franchise about eight losing seasons.

  4. But it remains a shared interest. I work for a large corporation. One entity generates revenue through ads in newspapers, another through ads on TV, another through ads on radio, another through ads on the web. In some ways, we compete against each other, in others we depend on each other and cooperate accordingly. We’re still one business. Baseball is one business. It more federalism and republicanism than democracy.

  5. A couple of points here:

    1. I’m interested to see what sort of deals Beane will be able to make this season. I haven’t read the book yet, but many of the reviews I’ve read and people I’ve talked to say that it radiates a smugness. JP Riccardi (Toronto’s GM) says that he’ll still deal with Beane because Beane is willing to pay for what he wants, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Beane has to pay a little more than in the past.

    2. While Beane’s theories on scouting are popular right now, there will always be plenty of takers for ‘tools’ guys. It seems that what Beane is looking for are mental, and to some extent emotional ‘tools’ guys. But there have been enough players who grew into an understanding of the strike zone, for example, to make scouts believe that other players can do it, too.

    3. Revenue-sharing could help to even the field, certainly. But the teams that receive money woiuld have to reinvest that money, and I’m not certain they are all willing to do that right now, with some of the franchises up for sale.

    4. The big difference in playoff baseball, to me, is the quality of the opposing pitching. Given the number of days off, a team may only need to go three starters in a series. I’d guesstimate that, say, chances of facing Hudson, Mulder, or Zito when playing the A’s during the season on a given night are about 65%. In the playoffs, I’d think that number would be more like 90%. Teams just don’t have to use their "inning-eating" type starters nearly as much in the playoffs when they can run Kevin Brown or Randy Johnson out at you three times in seven games.

    Anyway, those are the sprouts that grew reading all this. Sorry I’m late to the game, but I took an Internet-free vacation last week. And survived, somehow.

  6. Beane doesn’t win more games for less money. Never has in spite of what Lewis says. Giambi did, Tejada does, Mulder does, Hudson does, Chavez does, Zito does. All together they make about what Jeter does. Billy Boy had nothing to do with this group showing up. However, he will be given his chance to see how many games the A’s can win on the cheap in three years when most of them are gone.

  7. "Billy Boy had nothing to do with this group showing up."

    He drafted Giambi, Zito, and Hudson. According to Lewis, over his scouts’ strong objections.

  8. Don’t get me wrong Floyd, my point is: That many great players showing near the same time frame for not much money might never happen again. Beane had no idea how great these guys were going to be, he just knew they were way undervalued. Just as he didn’t know how dismal T. Long and Scott Hatteberg would become after he extended their contracts. Lewis gave a whole chapter to Hatteberg who hit about .200 after the all star game and went from fair to terrible on defense this year. He put together the Dye, Damon deal, which was genius. Lilly was superior late this year even though he really hurt the A’s in last years playoff against the Twins….I like Beane a lot but as he is going to find out very shortly, it’s real hard to win 90 plus games without special players. I look for him to leave the A’s…these owners are just too tight. Their attendance went up for the fifth year in a row and they refuse to spend any of it. We lost Durham who would have made all the difference this year. Now it’s Tejada and Keith Foulke who said he would stay with no raise because he loves it there. But I think these owners expect Beane to pull another Foulke out the hat for nothing. I’m predicting 85-90 wins next year, then it’ll start downhill as we start losing the pitchers.
    update….I see last week Beane had to use Ramon as bait in order to get rid of T. Long to the Padres. "You gotta be kidding!", said Zito.

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