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  • Moon Man
    started a topic The Moneyball "Revolution"

    The Moneyball "Revolution"

    Article from the The New Republic on Beane and the effect of statistical analysis on baseball. Even less reason to be hopeful about baseball's future.

    Moon


    DAILY EXPRESS
    Off Base
    by Aaron Schatz


    Only at TNR Online | Post date 02.20.04

    Two of the most talented young stars in baseball switched teams this week: Alex Rodriguez made headlines from coast to coast when the Texas Rangers traded him to the New York Yankees; meanwhile, Paul DePodesta, the former right-hand man to Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, made a less-heralded move to Los Angeles, where he will become the Dodgers' general manager. Rodriguez and DePodesta may not have a lot in common--one is the highest-paid player in baseball history, the other was an economics major at Harvard. But their moves this week suggested a common, and troubling, development for Major League Baseball: that the theories laid out in Michael Lewis's 2003 book Moneyball--which explains how the Oakland A's built a team that competed on an equal footing with much richer franchises--aren't going to resolve the fundamental inequalities that plague the sport. In fact, within a few years, the Moneyball revolution may barely matter at all.

    Even most non-baseball fans have heard of Moneyball, in which Lewis details an innovative approach to evaluating talent that allowed poor teams to compete with rich ones. Using rigorous analysis of baseball statistics, the A's front office noticed that the market for baseball players was riddled with inefficiencies: Players with certain attributes, like the ability to get on base consistently, were priced cheaply even though these attributes were crucial to a team's performance. Meanwhile, other attributes, like speed, were valued highly even though they were far less important to winning. Lewis tells the story of how Beane's A's achieved success by paying cut-rate prices for players with useful attributes while avoiding players they would have had to overpay for.

    Defenders of the economic status quo in baseball seized on Moneyball to argue that baseball didn't need to adopt the strict revenue-sharing models of other sports in order to prevent wealthy teams (such as the Yankees) from literally buying championships year after year while small-market teams languish in the cellar. After all, they said, Moneyball proved that poor teams, with a little managerial ingenuity, could lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

    And that was true--at least for a while. During 2002, the year Lewis covers in Moneyball, the only organizations fully using sabermetrics--that is, using objective analysis of baseball statistics in deciding which players to field on a team--were Oakland and Toronto, which had just hired a former Beane underling named J.P. Ricciardi. (San Diego and Cleveland were also using these techniques, but to a lesser extent.) In 2003, however, the Boston Red Sox hired as their general manager Yale graduate Theo Epstein (or, as the press officially renamed him, "28-year-old Theo Epstein"). Epstein was an acolyte of groundbreaking baseball analyst Bill James, the man who actually coined the term sabermetrics, and his hire was a major turning point in the transition of such analysis from a matter of theoretical interest among obsessive baseball fans to an actual force in baseball front offices.

    Success breeds imitation, of course. And so, this offseason, the ranks of statistical analysts on major league payrolls swelled. The Mets hired a fairly unknown statistical analyst named Ben Baumer. The St. Louis Cardinals signed a consulting deal with fantasy baseball expert Ron Shandler. Texas announced plans to have former Oakland scouting director Grady Fuson succeed the team's current GM, John Hart, in 2005.

    But this league-wide rush to statistical analysis has created a problem for those optimistic that sabermetrics would have a leveling effect: Rich teams are discovering that they can play the sabermetric game, too. In the short-term, this is actually worsening the gap between some rich and poor teams, as rich teams with sabermetric approaches extend their advantage over poor teams without them. And, in the long-term, once everyone is using sabermetrics, every team will correctly value players, and there won't be any more inefficiencies to exploit. Suddenly major league baseball will be right back where it started: With the richest teams buying up the best players, and the poorer teams settling for the dregs.

    The hiring of DePodesta in Los Angeles this week suggests that we're well on our way down that path. DePodesta should be familiar to readers of Moneyball, where he plays a crucial role in the chapter on Oakland's revolutionary draft strategy. Lewis describes him sitting at his laptop calling out the names of players to be drafted based entirely on their collegiate statistics, without having ever seen the players perform in person. As baseball columnist Rob Neyer wrote this week, "In the Oakland organization, DePodesta was the brains and Beane was the brawn."

    Now DePodesta will bring the Oakland way of doing things to Los Angeles--the same attention to objective analysis and to identifying inefficiencies in the system. The difference is that DePodesta will have far more resources to maximize. As analyst David Pinto of BaseballMusings.com pointed out to me, "Oakland has to look at a very small universe of extremely undervalued players. With the Dodgers, DePodesta can take advantage of players who are just slightly undervalued, but still relatively expensive."

    If you're not convinced, then just consider the example of the Boston Red Sox, a wealthy team and relative newcomer to sabermetrics. In 2003, the Red Sox roster was a combination of some of the greatest talents in baseball, all paid at top dollar (namely Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, and Nomar Garciaparra) combined with uncelebrated players who had been under-utilized by their previous teams and could be acquired at low prices (such as Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, and Bronson Arroyo).

    In the most recent offseason, Epstein was able to get rid of some of the overpriced contracts left over from his predecessor; he filled those spaces not with mid-priced talent but with ace pitchers Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, superstars well-worth the large contracts the Red Sox could offer them. But when its second baseman signed with another team, Boston made the kind of resource-maximizing move made famous by Moneyball. The team spent a measly $1.5 million on two players with complementary skills who were unwanted by other teams and will form an innovative offensive-defensive platoon: Poor-hitting, slick-fielding Pokey Reese will play behind pitchers who cause more ground balls, while Mark Bellhorn--an on-base machine who also hit 27 home runs for the Chicago Cubs just two years ago--will play behind pitchers who require less defensive help in the infield. This innovative move would have been available to shrewd small-market teams. But the acquisitions of Schilling and Foulke were made possible only by the wealth of the Red Sox.

    Which brings us to the acquisition of Alex Rodriguez by the Yankees, who compete in the American League East alongside the Red Sox, and who, though also relatively savvy about finding good deals, have the money to pay top-dollar for the best talent. For all the gnashing of teeth in New England over the Red Sox's ill-fated pursuit of Rodriguez, followed by his trade to the dreaded Yankees, Boston is not the real loser in the Rodriguez sweepstakes. With a wild-card playoff spot in the American League available to the second-place team with the best record, the Red Sox are almost assured of a playoff appearance for years to come, even if they cannot catch the Yankees during the regular season.

    No, the real losers in the Rodriguez trade are the Toronto Blue Jays, who also play in the AL East and are run by Ricciardi, another Beane disciple. The division has reached the point where Toronto has almost no chance of making the playoffs--despite managing its resources in an ultra-efficient manner--because it is competing with two other teams that also have relatively intelligent management, plus more than double (the Red Sox) or triple (the Yankees) its resources. Yes, the regular season can always produce some surprises, and every year some team outperforms expectations. But the AL East's five teams (New York, Boston, Toronto, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay) have finished in the exact same order for six years in a row. And one can understand why: No matter how smart Ricciardi is, how many chances for arbitrage can he find that Epstein or Yankees general manager Brian Cashman won't find as well?

    Unfortunately, thanks to the mainstreaming of sabermetric techniques that DePodesta's hiring signifies, the future of Major League Baseball probably looks a lot more like today's AL East than the league Michael Lewis brings to life in Moneyball. In the end, the revolution pioneered by Billy Beane and the Oakland A's may make the market for baseball players a lot more efficient. But it won't make the game any more competitive.

    Aaron Schatz writes about sports and culture. He lives in Massachusetts.
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