The GMU Economics Department and Moneyball (Yes, Them Too):

One fun thing about GMU's Final Four run is that it has caused the national spotlight to fall on some of the centers of excellence here at GMU that had previously been little-known, including, of course the law school, but other programs as well.

Another area, known to VC readers through our co-conspirator Tyler Cowen, is the GMU Economics Department. There have been a number of excellent articles about our colleagues in the Econ Department in recent days. Two especially good articles describing the rise of GMU's Economics Department are in the Washington Post (focusing on Peter Boettke, Robin Hanson, and Vernon Smith's work) and the Philadelphia Inquirer (focusing on Jim Buchanan's work). Many readers may have already seen Peter Boettke and Alex Tabarrok's article in Slate that explains the success of GMU's Economics Department as well.

Given the close relationships between the Law School and the Economics Department (we often co-teach classes and several Econ professor teach in the law school), readers will not be surprised to learn that Boettke and Tabarrok attribute the success of GMU's Economics Department to following a Moneyball strategy, a model that at least one GMU Law Professor extolled as the secret to the Law School's success (the full text of John J. Miller's article on GMU Law is now available here). In fact, I was the guy who first lent Pete a copy of Moneyball to read a few years ago, so I figure I am allowed to chime in a bit here. While I might quibble a bit with some of their application of the model I think their analysis is basically sound.

I would add just one further point of elaboration to their Moneyball analysis of the basketball program. I heard Coach Larranaga on the radio this week addressing the precise question of how he managed to find these kids on the team who were overlooked by the larger schools. Larranaga suggested that he just looks for something different from what the big programs are looking for in a player. Larranaga says that rather than just looking for kids with the best individual skills, who all the big-name programs focus on, he looks for kids who come from winning high school programs. The idea is to find kids who are know how to win and are willing to do what it takes to win, which means working hard, listening to the coach, and playing as a team. First he mentioned this stunning statistic that Will Thomas and Rudy Gay both went to high school in Baltimore and that Thomas's teams are now 8-0 playing against Gay's teams in their careers. He then proceeded to list the key players on the team, noting that every one of them (if I remember correctly) had played for a state champion or major city champion in high school. Larranaga indicated that he thought that it was this intangible commitment to winning that accounts for the selflessness of the team in terms of sharing the ball, running the game plan, playing defense, and doing the hard work to win. If this is true, it is a fascinating observation that commitment to winning (versus raw talent) is an undervalued attribute in the modern basketball marketplace.

So I think that the interesting point here is that Larranaga suggests that even now the big-time programs probably wouldn't really want any of these GMU kids because they are not the individual superstars with brilliant talent that those teams are looking for. So it is not that somehow those programs "missed" these kids, but rather that those programs have a different model of talent acquisition. It is only when melded together in Larranaga's system, with the emphasis on the way in which their individual skills complement one another within the system, that their total value is maximized.

Those interested in the relatively new JD-PhD Economics Joint Degree Program and the LLM in Law & Economics Progra at George Mason can find more information here.

As for me, I am off tomorrow for Indianapolis and the Final Four. Thanks for indulging my occasional sports post around here over the past week or two.

Go Mason!

keatssycamore (mail) (www):
Larranaga said, "Larranaga indicated that he thought that it was this intangible commitment to winning that accounts for the selflessness of the team in terms of sharing the ball, running the game plan, playing defense, and doing the hard work to win." "Oh, and punching the other team in the groin," he added. "I almost forgot that. If you're a groin puncher GMU should be your home."

I will never read anything about GMU without thinking it should be renamed GPU. Sorry for the off topic post. I'm on a personal mission to ensure that in all the hype, no one forgets the groin punching.
3.30.2006 10:16am
Doug Murray (mail) (www):
I have long maintained that basketball at all levels would benefit from two statistics commonly seen in ice hockey - the plus-minus and points scored including assists. These highlight the players' actual contribution to winning games, not just individual skills.

I began to suspect this several decades ago when a local high school player garnered all kinds of news coverage for scoring 50-60 points a game while his team couldn't make the playoffs.
3.30.2006 10:39am
Larranaga indicated that he thought that it was this intangible commitment to winning . . . .

Of course, the whole point of Moneyball is that Billy Beane rejected overvalued intangibles such as being a "winner" or a "gamer" in favor of objective, measurable skills such as plate discipline and power.

It's an irony, but not a contradiction, because it may be that such intangibles are (or were) overvalued in professional baseball but undervalued in college basketball.
3.30.2006 10:47am
Okay, the hype of the GMU basketball is getting a bit ridiculous.

First, have you even read moneyball? It would scoff at something like the "intangible" of knowing how to win. It would also scoff at the idea that you can learn anything from one team's success in one year. Talk to me in five years after GMU consistently puts winners on the court.

Second, lets be honest: GMU isn't that good. If they were such an elite team they would have had a better regular season record. They're here because they've been a bit lucky and they've been playing good basketball at the right time of the year.

One of the great things about the NCAA tournament is that anything can happen in one game. It doesn't say anything deep about any one particular team or their style of winning.
3.30.2006 10:50am
Cornellian (mail):
Nice little writeup about GMU (starting with "who was George Mason?") on today. Congrats on the attention.
3.30.2006 10:59am
NoVa Prof:
Amazing how few understand Moneyball. It is fundamentally about seeking the undervalued in the marketplace. Thus, it is quite right that in Beane's estimation, baseball overvalued these types of "intangibles," while it undervalued certain aspects of measurable skills.

Keep in mind, though, that basketball is a very different sport. Fundamentally, baseball is an individual sport, coming down to that individual pitcher/batter duel. In comparison with that, the team aspects of the game are quite secondary. Basketball is a team sport in almost every aspect. Thus, the undervaluing of such intangibles might be a real phenomenon in the basketball world.
3.30.2006 11:08am
But it's also "fundamentally" about turning sports management into a science by looking at objective indicators that correlate to success. There's no evidence that winning in high school translates into anything. This is particularly true when you don't control for things like the competitiveness of a particular high school district or state.

You can't read anything into one team's "success" in one year. Isn't this statistics 101?
3.30.2006 11:28am
B. B.:
There's a fundamental difference between baseball intangibles and basketball intangibles, in that baseball is, while played with a team, largely dependent on individual skills -- hitting, throwing, and catching a ball. There are a few other things that involve teammates, but those still are largely dependent on individual skill.

Basketball, on the other hand, requires a sum of the parts, five guys willing to play as a group and do what is best for the team on every possession, on both ends of the floor. Something like "good player on winning teams" might be a good proxy for what Larranaga is talking about. I could see those intangibles being undervalued in basketball as people focus so much on individual talent. In baseball, many of those intangibles are totally worthless. AJ Pierzynski is a great example -- detested in San Fran, but loved by his teammates in Chicago and they won it all. From "clubhouse cancer" to "championship engine" in one year.

On the same token, in basketball you can have a team like the Bulls, who have some talent but many of whom Paxson has been drafting from winning teams and at least manage to stay in the playoff hunt with smoke and mirrors (i.e. Skiles), as opposed to the Knicks, who have piles of talent and a hall-of-fame coach but stink to high heaven.
3.30.2006 11:34am
J.U. (mail):
Did Larranaga mention the fact that the majority of starters were not recruited hard by other schools because of their abysmal academic records? Some, like Lewis and Skinn, could not qualify for the NCAA out of high school and almost no school in the ACC, for example, would be able to grant most of those kids admission based on their academic record. To act like other schools were simply sleeping on them is to engage in quite a bit a revisionist history. Bulter, Campbell, Lewis, and Thomas were all prep stars in Maryland, and the reason that bigger basketball schools backed off many of them was because the schools had slightly higher academic standards than GMU's undergrad.
3.30.2006 12:53pm
Matty G:
Doug Murray: I concur about the plus/minus stats. You should check out (start in the visitors guide), they have done a lot of statistical work on that dimension in the NBA. Enjoy.
3.30.2006 12:55pm
I think the real Moneyball move is not focusing on "intangibles," but focusing on a tangible, measurable, and undervalued indicator that apparently correlates with success: the success of the recruit's high school team.
3.30.2006 1:57pm
But AF, as I've repeatedly said, there's no reason to believe that high school success correlates with college success. It's simply been asserted because one team one year won some games with players who were also successful in high school.

BB, while basketball is more of a "team game," there's no proof that being a good "team player" matters much in basketball. Instead, all we have is "conventional wisdom," which, as Moneyball itself argued, is often wrong and rooted in biases that go back to the inception of the sport.

I think the real Moneyball lesson basketball teams should learn is that teams should continue to focus in on individual stats, but they should be smart about which stats they focus in on. Much like baseball teams worried too much about batting average, homeruns, and RBIs, basketball teams focus too much on scoring, assists, and rebounding averages. Basketball teams should be focusing in on numbers like shooting percentages and assist-to-turnover ratio.

You point to the Knicks to support your argument, but they don't help you because they don't have much talent. They have a bunch of overrated players who can't shoot. See, e.g., Marbury.
3.30.2006 2:17pm
I am thrilled for George Mason, and I hope they continue to win, but really, let's not act like they cured cancer or something.
3.30.2006 3:38pm