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A Moneyball Victory:

The Oakland A's have just won their first playoff series of the Billy Beane/Moneyball era, sweeping the favored Minnesota Twins in three straight games. As described in Michael Lewis' book Moneyball, A's General Manager Billy Beane pioneered the use of statistical analysis to guide personnel decisions in major league baseball.

Thanks in large part to Beane's moneyball strategy, the A's have posted one of the best records in baseball since he took over the team in 1999, despite having a payroll less than half the size of most of their main competitors. As I explained back in August, Beane's teams have posted records comparable to those of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, despite spending only about one third as much as the Yankees and one half as much as Boston.

I am a big fan of Beane and his methods, all the more so because George Mason University has used a similar approach in hiring faculty for our law school and economics department, both of which have risen in the rankings almost as fast as Beane's A's rose in the American league standings. Both the A's and GMU use statistical analysis to identify "players" whose productivity has been undervalued by their respective industries, and sign them before the competition catches on. Both also have far less money to spend on payroll than their wealthier competitors, and so have to do more with less.

Until now, however, the A's were dogged by their lack of playoff success. In 2000-2003, they lost four straight playoff series, all by razor-thin 3-2 margins; in 2004 and 2005, they narrowly missed making the postseason. Critics claimed that Beane's methods were defective because they supposedly don't work in the postseason. As Beane himself would be the first to point out, chance factors play a major role in influencing the outcome of short playoff series in baseball. Therefore, this victory does not "prove" that moneyball methods work, any more than the previous nailbiting defeats proved the opposite. However, those moneyball critics who claimed that Beane's methods are a failure because of A's lack of playoff success must now rethink their position.

Since my beloved Red Sox (who also relied on Moneyball methods in recent years) are out of the playoffs, I will definitely be rooting for the A's to go all the way and win the World Series. Hopefully, Beane is rooting for GMU to do well too:).

M (mail):
Does this imply you're under-paid? (Or are you the Scott Hattberg of GMU? Beane did have a tendency to give a lot of at-bats to some pretty crappy players for no obvious reaons, too.)
10.7.2006 1:20am
Steve:
Yes, Oakland's victory over Minnesota surely provides evidence that it's possible to have playoff success on a small-market payroll. Of course, Minnesota's victory over Oakland would have provided the same evidence.

But if Oakland beats Detroit, now that'll really prove something!
10.7.2006 1:58am
18 USC 1030 (mail):
Or, when the Tigers beat the Yankees. Notice, no if there: It is going to happen...And then, the Mets are going to beat the Tigers and all will be well with America.
10.7.2006 2:06am
Ilya Somin:
Yes, Oakland's victory over Minnesota surely provides evidence that it's possible to have playoff success on a small-market payroll. Of course, Minnesota's victory over Oakland would have provided the same evidence.

The post was not about whether a small payroll team could win in the playoffs, but whether Moneyball methods could do so. Moreover, as I note in the post, a single playoff series in and of itself proves very little. It does, however, refute those critics who claimed that Beane's methods were defective on the basis of evidence from a handful of playoff games in 2000-2003.
10.7.2006 2:07am
Ilya Somin:
Does this imply you're under-paid? (Or are you the Scott Hattberg of GMU?

There never lived an academic who thought he wasn't underpaid. Hopefully, however, I'm the Nick Swisher of GMU (hired in the same year too!), rather than the Scott Hatteberg.
10.7.2006 2:09am
Mark B. (mail):
Hey - Scott Hatteburg wasn't all that bad for a couple of years - the A's got their money's worth out of him and Chad Bradford.

Now, that Jermaine Dye contract - that hurt!
10.7.2006 2:51am
Steve:
It does, however, refute those critics who claimed that Beane's methods were defective on the basis of evidence from a handful of playoff games in 2000-2003.

No, it doesn't. Come on. The only thing it refutes is the preposterous theory that it's IMPOSSIBLE for Oakland to win a playoff series.

At most you have a countervailing data point.
10.7.2006 3:59am
Ilya Somin:
No, it doesn't. Come on. The only thing it refutes is the preposterous theory that it's IMPOSSIBLE for Oakland to win a playoff series.

At most you have a countervailing data point.


But these critics were themselves relying on just a few data points. So a countervailing point is enough to undermine their argument, because the record is no longer unambiguous. Of course, since all 4 of the previous series were 3-2, it wasn't really unambiguous before either. But winning a series decisively is more dramatic evidence in favor of the A's than losing by a narrow margin.
10.7.2006 5:10am
Pete Freans (mail):
I think its premature to vindicate Beane's obessive base-stealing, bunting or full count theories by a mere playoff sweep. Vindication will be had with a World Series win, and only then. What other reason is there to play in the MLB?
10.7.2006 10:08am
keypusher (mail):
Ask Alex Rodriguez' accountant.
10.7.2006 11:12am
WJ (mail):
Before this playoff victory Beane's supporters were saying that playoff success was not important because of the "luck" involved in winning playoff games. I assume they will now change their position on that.

I don't think Beane ever made such a ridiculous statement however. No general manager who wants to remain employed would say that.
10.7.2006 11:30am
Andy Freeman (mail):
Is winning playoffs an economically rational goal for professional baseball teams?

I'm sure that winning playoffs produces some marginal revenue relative to losing playoffs, but does that revenue exceed the marginal costs that make winning playoffs more likely?
10.7.2006 12:04pm
jrose:
But these critics were themselves relying on just a few data points. So a countervailing point is enough to undermine their argument

If the critics argued that Moneyball methods always lead to losing in the post season, Somin is right. However, Steve is right (the current Oakland success is one data point) if the critics merely claim that Moneyball methods lead to losing more often than other methods.

How can you evaluate this issue without first defining what "Moneyball methods" are, and quantifying to what extent Oakland uses them compared to other teams?
10.7.2006 12:04pm
Steven Vickers:
I think its premature to vindicate Beane's obessive base-stealing, bunting or full count theories by a mere playoff sweep


This really isn't what Beane's theories are about. Yes, A's teams in the early 2000s tended to avoid base-stealers and favor players who patiently took walks, but this was because these traits were (in the eyes of the A's management) overvalued in the market. There's nothing sabermetrically wrong about stealing a base. Oakland actually stole more bases than Detroit this year, I believe.

Again, the insight of Beane/Moneyball is emphatically not about a particular baseball strategy being superior, it's about identifying the factors that maximize your chances to win games and which are underpriced by the market.


Before this playoff victory Beane's supporters were saying that playoff success was not important because of the "luck" involved in winning playoff games. I assume they will now change their position on that.

I don't think Beane ever made such a ridiculous statement however. No general manager who wants to remain employed would say that.


I'm not sure whether he ever said such a thing, but he would be, of course, correct. Luck matters a lot in baseball--easily enough where going 8-12 rather than 12-8 (winning 4 3-2 series) could be the result of bad luck. Just look at the league standings after 20 games next year and compare them to the end of the year if you don't believe me. We're talking about a sport where the very best teams each year only win about 6 of 10 games.
10.7.2006 12:09pm
Cathy (mail) (www):
As a native Yankee fan who's inadvertantly become an Oakland aficionado due to 11+ years of living next to Oakland, I've watched them surprisingly intently the last couple of years.

This year's team doesn't surprise me because I saw the makings of it last summer, when the young team (I forget the average age, but apparently it was relatively low) was full of scrappy players for whom their Little League heroics were still fresh in their minds and who, instead of being relegated to pinch hitting and utility work, got to step up and drive the team. The run they had in June/July/August was a lot of fun as they discovered what their potential was and figured out how to meet it.

This year they are mostly the same players, but with the benefit of experience, and the introduction of Frank Thomas (a man whose bunts would still fly 400 feet...) They are solid and deep, play as an effective ensemble, and have progressed to the point where their success will come down to how well the pitching holds up. And perhaps the managing/coaching. Macha seems decent, but he's no Torre in terms of post-season experience. I also have issues with the A's base running...

So what does this mean for Moneyball? Probably that it can work, but that the payoff might not be right away. Build the team while the bricks are cheap, and then let time settle them into something solid.

(Of course, I would also argue that a lot of the Yankees recent success has also been due to similar factors, namely the coaching and the ability to play as a team. No matter how high the payroll, the Yankees could not achieve anything (rememberthe 80s?) until Torre came along to hold this team together.)
10.7.2006 12:36pm
Jiffy:

the insight of Beane/Moneyball is emphatically not about a particular baseball strategy being superior, it's about identifying the factors that maximize your chances to win games and which are underpriced by the market.


Absolutely correct. In fact, since Moneyball Beane's strategy has evolved--in part because the success of the book eliminated the market inefficiency around OBP, which is now much more highly valued in the baseball market. Beane seems to be going after strong defensive players now because he believes that skill is undervalued. The A's were 10th in baseball in OBP percentage this year (not bad, but not superb--only about the 67 percentile) but third in fielding percentage. Of course, their pitching was pretty good too (7th in baseball in ERA).
10.7.2006 12:43pm
frankcross (mail):
Well, I like the Moneyball strategy, but I doubt it explains the A's success. Markets are pretty efficient, and Moneyball should have at most a marginal effect.

I think the A's win because they find and bring up very good young pitchers. The Tigers did not switch over to Moneyball this year -- they had some young pitchers come around.
10.7.2006 12:53pm
WJ (mail):
In response to Jiffy.

I was unaware of Beane's change in strategy. When I used to pay much more attention to sabermetrics when young I was surprised at how misunderstood defensive statistics were. The best shortstop in the '80s (usually Ozzie Smith) would make 6 fielding plays a game, while the worst (usually Larry Bowa) would make around 5. Over the course of a season that meant that Smith would make 150 more defensive plays than Bowa. All that was focused on by the general public however was that Smith might make 25 errors while Bowa made 10.

Not only does the market undervalue defense, it does analyze defense properly. This would be another area where Beane may be ahead of the game if this is the strategy he is not utilizing.

By my earlier post I did not mean to criticize Beane. I do think he is one of the best general managers if not the best. I was criticizing those that discard playoff success. Luck is involved in every sport, not just baseball. The final measure however in every sport is whether you win a championship. That is Beane's goal. He is not a failure if he does not achieve the goal, but do not say the goal is not important if it is not achieved.
10.7.2006 1:05pm
Jiffy:
By the way, Beane was quoted in Moneyball saying somthing like "my s*** doesn't work in the playoffs." I assume he meant that while use of statistical analysis to find pockets of market inefficiency may have a benefit over a long season during which statistical propensities have enough opportunities to make themselves felt, the "sample size" in a short playoff series is so small that chance will have a bigger impact. That's different from saying that teams built using Moneyball methods can't win in the playoffs.
10.7.2006 1:22pm
Mark Field (mail):

Before this playoff victory Beane's supporters were saying that playoff success was not important because of the "luck" involved in winning playoff games. I assume they will now change their position on that.

I don't think Beane ever made such a ridiculous statement however. No general manager who wants to remain employed would say that.


Stan Kasten, President of the Atlanta Braves, said it in almost exactly those words. To be clear, what he said, and what most players and general managers believe, is that luck is necessary to win playoff series.
10.7.2006 1:29pm
Monty:
Playoff success is measured by rings, not winning a lousy wild card series.
10.7.2006 2:02pm
pompano (mail):
I hate to break it to you Illya but your beloved Red Sox have the 2nd highest payroll in all of baseball. The Yankees are at $194 million and the Red Sox are at $120 million. The A's are 21st at $62 million. If the Red Sox are playing moneyball, they aren't doing a very good job of it.
10.7.2006 5:05pm
Josh Wexler (mail) (www):
Oakland managed to be quite a bit lucky over the 162 stretch this year. They did have the 7th best overall pitching (4.21ERA), but were lucky to score 16th most runs with the 21st best offense (w/a decidedly unmoneyballesque .752OPS). They also had only 15th best defense (.694 defensive efficiency ratio). Based on their run differential the A's had an expected W-L record of 86-76, yet they won their (weak) division, finishing 93-69. So, perhaps lady luck will finally stay with

It is just bizarre, after a 162 game season, to judge a team based on a best of 5 series (and nothing but myopic to judge Billy Beane's career on 20 games). A fine day to ruminate on baseball, life, and luck as I watch my Yankees' great season crumble suddenly to dust. October 7th and I'm already comforting myself with "Green Fields of the Mind."
10.7.2006 8:13pm
Syd (mail):
The AL West is not weak. They finished 32 games over .500 against their opposition. What they are is evenly matched. Now the National League Central, that's weak.
10.8.2006 12:34pm
Some Guy (mail):
Of course, the GM of the Dodgers, Paul DiPodesta, studied under Beane, and upon taking over, he rearranged his team accordingly to maximize his value per win. He was ultimately beat by the Mets, but at least they made it, as well. I think the hitter-weighted heavy statistical recruiting is here to stay.

p.s. It was interesting how in the last game of the series, the Mets players that the Dodgers GM had traded away were looking for payback. The interviews and announcer commentary were almost funny. No one seemed to have any idea WHY they were traded, or give any recognition that even after trading them, the Dodgers were playing the same series as the Mets on a much smaller payroll.
10.9.2006 2:03am
Prup (aka Jim Benton) (mail):
Sorry guy, but, now the Yanks are lying dead in the road, you're going to have to go through the Tigers for the opportunity to get beaten by the Mets, and I don't think you are going to make it. You've good a very good team, with a very good manager, the Tigers are a very good team with a great manager, and the Mets are a great team with a great manager. And, despite Bouton's theory -- not in BALL FOUR but in a sequel on managers -- that anybody who is a specialist in handling people could manage a team if you could just phony up a baseball resume for him, it don't woik that way.
10.9.2006 9:08am
BobH (mail):
SomeGuy:

Paul DePodesta is NOT the Dodgers' GM, and has not been all season. And the bulk of the team he put together is no longer in Los Angeles. You might want to check your facts before opining.
10.9.2006 12:15pm
Ray Lehmann (mail) (www):
The Mets' payroll this year was $101 million, fifth highest in baseball. The Dodgers' payroll was $98 million, sixth highest in baseball. Smaller? Yes. MUCH smaller? Not quite.
10.10.2006 12:40am