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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:).

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Some truly great moments in baseball history:

To mark the occasion of the Detroit Tigers' recent upset playoff victory over the Yankees, ESPN.com has compiled this list of great Yankees playoff collapses.

I realize, of course, that a key reason why the Yankees have had so many playoff collapses is that they get to the postseason so often (roughly once every two years since pilfering the Babe from the Red Sox back in 1920). The rate at which the Yankees experience catastrophic failure in the playoffs is probably no greater than one would expect based on random chance variation. But that doesn't prevent me from enjoying moments like this! Moreover, 4 of the 10 collapses on the ESPN list have happened in the last six years. Maybe it's just a random blip, but perhaps the incidence of Yankees' collapses is going up.

UPDATE: The ESPN list, while pretty thorough, omits several good candidates, including the Big Red Machine sweep of the Yankees in the 1976 World Series, and the Kansas CIty Royals' sweep of a heavily favored Yankees team in the 1980 ALCS, a fitting revenge for three straight close defeats in the ALCS in 1976-78. Most importantly it fails to include the 1926 World Series, my personal favorite Yankees postseason defeat(with the exception of the 2004 "Reversal of the Curse," of course). In that series, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander came in an put down a bases loaded Yankees rally in Game 7, despite being hungover from celebrating his complete-game victory the night before in Game 6. Then, in the ninth inning, Babe Ruth "clinched" the Cardinals victory by getting caught stealing to make the last out of the series. Anyone who has ever seen a picture of the lumbering Babe knows that a Ruth steal attempt (especially with slugger Bob Meusel at the plate) is not exactly good strategy in a crucial situation!

This entire series of events was immortalized in the 1952 movie The Winning Team, starring Ronald Reagan as Alexander. It's definitely my favorite Reagan movie, for reasons having little to do with cinematic quality:).

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Dangers of Moneyball Hiring in Academia:
  2. Some truly great moments in baseball history:
  3. A Moneyball Victory:
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Dangers of Moneyball Hiring in Academia:

Political scientist Daniel Drezner has responded to my post praising the use of Moneyball hiring methods in academia. As I noted in the earlier post, Moneyball academic hiring uses statistical and other scientific methods to identify undervalued scholars who are likely to be more productive than the rest of the market (which may rely on impressionistic hiring criteria) expects. In the same way, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane has used statistical methods to identify undervalued baseball players and build a team that routinely outperforms competitors with much higher payrolls. My own school, George Mason University, has been one of the leaders in applying moneyball-like methods to hiring, and their use has been one of the causes of the school's rapid rise in the law school rankings over the last few years.

Drezner sees some merit in the Moneyball approach to academic hiring, but also posits two dangers:

1) In the end, you get poached. All approaches and areas of inquiry become fashionable at some point--even military historians. Once a department has attained a flush of prominence, the old standbys will come with their deep pockets to make lucrative free agent signings. The cream of a department's crop gets poached, leading to a slow decline.

The gain of a short-term boost might be worth the price of long-term backsliding, were it not for the second hazard of a Moneyball approach:

2) The risks of overspecialization. When a department hires a lot in a specialty or methodology that is currently unappreciated, they are essentially letting these scholars run the show. A history department dominated by military historians, a political science department dominated by postmodernists, or a law faculty dominated by critical legal theorists risks appearing unfriendly to good scholars from other traditions.

If departments overspecialize, they risk falling into a trap: they can only successfully recruit people from a particular scholarly tradition, but the best of those people will eventually be lured away to premier institutions. Because the social sciences tend to see cutting-edge scholarship emerge from different approaches over time, a department that specializes in one approach risks acquiring blinders about where the rest of the field is going.

I think that Drezner's points have some validity, but not as much as he suggests. There is most definitely a risk that a school with good scholars will be "poached" by higher-ranking institutions. But that is far better than the alternative of having scholars that higher-ranking institutions don't want to hire. As GMU Law School Dean Dan Polsby once put it: "Nobody wants a faculty that nobody wants!" A school that consistently applies Moneyball methods in its hiring processes should be able to find undervalued younger scholars as replacements for more senior faculty who get poached by higher-ranking schools. In the same way, Billy Beane found good replacements for numerous free agents whom the A's lost to teams with higher payrolls (e.g. - Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Keith Foulke, etc.). In fact, GMU Law School has itself lost quite a few faculty to higher-ranked law schools in recent years, but this has not (at least so far) prevented the school from continuing to improve. And the more a school rises in the rankings thanks to Moneyball methods, the lower the number of remaining higher-ranking schools that can hire its scholars away.

The danger of overspecialization is also a real one. However, the way to combat it is by applying the Moneyball approach more rigorously, not by giving up on it. A Moneyball-oriented school should be on the lookout for undervalued scholars who use a wide variety of methodologies, not just one or two. But if worse comes to worst and a Moneyball school does fall back in the rankings because it becomes overspecialized after an initial meteoric rise, that may still be better than the alternative of never having risen at all in the first place. As retired baseball players can attest, it's better to be a has-been than a never was.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Dangers of Moneyball Hiring in Academia:
  2. Some truly great moments in baseball history:
  3. A Moneyball Victory:
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