The Success of Moneyball

>> Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Whatever the limitations of his baseball knowledge, Matt is in fact correct about Buzz Bissinger's latest silly anti-Billy Beane screed.

The biggest problem with Bissinger's rant is that he doesn't seem to understand that the core of the philosophy laid out in Moneyball was arbitrage: that is, teams with lower payrolls had to focus on skills that were undervalued by teams with higher payrolls. Beane would have been proven wrong if it turned out that on-base percentage and power weren't in fact undervalued but were already priced correctly. But this, of course, if manifestly false. The most successful regular season franchise in the last decade, the Yankees, have emphasized working long counts and power throughout the Brian Cashman era. The defending champion Phillies are a power and walks based offense. The Red Sox, with two World Championships in the last five years, literally hired Bill James. So it's not that Beane was wrong; it's that the arbitrage opportunity has vanished. (Nothing in Moneyball said that having more money wasn't an advantage.) Conversely, one franchise in baseball has a Process in place representing Bissinger's alleged beloved values of explicitly ignoring sabermetric evidence and focusing on grittitude, clucthiosity, and the Enduring Wisdom of Old-Time Baseball Men: Mr. Dayton Moore and the Kansas City Royals. We know how that's working out.

None of this is to say that Beane is beyond criticism; his talent judgment has often been shaky in the last couple years, and while he's had a brilliant run it may be time for him to move on. Bissinger is also right that his focus on performance over skills in drafting probably went too far. But looking at the best organizations in baseball is a vindication of Moneyball, not a repudiation.


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