Not so very long ago, a book – and then a movie – titled Moneyball celebrated the ascendance of the Oakland Athletics and their general manager, Billy Beane. It seemed Beane had figured out how to build a winner from parts other teams had discarded by using a statistical analysis strategy developed by members of the Society for American Baseball Research known as “sabermeterics.”
Today, the A’s are closer to last place than first and a very long shot to make the playoffs, even with MLB’s newly- expanded post-season format. It’s been nearly 23 years since Oakland last won the World Series.
To gauge whether the principles behind Moneyball are fact, fiction, or something in between, Bill Littlefield spoke with David Haglund, the editor of Browbeat, Slate Magazine’s culture blog and Alan Hirsch, the co-author of The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach To Baseball.
In an article about Moneyball, Haglund wrote, “the numbers are good, but the story is still bunk.” Bill asked him to explain.
“I think Bill James and the sabermetric analysts who followed in his wake had many great things to say and the Oakland A’s were very wise to capitalize on their findings,” Haglund said. “But the story that [Moneyball author] Michael Lewis tells is that these findings turned Oakland into a great contender even though they were spending very little. Really, the truth is that Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, these guys turned Oakland into a contender and they weren’t really the product of Bill James inspired sabermetric analysis. They were generally very high draft picks that other teams also very highly valued.”
Hirsch notes that some basic tenets of sabermetrics, the strategy driven by members of the Society for American Baseball Research, have changed in the past decade. One of those is the idea that stealing bases is too risky to be productive.
“In the last several years, sabermetricians have reversed course on that,” Hirsch said. “Ironically, we now see Billy Beane, who was celebrated for embracing that insight in Moneyball, now putting a team on the field, which is among the league leaders in stealing bases.”
As for whether the A’s can once again find success using the techniques that Beane and his staff have championed, Haglund believes Oakland needs what all small teams need.
“You need some luck in finding some prospects either through the draft or foreign free [agency] that develop into the kind of under-priced stars that they once had,” Haglund said.
Hirsch agrees, noting that several smaller market teams, including Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta, have had similar success with and without a heavy reliance on sabermetrics.
“Small market teams have succeeded throughout baseball history,” Hirsch said. “Moneyball makes it sound like Billy Beane parted the Red Sea. What he did was he led a small market team to a successful run. He’s far from the only general manager who did that.”