Thursday, July 30, 2009


The poor showing of the Oakland A's has caused people to question whether the "Moneyball" idea is valid. The discussion has even penetrated the lawblog Volokh Conspiracy, where several commenters noted the limitations of the system, even at its best. There were several misunderstood statistical analyses which A's management could capitalize on by picking up undervalued players. They knew what others didn't. What happened since then is that some of the better teams have moved toward those strategies - notably OBP and WHIP - but been able to bid more for players as well. The A's were using 2nd-level money to get 8th-level results, getting them to the playoffs. But they were beaten by teams like the Yankees, spending 10th-level money for 9th level results, and the Red Sox, spending 9th-level money for 10th level results.

But the edge is vanishing. It turns out that OBP, while predicting very well which young players have command of the strike zone and will eventually hit for average and power - think Kevin Youkilis, who was known as the Greek God of Walks in the minor leagues - it is far less useful in predicting what players will do late in their careers - the names JD Drew and David Ortiz might come to mind. (Kudos to commenter Michael for alerting me to this.)

But Moneyball is not ultimately about On Base Percentage, but about finding players undervalued for any reason. In the 1940's and 50's, a person knowledgeable about the Negro Leagues could have assembled a great team of undervalued players. From 1960-2000, knowledge of OPS, outfield assists, and the break-even point for stolen bases would have been a great advantage. What is the next overlooked advantage? The NBA has learned the value of expiring contracts - what's the baseball equivalent?


gcotharn said...

Four possibilities:

1. International scouting and presence. The Rangers are focusing on this as an MLB overlooked area in which the Rangers can exploit an advantage at affordable cost.

The Rangers pre knowledge of young Latin players has allowed them - when they miss out on initially signing a player - to later trade for that young and unproven player while he is still in the low minor leagues. Pre-knowledge of a player's hometown background and amateur talent enabled the Rangers to go strong after trade acquisition of a very young and unproven P Neftali Feliz(came in the Teixeira trade even though he had only 45 innings professional experience at the time), and also a very young and unproven OF Engle Beltre(came in the Gagne trade).

2. Cash liquidity which allows flexibility and agility, i.e. allows aggressive moves around the trade deadline, as well as in the off season. Not all franchises have liquidity, the Rangers being a prime example of a franchise which is currently hamstrung by cash flow problems.

3. More money and attention focused on scouting excellence. The 2009 Rangers have acquired two important relief pitchers off of midseason waiver wire: Darren O'Day and Jason Grilli.

4. More money and attention focused on development, including:
- conditioning and weight training
- development of competitive mental toughness (this is a skill)
- development of life skills - especially for Latin players, but also definitely for all minor league players, to include dealing with media, groupies, unruly fans, agents, finding lodging, nutrition, prudent financial action.

Any of these areas can derail a young career. RP Frankie Francisco's career was imperiled when - in a show of loyalty to a teammate he perceived as under attack - Francisco tossed a folding chair into the stands in Oakland. Had Francisco done this in his native Dominican Republic: no big deal. In the U.S., Francisco found himself in both civil and criminal court, as well as suspended from baseball.

Dave Cornutt said...

I think the next wave in major-league sabermetrics is going to be direct calculation of a player's economic worth. Teams today can calcluate statistics such how much a player costs per hit, or home run, or strikeout. I can see someone like Bill James putting together curves showing the average lifetime cost-per-unit for a spectrum of players, figuring out at what ages the average player is under- or over-valued, and teams will then factor that in to contract proposals. The team's goal is to have a big enough runs-scored-vs-runs-allowed differential to have a high probability of making the playoffs, at the least cost. (As a side effect, this may finally settle, in a way, the age-old question about whether offense or pitching is more important to a team. If increasing runs scored turns out to be significantly cheaper than reducing runs allowed, then teams will spend more on offense, and vice versa.)

The tougher thing for teams will be to figure out how much additional revenue a specific amount of player performance is worth. For example, if a team figures out that a pitcher with a 3.00 ERA brings on average 1,000 more people to the ballpark then a pitcher with a 4.00 ERA, then that will get factored into contract offers.

Moneyball has been a big step forward in putting a more competitive team on the field, within a given budget. The next step is directly coupling performance to cost and revenue, and figuring out exactly how much performance a given amount of dollars can buy.

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