Moneyball is a phrase that spun into existence because Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics use analytics to turn baseball on it’s head. See through the use of that awful thing called math you could use averages, on base percentage and any number of other things to produce wins simply by a player producing based on past behavior. In addition if you could teach him percentages to increase those numbers you looked for, even better. It’s a cold, calculating practice that leads to trades that leave fan bases scratching their heads. If you’re an A’s fan, save your money on a player jersey and just go with the player tshirt because you never know when Billy is going to go all Billy! Money ball has done nothing to help the game though. It’s only pushed forward the belief that you can win in a small market you just have to approach the game in a different way…nonsense. But we’ll get into that in a few minutes. Video games have two horribly damaging features, the ability to spend like you don’t have a set amount you can spend. Also you can force trades. Why does this hurt? It causes fan bases, media and I believe some owners and executives to believe that if you’re in New York, Boston, LA, or any other big market, you should be able to literally field any team you want to, cost and future be damned. Ah but all we’re really doing is avoiding the biggest part of the problem, the lack of a salary cap and floor.
A unique thing about baseball is that ball parks are unique. Meaning from park to park the game has to be played differently. Boston alone has an entirely different offensive and defensive strategy from any in either league. This is the first thing that proves problematic with moneyball. Just because a player’s statistics say he’s going to be “this guy” it’s largely going to be based on his home parks and divisional parks (the places he’s played the most). No different with pitching. This means though the statistics will be close they won’t be exact. The other thing is recognizing the law of diminishing returns. Players age and with that their skill set can deteriorate. That deterioration can cause percentages to slip and slide with age. The problem is, with most small market teams they simply don’t have the money to cover up these mistakes. Often times causing a GM to dump an asset. With advanced analytics being used by both big and small market teams you very often find yourself dumping players for less than they’re “worth.” (Worth being very subjective when discussing moneyball).
Large market teams have a huge advantage for plenty of reasons, but the affordability of a ball player is the most important chip they have, and they know it. Arguably the best bat on Oakland’s team, Yoenis Cespedes, was traded by Oakland this season for the rental of Jon Lester, who only pitched 11 games for Oakland, he won 6. Now on the open market he’ll demand a mega-contract one that the A’s won’t be able to pony up for. Meanwhile Cespedes will be in Boston through the end of the ’16 season. They’ll get conservatively 350 games out of Cespedes, for the use of Lester for 11. This is the hoop that a small market team has to jump through to cover up a mistake, the mistake for the A’s this season? Their pitchers didn’t perform to the numbers that the A’s needed. They didn’t underscore their opponents in enough games. They needed to upgrade the top of the order, and they did. And don’t be fooled by the 6 wins, Lester pitched more good games than bad, the A’s just fell apart. But this illustrates how moneyball can work to a point. You just have to be perfect. And math also can’t account for luck. Ask Billy Beane if there was anybody he would have rather had up at the end of the wildcard game than the 0-5 catcher Salvdore Perez. And he did exactly what they wanted him to, a ground ball but it was a foot wide and an inch to low for the third baseman to swallow it up and send him to the dugout.
All moneyball has done is tricked the world into believing that the lack of a salary cap and floor hasn’t done anything to hurt the sport. It allows teams to “trick” their way into the playoffs and keep the truth from being as obvious. It’s something that works in baseball because of the overwhelming ability to make adjustments and get percentages back to where they need to be. Over the course of a 162 game season your statistics will usually ring true. Problem is a best of 5 or 7 series the statistics over a season or a career don’t matter anymore, the only stats that matter are that day or days. Ask Mike Trout what his .287 average, 36 home runs and 111 RBI’s got him in the playoffs? I’ll let you know it got him a .083 average, with 1 HR and 1 RBI…they lost in 3 games. See that game so built on statistics and probabilities and “being a marathon” comes down to a 100 meter sprint at the end. And so the talent ends up winning. Make no mistake, the Royals were one of the two best teams in the country this year. That run was no fluke. Defensively they very well may have been the best team. But while this would be the start of a 5 to 7 year window in the large markets where the cornerstone players would be kept in tact and added to, the Royals have already lost their ace and their DH. They’ve got a cautious eye to the future to determine which of their young studs they’ll be willing to part with and which they’ll attempt to resign (there’s not guarantee there). That would not be an issue if the Royals were rocking pinstripes, they’d keep who they wanted to, no doubt about it.
So until there is fundamental change in baseball you’ll continue to hear about things like moneyball and whatever the next fad variation of analytics is, and occasionally one of these small market teams will catch lighting in a bottle and win, and maybe win it all. But gadgets, smoke and mirrors and trickery will be figured out eventually and money will fill the deficiencies these magicians exploited and you’ll go back to what you really are a little guy trying to play with the big boys. And if you think I’m full of it, ask Chris Peterson why he left Boise State to coach Washington…simply put hooks and ladders and statue of liberty plays might get you a Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma once, but probably not again. And they’ll simply figure out a way to keep you from getting the talent you need if you don’t have the means to compete with the big boys you’ll lose.