Since Michael Lewis’ Moneyball came out in 2003 detailing Billy Beane and his strategy as GM of the Oakland A’s, we’ve all heard a lot about the philosophy that changed baseball.
We’ve heard about college scouting, OPS, patient hitting and Sabermetrics. We’ve heard about Jeremy Brown, Nick Swisher, Paul DePodesta and Theo Epstein. Above all, we’ve heard how the way to compete as a small-market team is to focus on players fitting a certain description: high on-base, lots of home runs and low strikeouts with heavy focus on statistics and none whatsoever on aesthetic appeal.
I’ve got some potentially upsetting news: we’ve all been missing the point.
Amidst all our excitement over the statistical baseball revolution, we’ve forgotten what Moneyball was all about: economics. Michael Lewis isn’t a sportswriter or a statistician. He holds a Masters in Economics from the London School of Economics. And at the end of the day, Moneyball (unitalicized intentionally when I’m talking about the strategy, not the book) isn’t actually about OPS or Kevin Youkilis. It’s about exploiting market inefficiencies.
The thing about the scouting strategies featured in Moneyball is that they only work when nobody else is using them. The idea underlying the A’s thinking is that while the Yankees and Red Sox have unlimited resources, you’re doomed to fail by doing the same things as them.
So Billy Beane did something different. While the rest of the league was focusing on average, RBIs and aesthetics, he focused on statistics, particularly OPS. This is exactly what’s meant by exploiting market inefficiencies – figure out what everybody else is missing and take advantage of it. As a result Beane made a living catching quality players who were falling through the cracks.
The trouble is that the rest of the league has caught on. Boston’s Theo Epstein is one of the top supposed Moneyball minds in the game. Noticed lately how Nick Swisher and Kevin Youkilis – the two players most highly touted in the book – are starting respectively for New York and Boston?
Remember the fundamental premise: you can’t succeed as a small-market team by doing the same things as the big-market teams. To compete, you have to do something different. So in today’s culture, where the big-market teams are focusing on traditional Moneyball stats, playing Moneyball doesn’t dictate going after OPS and patience at the plate – it dictates doing the opposite.
That’s what the Toronto Blue Jays have finally figured out this season. They’ve spent the past six years under JP Ricciardi rigidly refusing to scout high school prospects, looking exclusively at traditional Moneyball stats and essentially acting like Billy Beane acted up until 2002. Like the rest of us, they missed the point.
Under Alex Anthopoulos’ new regime, they’ve done the opposite. They’ve doubled their scouting staff, malcontent to rely on a DePodestean computer. Their draft strategy centres largely around high-risk high-school kids with heavy upside. They began the season by trading away the club’s biggest star in exchange for prospects.
And in case you haven’t noticed, they swing at everything. Moneyball told us never to swing at the first pitch. This year’s Jays tell us to swing at the first pitch as hard as you can, and quite often it’s ended up as a souvenir.
I began this article by saying that when it comes to Moneyball, we’ve been missing the point. Well, that Jays caught on. This is the new Moneyball. In 2002, Kevin Youkilis was slipping through the cracks as the baseball universe ignored plate discipline. Today, while the powers that be are preoccupied with plate discipline, players like Jose Bautista and Alex Gonzales slip through the cracks. The Jays are exploiting that inefficiency by focusing on performance indicators largely ignored by the teams with a financial advantage.
The only difference is that the indicators have changed. Looking back on Moneyball, Lewis absolutely argues OPS and plate discipline are better performance indicators. But the claim that they’re better is beside the point – what’s really fundamental about those stats is that given their dismissal by high-budget teams, they’re more economic. That’s no longer the case. In 2002 plate discipline was undervalued, and Billy Beane took advantage of it. Today discipline is perhaps overvalued – the undervalued assets are mechanics, aggression at the plate and high-school upside. Moneyball accordingly dictates focusing on those indicators instead.
Most people will tell you that swinging at everything, scouting primarily in person rather than through statistics and focusing on high-school players in the draft is a sign the Jays are no-longer playing Moneyball. I say it’s a sign they finally are playing Moneyball – or at least that they’re finally playing it properly. Call it the new Moneyball. And it’s working.