The New Moneyball: How Billy Beane Has Reinvented the Oakland Athletics

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The New Moneyball: How Billy Beane Has Reinvented the Oakland Athletics
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Those that read Moneyball remember it well. There was the case of Scott Hatteberg. Hatteberg moved from behind the dish to first base because he could no longer throw effectively. He could however, draw walks and hit with moderate power. Then there were the collective drafts of Nick Swisher and Jeremy Brown—Swisher you have heard of, Brown you probably haven’t.

The most important points people seemed to draw from the book was that OBP was the most important offensive statistic in baseball and baseball players aren’t supposed to look good in jeans.

Okay, maybe they can look good in jeans, but it isn’t important for them to look good in jeans.

So far, we may be describing a good baseball organization or a modeling agency with a new outlook on life. The release of the "Moneyball" movie will undoubtedly further these ideas and it is only a matter of time before the book is studied in English classes with the accompanying Spark Notes and Cliff Notes.

One of the ideas that seemed to be embedded in the book was that fielding was not particularly important. People might get that impression by paying attention to the passages about Hatteberg. He had never played first before, but the Athletics just threw him in there.

Naturally, that outlook would ignore the hard work that went into preparing him to be a passable first baseman and that he had possessed certain athletic skills that made such a switch a viable option.

In fact, Billy Beane wasn’t so much commenting on fielding as a valuable resource or not, but that it wasn’t undervalued in the market at the time. See, that was the whole point. At the time, OBP wasn’t valued in the market, so therefore most teams were not scouting or allocating resources for it. The A’s possessed both the willingness to look for it and the means to do so.

That combination gave them an advantage in the market. However, that advantage quickly dried up as other teams began to discover that they could improve by focusing on that skill as well. Now, nearly every team in baseball (save for my hometown Astros) are spending valuable resources scouting for and developing this skill.

The point of Moneyball wasn’t about OBP or any other individual statistic. It was about the use of analytical research and thinking to find holes in the marketplace.

While it might appear as if the A’s have run their course in Oakland, Beane is still up to his little bag of tricks. Unfortunately, he is a victim of his own success. Numerous organizations have closed the analytical gap, but he is using his forward thinking mind to find new holes in analysis and he may have found one for the time being.

A quick perusal of his lineup would make you scratch your head a little. Kevin Kouzmanoff doesn’t look like a solid OBP guy, but he traded for him anyway. David Dejesus doesn’t look like that guy either, but Beane brought him in just the same.

Why would he completely cast off the OBP that made him such a rock star in the first place? Well, the answer may become clear in the following chart (numbers since 2007).

 

 

+/-

RS

FG

DWAR

Kurt Suzuki

  ---

----

   -1.0

  1.2

Daric Barton

  +42

+31

  20.1

  1.6

Mark Ellis*

  +51

+38

  37.5

  4.8

Kevin Kouzmanoff*

  +15

+10

  23.1

  5.2

Cliff Pennington

   -18

 -14

   -6.9

 -0.2

Josh Willingham

   -28

 -15

 -13.5

 -1.1

Coco Crisp

  +62

+35

  34.7

  2.6

David Dejesus

    +7

  +4

  14.3

  4.3

Total

+131

+89

108.3

18.4

 

 The first question that comes to mind is probably what these crazy numbers represent. Well, any good analyst is going to look at a number of sources to cover all of their bases. Here we have taken three of the top fielding rating systems in the sabermetric community. The first two come from John Dewan’s Fielding Bible. The first represents plays made above or below the average fielder at that position. The second represents runs saved above or below average. The third stat is similar to the second number but comes from Fangraphs. Finally, we get defensive wins above replacement from baseball-reference.com.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “That’s great Scott, but what does it has to do with the price of tea in China?” Well, I don’t know what it has to do with the price of tea, but it is very important when we start to look at pitching numbers.

Over that same time period, the Athletics have been brilliant in the amount of hits they give up on balls in play. People in the business call that BABIP. The fewer hits you give up, the fewer base runners you have and therefore the fewer runs you surrender.

 

                        BABIP              LG AVG            Rank

2007                .296                  .302                  4

2008                .287                  .297                  3

2009                .302                  .298                  9

2010                .274                  .291                  1

2011                .279                  .286                  4

 

Total                .288                  .296                  1

 

The last number is pretty significant because it is an indication of the way Beane does business. On a long enough time line the survival rate drops to zero. Also, on a long enough time line you will get a much more accurate look at a player.

The same is true of teams. We see individual variability among seasons, but when we project that data out over three or five years we see a lot more stability. The compound factor of superior fielding and a spacious ballpark and the effect is overwhelming. The Athletics had the fewest home runs per nine innings and the lowest home run per fly-ball rate during that same time period.

That combination gave them the lowest ERA and second best FIP in the league during that span despite a walk rate slightly worse than league average. Add in a strikeout rate also slightly below average and you can see the Athletics’ strategy very clearly.

They combine seemingly average or inexperienced—read: cheap—pitching with superior fielding to put forth the appearance of a top-flight pitching staff. While there may not be a silver slugger among the lineup, the hope is that they will scratch out enough runs to be competitive.

Is it a winning strategy? Well, that is debatable. The Athletics have finished .500 or better once since 2007, so the answer would appear to be no. Of course, that also assumes they have the resources to be competitive. A quick look at the average BABIP in the AL demonstrates that teams close the gap quicker than they used to. The A’s might not even be the best team in recent seasons at this particular strategy. They just seemed to go down that road first.

What will the next generation of forward thinking be? It’s anyone’s best guess, but you can bet that Billy Beane will be at the forefront. Who knows, maybe if he moves to a team with resources he might even get a chance to make one of these innovative strategies translate into playoff success instead of just competitiveness. 

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