"Moneyball" Review: Does It Work?

Robert SkorochockiContributor IJanuary 28, 2009


It’s a term that is used to describe how science and well-spent money can result in more victories. 

When Bill James first wrote his statistical encyclopedia, The Baseball Abstract in 1977, many baseball writers and fans ignored what the now-Boston Red Sox statistician was implying.

According to Michael Lewis, author of “Moneyball,” only about 20 people read the book’s first edition.

James used “sabermetrics,” a term used for closely studying baseball statistics.  Not just any baseball statistics, such as home runs or RBIs.  An example of a sabermetric statistic might be the average number of pitches per at-bat a hitter sees, or the average number of times a player swings at the first pitch in an at-bat.

Most importantly, on-base percentage is the key sabermetrics statistic.

The most famous person to use these statistics in the way he handles his baseball team is Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane.

Beane started to use sabermetrics in the early 21st century as the A’s made the playoffs for four straight seasons from 2000-2003 with a very low budget. 

How low of a budget?  On Opening Day in 2000, the highest payroll belonged to the eventual World Series champions; the New York Yankees with about $92.5 million. Beane’s A’s managed to win four more games than the Yankees in 2000, but with a $32 million payroll.

So if sabermetrics work, which Beane and James have done a great job proving, why don’t other Major League Baseball teams use this asset?

Through the use of sabermetrics, Beane has never won a World Series.  The closest Beane has ever come to winning the World Series was in 2006, when his A’s lost to the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS.

On the other hand, the New York Yankees, the most successful franchise in all of professional sports with 26 world championships, haven’t used the tactics of “Moneyball.” 

The Yankees made 13 straight playoff appearances prior to 2008, including four world championships, by signing and trading for big names such as Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriguez and Bobby Abreu, and mixing them with the products of their farm system such as Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada.

The Yankees system has produced four more championships then Beane’s A’s over the last 13 years.

Another reason teams are not using the “Moneyball” tactics is because it doesn’t solve the problem of putting fans in the seats.

It’s nearly impossible for Billy Beane to sell out his Oakland Coliseum, now McAfee Coliseum, because in reality, it is a football stadium, with a capacity of 63,026.

Besides playoff games, the only time the A’s sold more tickets than they usually do, was on the tail end of their historic 20-game winning streak in 2002.

Next to winning, I believe any owner’s biggest concern is the number of fans that show up to watch their team, because the dollar signs rise as attendance rises.

And signing big name stars like an Alex Rodriguez or a Johan Santana puts fans in the seats.

Another reason most of Major League Baseball hasn’t converted to the “Moneyball” side is because by using “Moneyball,” you create All-Stars.  As these star players develop with your low-budget team, they will be tempted to leave your team for bigger bucks.

Again, let’s use Beane’s Oakland A’s as an example.  Most of the players that he drafted and brought up on his young team aren’t with him anymore.  Miguel Tejada, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, the stars of Beane’s four-year playoff run are all gone.

Low-budget “Moneyball” teams can’t afford to keep their star players once they reach their prime.  Even after the ALCS run in 2006, it seemed entering the 2008 season, Beane once again was rebuilding. 

Proof of this occurred in the Winter of 2007, when Beane dealt young on-base percentage master Nick Swisher to the Chicago White Sox for younger, cheaper prospects in Ryan Sweeney and Gio Gonzalez. 

Swisher was highly coveted by Beane entering the 2002 draft, when he selected him with one of his seven first-round picks.  Now, six years later, as Swisher is blossoming, he let him go. 

On the other hand, in the Empire State, stud shortstop Derek Jeter was drafted by the Yankees in 1992 and will most likely end his career in pinstripes, because Hal Steinbrenner can afford him.

Many baseball purists still don’t believe in “Moneyball” because in reality, it hasn’t won Beane anything except a number of first-round playoff exits.  Beane is quoted in “Moneyball” as saying that after baseball’s regular season the rest is just luck.

He could be right.  An underdog team could catch a 20-game winner on an off-night and win a key playoff game and advance to the next round.  The regular season is 162 games long, a playoff series is five games, seven maximum. 

Beane’s A’s have performed better in the regular season, proving his playoff theory could be correct.

Baseball purists' ideas have been passed down from generation to generation among managers, players, owners, and front office executives.  Changing their ideas to the tactics of “Moneyball” is taking a risk, and it is a risk many organizations don’t want to take.

But maybe they should take that risk.  Despite having baseball’s second-highest payroll for six of the last eight seasons, the Boston Red Sox have won two World Series in five years using some of the “Moneyball” tactics. 

One, they have a poster child for the “Moneyball” player in infielder Kevin Youkilis.  Youkilis made $424,500 in 2007, the fifth-lowest paid player on the Red Sox.  Youkilis is a career .289 hitter, with an on-base percentage of .385.

Not bad for a guy who Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino didn’t know he had in his farm system until Billy Beane inquired about him in a potential trade in 2004.

In addition, owner John Henry hired the statistics guru himself in Bill James in 2003. 

Could James be the mastermind behind Boston’s recent success?