Mike Beversluis

Friday, April 03, 2009

Is Moneyball wrong?

What Moneyball Missed - By Adam Fleisher Friday, April 3, 2009

Oakland’s front office sought out the unique statistical analyses popularized by the then-obscure baseball writer and analyst Bill James. James, as Lewis tells it, thought that baseball players’ talents were being measured incorrectly. For instance, teams insisted on “scouting” players by watching them on the field, as opposed to mining as much data as they could. Failing to scour the numbers was ridiculous because, as James put it, “the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter [i.e. good versus mediocre]. . .is one hit every two weeks.” Building on these types of insights, the A’s front office determined that baseball’s talent pool was an inefficient market. And as would be the case with an inefficient equity market, there were bargains to be had. In Lewis’s story, the A’s were winning because they were good at buying undervalued assets.

The rest of the league overpaid based on measures commonly used to determine the worth of baseball players (such as runs batted in and batting average) and so-called intangibles like “clutch hitting,” which Beane colorfully referred to as “f***ing luck.” They simultaneously missed, ignored, or simply did not believe in mundane qualities like walks and on-base percentage—qualities that the A’s thought could produce wins. Oakland even found inefficiencies they could exploit on the field. The team would not waste outs on things like bunting, stealing bases, or the hit-and-run; the data showed that these tactics were “either pointless or self-defeating.”

The only problem was that Lewis’s explanation for the A’s success was the same as Commissioner Selig’s—the team was an aberration. Since “most every other team looks at the market pretty much the same way,” as Lewis explained, if every team tried to exploit these same inefficiencies, then no team could. The market would correct, and the most valuable players—i.e. the players with the attributes most likely to produce wins—would be bought by the wealthiest teams. The championship would be for sale again.

But it isn’t. Moneyball missed something. That something is known as the reserve clause.

The author is arguing here that the reserve clause, which gives a team exclusive rights to its young draft picks, allows them to underpay these players, and that it is this that enables "Moneyball" teams to pay so much less for their wins compared to the Mets or Mariners. Which is partly true for the Mariner's circa their very winning 2001-2003 seasons, when they had Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro for cheap.

He has a point, except that the same misguided statistics that the M's used, for instance, to evaluate their terrible terrible free-agent signings go along with the prejudices they use to evaluate high-school and college players. And it's not just a question of ERA and Saves vs OBP and FIPS, but teams still vastly overpay for offensive stats versus defense. Measuring defense is still tricky, but models to quantify a players defense are now being developed, and when they are properly used by teams to evaluate and sign players, there are still large market inefficiencies that can be exploited by poorer teams.



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