Just a Bit Outside: Moneyball Revisited
In 2003, Michael Lewis wrote a book that changed the way many people — scouts, general managers and fans — view baseball. His book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” told the story of the Oakland Athletics and general manager Billy Beane’s attempt at changing their means of player evaluation to combat the A’s’ small market status. Baseball, unlike other major sports, has no salary cap, and as a consequence, a luxury tax is the only thing precluding big market teams, like the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Yankees, from spending as much as they want. The Dodgers, the team with the league’s highest payroll, will spend almost quadruple what the Milwaukee Brewers, the owners of the league’s lowest payroll, will in the 2016 season. Beane’s Athletics, relegated to Oakland’s small market and having watched young stars like Johnny Damon or Jason Giambi leave for the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees respectively, adopted a new strategy for building his team around players who had been rejected by teams using more traditional player evaluation methods.
Beane and assistant general manager Paul DePodesta — referred to as “Peter Brand” in the 2011 film —chose to use specific statistics to uncover undervalued players. They built their philosophy on a simple strategy: to win games you need to score and to score you need to get on base. Therefore, at a time when most teams considered batting average to be the best metric of a hitter’s success, the A’s sought players who excelled in on-base percentage. Beane considered walks and slugging percentage integral to getting men on base and then driving them in. Beane’s teams, prioritizing outs as the limiting factor in success, did not bunt or steal bases, unwilling to freely give up outs.
This philosophy was initially greeted with intense skepticism amongst baseball traditionalists. Critics claimed that the success of Beane’s A’s was relative to their preseason projections, and to win a World Series, a team could not rely on numbers but on the subjective opinions of scouts who have spent a lifetime in the game.
Flash forward to 2016. Many of baseball’s best teams, including the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs and even the mighty Yankees, are referred to as “Moneyball” teams or “All-In” on the analytics movement.
While Beane’s Moneyball strategy seems to have taking hold in Major League Baseball, pundits generally consider one team a glaring exception. It just so happens that that team is the reigning World Series champions — the Kansas City Royals.
On the heels of the Royals’ first title since 1985, Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star published an article lauding them as “the anti-Moneyball team.” Judge pointed out that the Royals seemed unconcerned with the statistics upon which Beane’s A’s were built. As Judge notes, an examination of the Royals seems to show an utter disregard for those key statistics. The Royals were a slightly above-average team when it came to slugging percentage and terrible when it came to drawing walks relative to the rest of the league. To Judge, these points indicate that the Royals do not subscribe to Beane and DePodesta’s Moneyball theory. He goes on to point out that Beane’s Moneyball teams, while fairly successful in the regular season, have won just one postseason series.
However, to attribute the reigning champion Royals’ success to “anti-Moneyball” is to completely misunderstand Moneyball in the first place. Lewis’ book detailed Beane’s particular stats of choice for evaluating players, but as the book’s title indicates, Beane’s philosophy was not a product of an undying commitment to statistical analysis but of trying to win a game that inherently favors teams with more money to spend. Beane had to devise a way to field a competitive team without the same resources of his competitors. To do that, he had to find players who had been missed by most professional baseball scouts.
For the Oakland Athletics of the early 2000s, finding undervalued players meant using stats like on-base percentage and slugging percentage. However, since then, many teams have adopted this same strategy, and players who excel in these areas are now in demand by big market teams.
Kansas City, relative to other major league cities, say New York or Los Angeles for example, is a tiny market. Like Beane’s A’s, the Royals do not have the resources to draw in marquee free agents. Instead, they built their team around attributes that have become undervalued since the MLB caught Moneyball fever. The Royals targeted hitters who put the ball in play exceptionally often, something other teams seemed unconcerned with at the time.
Most big league teams seem focused on acquiring a dominant starting rotation. Big names like David Price or Cole Hamels were moved at last season’s trade deadline. The Royals even followed suit by acquiring Johnny Cueto after signing his former Reds’ teammate Edinson Volquez six months earlier. The Royals pitching staff was going to be good for sure, but it didn’t have a truly dominant ace. The Royals had no Clayton Kershaw earning an obscene salary. Instead, they built a dominant bullpen, which, as Judge pointed out, could shut the door on any game and put it away if they were given a lead from that potent batting lineup. Whether it was through their hitters or their pitchers, the Royals built their team around assets that were undervalued by other organizations, and those assets won them a World Series.
This success was not a departure from Moneyball — it was an evolution of it. The Royals’ success is proof that Moneyball does work. Just as Beane tried to do in Oakland, the Royals built a roster around players who excelled in areas that defied the conventions of the game at the time. Their hitters weren’t great at getting on base, but they always put the ball in play. Their pitching staff had no one dominant ace, but their bullpen ensured that a late lead in a tight game was always safe. The 2015 Royals are testament to the fact that, just as Beane hoped to prove, despite the inherent unfairness of the game, any team, regardless of available resources, can build a championship roster if they are able to identify baseball’s undervalued talent.