Monday, October 3, 2011

The Myth of Moneyball

If you watched the film, "Moneyball" you would think if you use Bill James statistical theories you can win regardless of money. James' theories are the basis of the alleged Oakland A's success in 2002. James' philosophy is called sabermetrics. And those that follow them call themselves sabermetricians. But is there truth in sabermetrics? If cashed strapped major league teams follow sabermetrics do they get in the playoffs as much as big spending teams or win the World Series as much as big spending teams?

The Church of Bill James 101

Bill James was a guy who developed a different way of evaluating baseball players. "Many of his first baseball writings came while he was doing night shifts as a security guard at the Stokely Van Camp pork and beans cannery." Wikipedia. Here's the basics of sabermetrics. It's basically about getting on base. So if you're a hitter and you get on base a lot, you're a god to sabermetricians.

Let's call sabermetricians "Saberheads."

I'm a Cincinnati Reds fan so I know a little about sabermetricians or saberheads. I call them saberheads because of their religious zeal over Bill James. Saberheads loved former Red Adam Dunn. Why? He got on base. A lot. And sabermetricians will agree with me that Adam Dunn did three things well. He hit homer runs, walked and struck out. Forget the fact that Adam Dunn did not hit for average or hit with runners in scoring position which makes him terrible in the clutch. In fact, his career batting average with runners in scoring position is a horrific .224. Saberheads just loved him for his on base percentage. Adam Dunn might get on base a lot as a Red. So what? You could not depend on him to drive in runs. This type of robotic logic makes Dave Kingman, a Hall of Famer. For those of you who are young, Kingman did one thing well. Forger batting average. He hit home runs. And by the way, in this year of 2011, Dunn's batting average is so bad, I can't believe it. It's an epically terrible .159.

The big problem with saberheads is that they view strikeouts as just another out. Huh? Yeah, if you put the ball in play you might get a double play. But you can't get a hit if you strike out. You can't force an error if you strikeout. You can't drive in a run if you strikeout. They just look at cold statistics in their "religion."

Here's more about why you can't depend on just statistics. When the Reds were looking for bullpen help in 2010, local pundits wanted the Reds to re-sign former Red pitcher David Weathers. He had a very good ERA in 2009 of 3.32. But he also had a poor WHIP in that year of 1.158. So why is it that Weathers' likely last year in baseball was 2009? Because if you used your eyes, you would realize that Weathers' sinker and slider were gone. He got bad to average players out but you couldn't count on him against good players. And frankly, wise baseball GMs saw this. That's why Weathers solid career was finished in 2009.

The Myth of Moneyball

I've looked at how important money is for baseball success in prior story. CNBC has recently done a similar story. Darren Rovell writes in the story that between 2001-2010,

"Of the 78 teams who made the playoffs, 48 of them (61.5 percent) were among the top 10 highest spenders. Eighteen of them (23.1 percent) ranked in 11th to 20th in league payroll. And 12 playoff teams (15.4 percent) came out of the bottom third of payroll.

As for actually winning it all?

Out of the last 10 winners, 60 percent have come from the top third of payroll, while 40 percent came from the middle third. There haven't been any winners from the bottom third over the last decade."

So money is significant if you want win in baseball. And what about the success of the 2002 Oakland A's as depicted in Moneyball? Perhaps the most important facet of the game is pitching. The movie conveniently ignores the three aces that the A's had developed. They were Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.

Today, the Oakland A's have had five straight seasons of non-winning baseball. They're still under the guidance of sabermetrics GM Billy Beane. They just recently finished at a .500 record. Their last playoff appearance was in 2006. So I question whether sabermetrics really works as well as the saberheads thinks it does.

When it comes to evaluating players, statistics are important. But they're not the only tool to use. You've got to use your eyes also. And as far as Bill James as a god like figure, I'll let Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson end this story. According to CBS 60 Minutes, Bill James had commented that Anderson was more lucky than talented. Sparky's response? Sparky called him "a fat little bearded man who knows nothing about nothing."

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