Money(ball) Get Back…

…I’m alright, Billy, keep your hands off of my stack!

The hot stove punditry universally agrees that the 2010 Athletics will be utterly dreadful.  The Moneyball methodology was so successful, the conventional wisdom goes, and so many other teams are now emulating it to some degree, that the A’s can no longer gain the advantage they once had.  And the other 29 GM’s are allegedly so mortified of being swindled by such a smooth-talking wheeler-dealer super-genius as Billy Beane, that they refuse to even speak with him.  The conventional wisdom could not be more wrong.

Moneyball, the book, was not (and the philosophy still is not) about walks and three-run homers.  It was not about drafting fat, unathletic-looking catchers and mature, blue-chip college pitchers.  It was not about an inherent superiority of objective analysis to subjective judgments.  Many people (primarily those who have not even read the book) seem to have fundamentally misinterpreted the whole idea, creating quite a schism in the church.  Moneyball described how a lower-budget team could, by exploiting inefficiencies in the market, become more competitive on the field.  From about 1997 (when Beane was hired as Oakland’s GM) to 2003 (when Moneyball was published), low-BA/high-OBP guys were the most glaring inefficiencies at the time.

Here we are, seven Opening Days later, and the revolution of the nerds has fully swept over the game.  We may, in fact, be seeing a bubble beginning to grow in the market, in which the stereotypical Moneyball player (high-OPS but few other tools – like those who led the A’s to five playoff appearances from 2000-06) is now over-valued.  OBP and OPS have become mainstream stats, shown on TV broadcasts and stadium scoreboards.  Even the concepts (if not the formulas) of WAR, BABIP, RC, and WPA, so obscure and foreign just a decade ago, are now relatively common knowledge.  The “coolest” new trend is bashing guys like Juan Pierre (led the league in outs a few times, yes, but also in plate appearances) and Jeff Francoeur (a masher just turned 26 – that trade for Ryan Church could end up looking awfully silly).  Did we not learn from the Great Recession that when so many people are so confident in their approach that each one’s bullishness begins to feed off the others’, they may very well be headed for the edge of a cliff?

Once again, it looks like Billy and his staff have recognized the bubble before anyone else, and they are very quietly moving back the other way – toward the vacated corner of the room where the hackers and slap-hitters mill about, lonely and forlorn, more passe than Big Mouth Billy Bass.  They just picked up Kevin Kouzmanoff, who, at first glance, gets on base even less than Francoeur.  But on the road the last two seasons, he was Vladimir Guerrero – .290/.326/.465.  (At home in San Diego he was John McDonald – .224/.274/.386.)  Could park effects still be so underestimated as to create another market inefficiency?  They signed Coco Crisp, who is also not going to lead the league in walks but, when he does get on, is a good high-percentage base stealer.  (Incidentally, why has no one yet tried to encompass stealing in the slash stats?  Add SB to total bases, effectively turning some singles into doubles; subtract CS from times on base, turning a walk/hit into an out.  Too easy, right?)

Defense – that last great statistically insoluble hurdle – has apparently become a focus for the A’s.  Kouzmanoff is now one of the American League’s best third basemen (fourth in UZR/150), and Beane’s willingness to go with the much-maligned Cliff Pennington at shortstop shows the emphasis he’s placing on leather at that position.  (Pennington will also bring some speed and old-school Moneyball plate discipline.)  Very few balls will find the outfield grass between Crisp, Rajai Davis, and Ryan Sweeney.  This should help the young pitching staff, which has already demonstrated an ability to keep the ball in the yard and not issue free passes.  The rotation and bullpen are both populated by relative unknowns but loaded with potential; I wouldn’t be surprised to see several guys break out the way Andrew Bailey did last year.  Their only real power threats are moderate ones at that (and can’t all play at the same time) – Jack Cust, Jake Fox, and possibly a rejuvenated Eric Chavez, the last remaining player from the Moneyball glory days.  So the A’s may struggle to put runs on the board, but I could see them winning a lot of games 3-2 or 4-3 and contending for a playoff berth.  You heard it hear first, folks.

Our collective understanding of the game of baseball has increased so rapidly in just the last ten years or so, if you’re a really passionate and progressive-minded fan it can be difficult to restrain your excitement.  But it is absolutely essential that we keep some small measure of perspective and humility.  The Bill Jameses and Voros McCrackens and Tom Tangos of the world are like Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato.  They invented entirely new fields of thought (for which they should always be respected), but pretty soon their ideas will seem somewhat primitive.  Just as some of the more advanced stats and theories are constantly being reworked, hypotheses affirmed or rejected, sabermetrics will be “erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again.” (OPS, for example, is quickly gaining an aura of perfect verity; I find it disturbing and obsolete.  We know that OBP is about 1.7 X more valuable than SLG, but continue to give them equal weight.)  The Joe Morgans and Murray Chasses of the world are (thankfully) correct in feeling that no formula can ever account for all the variables; there will always be a place for the observations and evaluations of experienced scouts.  But we are undeniably witnessing the early stages of a baseball renaissance, pulling the game out of the dark ages, with Billy Beane still lighting the way.

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One Response to “Money(ball) Get Back…”

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