Sunday, February 22, 2009

Moneyball Detox

I thought Moneyball by Michael Lewis was a terrific book. I think it was probably a silly idea for Billy Beane to let Lewis into his meetings and stuff so his secrets could effectively be given away, but still. It was a very informative book, and needless to say, it's changed baseball in a big, big way. Now, almost every team is trying to be a Moneyball team, trying to find market inefficiencies and exploiting these inefficiencies to get players who contribute to wins for a smaller cost.

Unfortunately about Moneyball, however, is that most likely the majority of baseball fans missed the point of the book. People say stuff like "MONEYABLL IS GRATE IT TAGHT ME ABOUT OPS AND ON BASE PERNTAGE!!!1" instead of realizing that the book was about how the A's, faced with an economic disadvantage against other teams, successfully used these statistics to exploit inefficiencies in the labor market. While the research about how OBP and slugging percentage correlate more than any other statistic to runs scored is intriguing, people get hung up on those numbers instead of realizing the point of Moneyball.

The Moneyball executives looked for guys who walked a lot and got a lot of extra-base hits while most people were still looking at "traditional" statistics like batting average, home runs, and RBIs. Moneyball executives were looking at numbers while other teams were trusting scouts' eyes, and that was a pretty progressive idea.

But most importantly, the Moneyball executives wanted these guys because nobody else did. There was no market for these players, and the A's could get them cheap. As much as the offensive players got hyped up, guys like Chad Bradford and his 84-mph fastball were just as important to the Moneyball philosophy.

But people caught on. After the publication of the book and the new-found trendiness of sabermetrics, walks become all the rage, small-ball and stolen bases became taboo, and OPS became the end-all, be-all statistic in baseball. (Thanks to Allan Selig's lack of leadership, the home run statistic is now irrelevant.)

Six years later, the secret is still out about OBP, SLG, OPS, and valuing guys who might not put up great traditional stats but walk all the time. While in the time of Moneyball, these guys might have been undervalued, they no longer are. Now all thirty teams--teams rich and poor--are falling in love with ballplayers who draw a lot of walks because of OBP's correlation to runs scored. Ignoring the effects of the declining economy, we have reached the point that people are so nuts about OBP that these guys are overvalued instead of undervalued.

After Moneyball, Billy Beane started to change his philosophies and go "against the book" once again. Instead of drafting nothing but college players in the book, the A's started to draft high school players again. While the book de-emphasized defense, in the mid-2000s the A's turned themselves into a heavily defense-powered team. They even went through a phase when they tried to get the last drop out of 1990s stars like Mike Piazza and Frank Thomas while other teams had already given up on then.

But there have been no best-selling books out about any of those things. So people still love OBP and walks.

Obviously, this biased offer will use J.D. Drew as a perfect example of why there is a serious need for "Moneyball Detox." Drew is a player who certainly displays terrific plate patience and therefore walks a lot. But when you look back and you actually watch the player, it's as if he were trying to walk instead of get hits. Walks are wonderful, but hits sometimes can get you to second base, third base, or (though only 30 times in his first two years) even home plate.

Furthermore, walks don't advance runners already on base. If there's a runner on second with two outs, a single scores him and a walk does very little. Not withstanding the injuries, the inconsistent play, the perceived apathy, and the 190 weak ground balls to the right side, the fact that he seems to prefer to draw the walk to driving the runner home in that situation makes Drew such a frustrating player to watch.

People who take Moneyball as the Bible think that Drew's ability to work a count when not striking out looking is more worthwhile than someone who actively seeks to get a hit instead of just getting on base. Which brings me to the next (and last) point, which I've mentioned in various comments sections:

Kevin Youkilis was a guy specifically mentioned in Moneyball as a guy who worked counts, a guy who might not have great traditional stats and might not have a sweet swing or a good body type, but did have an astronomical OBP. "The Greek God of Walks," six years ago, was the prototypical Moneyball player, with traditional scouts wondering "why do the A's want this guy?"

In 2008, Youkilis walked only 62 times in 145 games. Drew walked 79 times despite his 53 days of paid vacation. What happened to the OBP machine?

He decided that he wanted to get hits. Drive runners in. Move runners along. Hit doubles and home runs. Do what you need to do as a middle-of-the-order hitter, someone that Drew is paid $14 million a year to be. Youkilis finished third in MVP voting, though I believe he should have won. He hit 43 doubles, 29 home runs, and drove in 115 runs--some of which may not have been driven in if he had stuck to his old game, exhibited plate patience, and taken a walk instead of actively seeking a hit. Despite a batting average 24 points higher than 2007, Youkilis's OBP was an identical .390 in 2008.

Drew's OBP in 2008 was .408, and his OPS was only 32 points lower than Youkilis's. We'll ignore when Drew was listed as day-to-day and took six weeks' vacation at the end of the season. On August 17th, was Drew really having anything close to as good a season as Youkilis? The answer, if you look at home runs and RBIs--the stats that have been discarded in the age of Moneyball--you'd say that Youkilis was far better. The answer, if you're a hardcore Moneyball fundamentalist (and there are a lot of them out there) is no. Because Drew walks a lot.

The fact that there are people out there who believe that even without the one big month and two big swings, J.D. Drew has helped this team, is a problem. The fact that there are people out there who don't realize the transformation of Kevin Youkilis is also a problem.

These problems are results of Moneyball, the overreliance on sabermetrics, and people missing the point and falling in love with on-base percentage and bases on balls. That's why Moneyball Detox is necessary. That's why it's something worth thinking about. And worth talking about.

26 comments:

from the bronx said...

gm,

maybe you should write the book.

i actually never read moneyball, but i do plan on getting around to it sometime soon. because i haven't read it, i can't know for sure if i have the right impression, but my sense was that billy beane, as you say, was looking to exploit inefficiencies because he was in a position where he had to exploit inefficiencies. for teams with lower payrolls, the lesson of moneyball is how to overachieve relative to your financial constraints. in some ways, it is a blue print for finding players that can contribute from the scrap heap. am i wrong about this?

of course, these lessons don't really matter if you are brian cashman. if you are brian cashman, you get to create the market inefficiencies that people like billy beane exploit by spending countless millions on players like AJ Burnett and Kei Igawa, or by spending $1 more than the major league minimum on players like Melky Cabrera.

the only thing i would caution you about is that the stuff about drawing walks is more valid then you are giving credit for. as i'm sure you know and remember, the late 1990's yankees were so lethal because they were selfless enough to not swing the bat. they worked counts, drew walks, and got into bullpens early. then they made their opponents pay. not that guys like jeter, tino, paulie, and bernie were not capable of timely hitting, but drawing walks was a big part of those teams.

jflu12 said...

The Red Sox lineup is known for drawing walks and making pitchers work. It always reminds me of Coco Crisp's at bat vs Tampa in the ALCS. Youkilis always comes to mind with having long at bats. I understand Drew takes his little vacations throughout the season and is always complaining about his back or any little pain(he took the day off because of a sore glove hand), but in some pretty intense situations in the ALCS of 07' and 08', he came through for us. He's the highest paid player for this organization which is a mistake, but he seems to so far make the big plays in the big games.

mr.h said...

Good stuff Dv,

You were able to criticize the Moneyball stuff without sounding like an old fool like Dusty Baker. I'm not always the biggest Billy Beane fan, but I'm curious to see how the A's do this year. It seems like they've gone from rebuilding to trying to contend in 6 months again. When will you be ready for playoff predictions?

TimC said...

Great post DV.

Bronx, I think you have a pretty good handle on what Moneyball was all about. A couple of parts I enjoyed a lot; first, when Beane was running around trying to make a deadline deal for Ricardo Rincon and had to find a way to come up with $223,000 to pay for it. $223,000 for a major league team! The other part was about the progressions of Beane and Daryl Starwberry when both were first-round picks for the Mets. A really solid book all-around (and his football book, The Blind Side, was just as good, if not better).

Here is my stance on walks in general; it can be a good thing for a team if players are walk-inclined but too much WALKING does not score RUNS. (It goes the same for free-swingers as well.) My best analogy for walking is like a basketball player who makes too many perimeter passes. Sure, it is a positive thing for a basketball team to move the ball around the three-point arc because it forces the opponent to play defense longer and does not result in a turnover but at some point someone has to score. When a basketball player decides to make a useless pass rather than take an open jump shot or take the ball to the hoop through an opening in the defense then that player might as well take himself out of the game with some bullshit injury.

the gm said...

Bronx,

Definitely worth reading--I've read it two or three times. I feel like the way watching and analyzing baseball has changed since the time of that book--and largely because of that book--makes it necessary to read it. Not reading it would be like not reading the Mitchell Report.

Now that we've both used this comments section to air our respective beefs, I'll acknowledge the importance of walks, and I'm sorry if anything I wrote discounts the walk in such a way that it sounds worthless. The walk is not worthless, and, as you say, working the count and not swinging at the first pitch like Nomar is a great way to get to the Manny Delcarmens and Kyle Farnsworths of the world. As Iverson once said, "I ain't trying to shove that aside like it don't mean anything. I know it's important."

And JFlu, it's a shame that you haven't been here long enough to understand how important that Coco Crisp walk was for me. Probably the one most important baseball moment since the time I started writing here...if not in my entire life. Huge.

As far as Nancy goes, three big swings and a month of June does not offset nine and a half months of just awful, awful baseball and another month and a half of being day-to-day.

H, predictions are going to be soon. We still have a long way to go until the season starts, though.

Tim, on your perimeter passing analogy, just think about who hits behind Nancy in the order. This is like a guy perimeter passing and then having the shot clock go down to 1 when Big Baby or Tony Allen has the ball at like half court. If I go crazy then will you still call me Superman?

from the bronx said...

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/2009/02/22/2009-02-22_pitcher_mark_melancon_springs_up_the_cha.html

I assume most everyone will see it (at least the Yankee fans) but there was a nice feature on melancon in the daily news this morning. he had a great bullpen yesterdy that got mentioned in the piece (pete abe mentioned it on his website yesterday, too).

Pat F said...

great, great post gm. could not agree more. do not worry, it didn't come across like you don't value the walk at all. it came across exactly how you meant it, that the walk is overvalued. it's all about balance, we've totally lost any semblance of balance (going the moneyball way) and that's why you wrote this post. good spot.

my favorite analysis from the math class crowd is "rbi's don't really matter." hmmm. of course, they don't matter *as much* as we once thought they did. and of course, more advanced statistics are much more important than we ever could have imagined. but there is still a balance between these two things. yes, math class can really help us in a lot of ways, and to try to circumvent the importance of math class would also be foolish. but no more or less foolish than ignoring the fact that baseball is still a *sport*. in sports, numbers never tell the whole story. that is true even of the statistics i love the most and put the most weight behind, namely wOBA, OPS+, ERA+, VORP, and value wins. you have to watch the game and take a lot of things into account besides those numbers.

Anonymous said...

DV

This post pretty much covers how I feel about OBP. It's a big stat, but it's not the be-all end-all that people like Rob Neyer and Keith Law make it out to be. The Red Sox have scored a lot of runs over the past six years because they have guys who get on base a lot, but also because they've had guys who were traditional middle of the order mashers. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are simply great offensive players under any analysis. They get on base, they hit for a high average, with a lot of power, and in big spots. It certainly helps that Jerry Remy wasn't batting in front of those guys, but as much as guys like Todd Walker and the 'Horn helped out, Jack Cust and Jeremy Giambi weren't the ones driving them in. You have to have big bats to score runs. Even the Moneyball A's proved that--guys like Chavez, Tejada, Giambi, and even the resurgent 2006 Frank Thomas all had big seasons in Oakland. The idea that a guy like JD Drew could be more valuable than a guy like Andre Dawson is just silly and I think that's what we're all talking about here.

--the Gunn

the gm at work said...

Pat,

The RBI is a perfect example of the Youkilis effect. Moneyball taught us that the RBI is largely a byproduct of having guys get on base before you're up. You can't get RBIs if the people hitting in front of you suck.

However, contrary what the "math class heroes" and those who take the lessons of Moneyball too seriously will tell you, RBI is not a completely worthless statistic. It's not the end-all, be-all, but it certainly can tell you something. Youkilis had 83 RBIs in 2007; 115 in 2008. This is in a season where his walks declined by 15. Is it because he got better pitches to hit? Doubtful. It's because he realized he's a middle-of-the-order hitter and if he doesn't knock those guys in, the next guy might not either.

the gm at work said...

Gunn,

With a slight nod to Billy Madison, are you talking about Andre Dawson 1993 with the Red Sox or Andre Dawson 1983 with the Expos?

I'd probably pick Dawson in either instance.

Patrick said...

anyone who discredits the RBI at more than a 50% clip immediately loses all credibility with me. have great OBP numbers but don't drive anyone in? nice, it takes 3 walks to score someone from first base. it takes one extra base hit to score someone from first base. it takes 2 walks to score someone from second base. it takes one single to do so. just like people who completely discredit batting average. hitting, last i checked, was still a very important part of the game. those who have high averages do a lot of hitting. again, i don't these numbers are the be all end all either. but they do matter, no matter how much the math nerds want to say they don't.

Anonymous said...

DV

Even in '93 you knew Dawson was at least trying, he just wasn't his old self. So, yeah, I'd take either. I like bringing Dawson up, because he gets dumped on for being a low on-base guy. For instance, a lot writers say he should never have won MVP in 1987. That year, he hit 49 HR and drove in 137. That's outstanding and Sox fans would take that in their number 4 guy anytime. However, the detractors point to his .328 OBP that year. Well, the guy also SLUGGED .568 for a total OPS of .896, which is a very good number. He also led the league in total bases. That's a great offensive season and it shows that you don't need to have a great OBP if you hit the ball hard.

--the Gunn

Patrick said...

girardi cancelling today's workout to take the team to play pool and lunch. is this the yankees? wow. good job here by joey g, and sort of pertinent to this threads' conversation. last year, from what we know, girardi worked as hard as you can possibly work in terms of numbers, scouting reports, and more numbers. he knew the abilities/tendencies/etc. of his team and the opponent inside and out. but he had no relationship with his players, no repoire, no feel for the pulse of his own team. baseball isn't an equation, and girardi seems to have learned that. the players were clearly unhappy with his lack of communication and relationship building with them last year (you have to know your players as a coach/manager), and he adjusted. that's what successful people in sports do, no matter what it is they are adjusting too. very good job here outta girardi.

Pat F said...

and the fact that johnny damon, who was directly involved in the incident that caused a number of players to question if girardi was totally off the deep end (3.5 games out of the playoffs, coming off a sweep in anaheim, girardi sits damon, who is leading the AL in batting, the next day. IN MID AUGUST. teams trying to win are not going to take well to that.) is praising the changes girardi is actively trying to make, not just today but on an everyday basis, is a very good sign in this department.

the gm at work said...

He's probably praising Girardi because he hasn't murdered anyone.

Anonymous said...

PF

I don't want to take away from DV's post, but since it appears that talk on this subject has died down, I figured I'd take us off topic and throw out a little NBA.

Just as many Sox fans knew that Julio Lugo was going to be terrible even before he signed with Boston, many NBA fans, and more specifically, college basketball fans knew that Kevin Durant was the best player in the 2007 draft. And yet, Greg Oden was taken first. I still cannot get over this. It's not Bowie over Jordan (because nobody will ever be Michael Jordan) but it's even more severe than Darko over Carmelo. What's worse is that the Blazers have already been through this. Kevin Durant is incredible and he's twenty years old. He's not as well-rounded as Lebron James is, but he has more pure scoring ability than anyone in the NBA aside from Kobe Bryant. And he's 20 years old! He won't hit his prime for another eight years! And think how good and deep Portland would be with Durant. If they had him, they could have traded a guy like Rudy Fernandez with Raef Lafrentz for Amare and the Blazers would trot this line-up out every night: Brandon Roy, Amare Stoudamire, Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Who Cares. Wow.

--the Gunn

jb said...

GM im expecting you to go out and do a similiar thing that you did with coco crisp and take a month off or 40 days off or whatever from insulting them, i dont know who you should do it for but i think it worked out great in relation to coco as you began to actually like the guy so go for it!
not saying it has to be nancy

the gm at work said...

Gunn,

Drew OPSed 31 points higher in 2008 in a season that, I'll admit, wasn't a total disaster unless you consider the six-week paid vacation he took. But it wasn't a good year. And it wasn't an MVP year.

As Pat said, the "math geeks" would absolutely put Nancy's 2/3 of a season close to as good as 2/3 of Dawson's season. What puts Nancy on top for the entire season, though, is because he hit a home run off of K-ROD!!!1111

Your clear disdain for both Lugo and Drew warms my heart, Tommy.

And Oden's a chameleon.

Anonymous said...

DV

JD Drew does one thing very, very well (get on base). Everything else he does average, or below average for a right fielder and yet in some circles he's treated as a top-flight corner outfielder. It's an uninformed opinion.

And yes, big men can sell.

--the Gunn

the gm at work said...

JB,

Giving up ripping Coco Crisp for Lent was the result of an enlightening, life-changing experience that will be addressed in my tell-all book to be released in 2011. There have been no similar incidents that would inspire me to stop bashing anyone else.

So unless I determine that wearing one sleeve (not two) would make a better runner, or unless I come down with a back injury so complex that it defies modern medicine like the MRI, I wouldn't hold my breath for anything like that to happen.

Anonymous said...

Gunn,

Oden/Durant is not nearly as bad as Carmelo/Darko, as Oden will almost certainly be a legitimate NBA starting center, and it's possible he might be an all star center at some point if he can stay healthy.

Darko when healthy is a backup center on a NESCAC team.

Now your point certainly stands. You'd much rather have Durant than oden for the reasons you mentioned, but it's unreasonable comparisons like this that make me wonder if you really have what it takes to be a Streak for the Cash champion.

Danno- great points on the Moneyball issue. People that are successful at running sports franchises have a specific philosophy but also understand they need to adapt it based on the circumstances. You can't just take moneyball logic an apply it blindly to any and every decision, and as the times change maybe your strategy should too. As with anything, you need to find balance in your approach and use common sense.

-Bandi

Anonymous said...

Bandi

You give Greg Oden a lot more credit than I do. Also, you probably aren't giving Durant enough credit. Kevin Durant is a better player than Carmelo Anthony is right now. In five years that difference will be more pronounced. Moreover, Greg Oden can't stay on the floor. He's got bone chips floating around in his knee. He had microfracture surgery last season. He has one leg is longer than the other. Greg Oden is going to be another cautionary tale in the Benoit Benjamin/Michael Olowokandi/Kwame Brown mold. I mean Oden is averaging nine a game. Durant is averaging 26. That disparity will only grow over time.

--the Gunn

Patrick said...

i will only say this tom. i don't remember the exact names, but what i do know is that the 06-07 colby basketball bus was largley me vs. the field in the durant vs. oden debate. a lot of people were very vocal about their "big man" nba argument, which used to be valid, and now could not be further from reality. freak wing/guards are running this league, and have been for the better part of this decade. it just so happens that durant is a freak wing/guard. not surprisingly, i haven't heard much from camp oden, who was ALL OVER ME back then, at all in the last two years. looking back at what each did their freshman year of college, it still baffles me that someone who actually watched the games didn't see this coming with durant (regardless of what you thought was coming for oden). oh well.

what we are seeing right now is barely above durant's BASEMENT. he's 20, he's not fully filled out, and he hasn't fully realized everything he's going to be able to do offensively (though he's pretty close on the last count). and yet we are at 20 per and 26 per for the first season. those numbers without fully realized potential usually spell one thing: SUPERSTAR. could oden (who seems like a nice guy who really wants to do well) be a very good player? you bet. is oden going to be a superstar? i'd say those chances are very slim. durant is going to be a top 10 player in this league for a very long time, and might be the one guy you look around and see right now that could elevate himself into that lebron, kobe, paul, etc. category.

Anonymous said...

Pat

Some people are destined to get their due long after their time. You are one of those people in light of the Durant/Oden debate.

Now, I will say this: a great center is a bigger deal than a great wing player. First, there are more great perimeter players in the history of the game than great centers--centers are an elite commodity. If you look at any team that had a great run, they had a great center or a hall of fame center (Bill Russell/Kareem/Parish/Shaq/Duncan were all centers on teams that won three or more titles. And I don't care what Tim Duncan says, he's not a power forward, he's a center). The exception to that rule is the Jordan Bulls and that's because Jordan is the greatest player of all-time and anyone who argues to the contrary probably owns a lot of musicals on DVD.

Secondly, even with that in mind you couldn't watch Oden in college and say, "WOW, that's the next Shaq/Duncan." It just wasn't there. He was a more agile Roy Hibbert (which isn't saying much) who got more hype for his potential than his production. On the flip side, Durant got hype for his production, which is why he won EVERY National Player of the Year award as a Freshmen.

I'm just glad there were other people out there in 2006-07 who were fighting the same fight I was.

--the Gunn

Anonymous said...

I think it's great that Pat's Kevin Durant gloating has far exceeding any Phil Hughes gloating I ever did, and this is a baseball blog.

But Pat, you are absolutely correct in your assertions. I honestly can't remember where I was on that. Suffice it to say, I was probably on the anti-pat bandwagon simply for the sake of being there, just like that time I gave you a hard time when cheney got twice as much hot chocolate as you at the rest stop for only 25 cents more.

-Bandi

TimC said...

How interesting that this Oden-Durant debate has sprung up on the comment board for the Moneyball post. Just another sports-world example of how the conventional wisdom (draft the big man over the wing player) must be challenged if a team wants to maximize its chances of winning. After all, conventional wisdom can make teams lazy in their decision making and that's where the market inefficiencies pop up.

Regarding Durant v Oden, one thing I recall hearing a lot about leading up to the draft was the ability to re-sign these guys after their rookie contracts were up. Would Durant stay in Portland, it was questioned, when it was pretty clear that Oden's "loyalty" would keep him in Portland if they made the attempt to re-sign him. Maybe it sounds like a silly reason to consider at the #1 spot in the draft but let's all keep in mind what is going on in Cleveland as we speak. Assuming health does not become a factor (HUGE if, of course) would you rather have Oden for 15 years or Durant for 5? It's not an argument I completely buy but I think its worth throwing out there.