With the release of the Moneyball movie there has been quite a bit of revisiting the A’s of the early 2000s and, for that matter, the A’s and their current rebuilding efforts. One of the narratives that have emerged is that “Moneyball” was a failure. There is nothing that could be further from the truth.
What is often overlooked and is very important is the subtitle to the book. This subtitle, “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” is THE theme of the book, not the focus on the newfangled stats, not the focus on guys who don’t look like professional athletes and not that Billy Beane is some kind of genius.
Baseball is inherently unfair and not just in the sense that it’s an uncapped sport where rich teams can outspend the poor ones, but also in the sense that anything can happen.
The best team doesn’t always win. The best team doesn’t even win an overwhelming amount of the time. If the best and worst teams face off, the best team might only win 65-70 percent of the time. In other sports that number would be much closer to 90 percent.
This is the reason baseball has a 162-game schedule and why it’s so often repeated that the playoffs are a crap shoot.
So the idea that the A’s never won it all and that’s why “Moneyball” is wrong smacks of hubris. Just like the Twins not having won recently despite their run of success doesn’t disprove their methods, Billy Beane had an incredible run where his methods produced some of the best teams in baseball.
From 1999 to 2006 the A’s won 751 games and averaged 93.9 wins a season — an impressive streak in own right but incredible considering the amount of money that they spent on player salaries.
He did this not through brute force of outspending the competition but by outsmarting them by exploiting market inefficiencies. This is not much different than what Tampa Bay has done this year and to a certain extent what Brian Sabean did last year (you’ll have to give me a chance to explain what I mean).
What Beane and his front office number-crunchers exploited was the relative mispricing of on-base percentage and slugging compared to batting. Using this knowledge they built an offense much cheaper and much better than they should have been able to.
In addition, they also took advantage of the high-risk high-reward system known as the Rule 4 draft by minimizing their risk by focusing their high draft choices on college players. This system turned into many of their above average players and the “big three” that gave them one of the best pitching rotations in baseball.
The Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito core that made up their pitching staff produced and astounding 64.8 fWAR in the five full seasons they played together, while earning practically nothing.
This is similar to what the Rays have done recently. They have stockpiled first round draft picks by using the free agent compensation system to their advantage to build one of the best farm systems in baseball. They have a produced a steady stream of young players working for cents on the dollar compared to similarly talented veterans.
Sabean and the Giants also took this route with their excellent pitching staff and best and most important position player. In addition, the Giants also took a near 180-degree stance from the common trend relying on their scouting to find veterans that were abandoned and left as worthless by other teams.
The band of misfits was a collection of veterans all acquired for relatively cheap who produced value much higher than what they were paid. The Giants got a significant boost from guys like minor league journeyman Andres Torres (6.8 fWAR), couldn’t-find-a-deal first baseman Aubrey Huff (6.0 fWAR), had-to-take-a-minor-league-deal Juan Uribe (3.3 fWAR) and cut-midway-through-the-season Pat Burrell (2.9 fWAR).
All of these guys were paid a fraction of what they earned, like the rookies that are celebrated in Moneyball. The Giants winning the World Series was seen as a repudiation of the “Moneyball” way of building a team, but the truth is Sabean just ran different plays out of the same playbook.
The lesson to be learned from Moneyball is not that advanced statistics are the holy grail of building a team, but that if you want to win at this unfair game you have to find and exploit a market inefficiency better than anybody else.