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THE NUMBERS GAME

A Baseball Enlightenment?
By Steve Shymanik

Michael Lewis's Moneyball feels, right now, like the best and most important book about baseball ever written. This may not be quite as hyperbolic as it initially sounds.

Moneyball bucks many long-standing baseball traditions, including the irritating obsession with sappy, Field of Dreams–like nostalgia. A handful of very good nonfiction books have been written about the game, including Bill James's annual Baseball Abstracts, Jim Bouton's Ball Four, and Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer—although the latter, for all its virtues, flirts with a corny lyricism and misty-eyed view of the past. And there are a few scattered examples of fine baseball journalism, including the work of Roger Angell, Jerome Holtzman, and the late, great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. But for the most part, baseball writing is clichÈd and conservative. This is partly because baseball writers are part of the "club." They have a vested interest in maintaining good relationships with athletes, managers, coaches, and scouts. It's telling that only baseball writers are allowed to vote for the Hall of Fame. They are insiders, not objective outsiders.

 

Looking Forward, Not Backward

So why is Moneyball the best baseball book ever written? Because it looks forward rather than backward. Because it is written by an objective outsider and is largely about the ideas of objective outsiders. And because it examines a growing trend that may eventually have as much impact on the game as racial integration, free agency, and globalization.

Rather than glorifying a mythical past, Moneyball identifies common mistakes and misperceptions that have plagued the game throughout its long history. Its impact is being felt on Wall Street, in the corporate world, in economics, in the behavioral sciences, and throughout other team sports. Lewis has been contacted by several NFL teams and has been asked to speak by a number of different organizations on the broader applicability of the ideas discussed in his book.

So if the book is so wonderful, why do I have so many problems with it?

 

Thinkers versus Feelers

Lewis describes a baseball subculture best personified by legendary stats guru Bill James. James and his disciples have identified a way of looking at the game that is analytical, objective, and rational. It is based on sophisticated statistical analysis. These people are Thinkers.

This group is contrasted with the entrenched baseball establishment, an old-boy network of coaches, scouts, and front-office personnel. They assess prospects based on a player's appearance and on "gut feel." They don't carry laptops and they don't crunch numbers. These folks are Feelers.

A gauntlet has been thrown down between the Thinkers and Feelers, between the Jameseans and the Old School. For someone aligned with neither camp, this feels something like the recent presidential election. One is left wondering if there is a viable third-party candidate who hasn't yet come forward to declare his candidacy. It also makes one wonder about the missing link between these two extremes. Is there no middle ground?

 

Why Play the Games?

Lewis uses the Oakland A's and their intriguing general manager, Billy Beane, as his primary example. He has stated that he set out to answer a simple question: How did a team with so little money (the A's) win so many games?

One cannot argue with Beane's success at maximizing regular-season victories with one of the smallest budgets in baseball. From 2000 through 2004, the A's averaged ninety-seven victories and made the playoffs four times. But is that the objective? Is the goal to win the most possible regular-season games? Or should the goal of a professional franchise always be to maximize its chance of winning a championship?

In a survey that Bill James would surely disapprove of because of its small sample size and completely unscientific nature, I asked a number of baseball fans which they would prefer over a ten-year span:

 

(A) a team that is good for all ten years and makes the playoffs several times, but does not win a championship; or,

(B) a team that is bad for nine of the ten years but wins one championship

 

The results were not in the least surprising to me. The vast majority—in fact, it might have been everyone—chose option B. Of course, I asked this hypothetical question from a fan's standpoint rather than from an owner's or general manager's point of view. My results may also be skewed by the fact that I asked people in the Chicago area who tended to be either Cubs or White Sox fans. These people are so starved for postseason success that they are willing to sacrifice almost anything.

But what if I asked the same question of owners and general managers, adding the caveat that profitability over the ten-year span was the same for both options? I'm not sure what the response would be, which is troubling in itself. We know what fans want: championships. What do owners and general managers want? Perhaps for owners it's consistency, minimal risk, and escalating franchise value. For general managers, it's probably to not get fired.

My point is that the Oakland A's, as led by Billy Beane, may have taken an organizational attitude that created an environment that was not conducive to postseason success. As Dale Earnhardt said (at least in the ESPN biopic), "Second place ain't nothing but the first loser." My sense is that Beane and the A's don't feel that way. Second place—or even fourth, fifth, or sixth place overall—is good enough given their small budget.

Courting Lady Luck

We see clear evidence of this attitude in Billy Beane's behavior as described in Moneyball. Lewis writes that Beane, often depicted as a raging maniac during drafts and the regular season, "had been surprisingly calm throughout his team's playoff debacle." When asked why he was so calm, Beane said: "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck."

Huh? Luck? A seven-game series comes down to luck? It's true that any game that involves a ball has some element of luck. But do we hear this complaint in football, a sport in which a team is eliminated from the postseason with one loss? I'm sure Peyton Manning would like to take his chances in a playoff series rather than a one-and-done format. I'm sure that Marty Schottenheimer, that poor soul, wishes his running back hadn't unluckily fumbled at the goal line or that his rookie kicker hadn't unluckily missed a game-winning field goal. But do we hear Peyton or Marty or Bob Stoops crying about luck? No, we don't. Because it's not about luck. It's just the way it is. We cannot eliminate from life or sports all elements of chance. And we wouldn't want to. It's not meant to be purely rational.

Any organizational leader must deal with the realities of his or her business. There is no enterprise that exists in a vacuum of perfection. And it really doesn't matter that luck is more likely to average out over a 162-game regular season than a seven-game playoff series. Perhaps Billy Beane would have liked the games to be played within the sterile confines of an Excel spreadsheet on Paul DePodesta's laptop. But Beane needs to understand that the games will always be played by inherently flawed human beings, outdoors, where the wind blows, with a round ball that takes funny hops. And he needs to understand that organizational attitude and mind-set matter. That comes from the top. If you think the playoffs are about "fucking luck," then you may be setting up your team to lose. It becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, another unscientific notion that Moneyballers would dismiss because it can't be empirically proven.

Lewis writes that "the season ended in a giant crapshoot. The playoffs frustrate rational management because, unlike the long regular season, they suffer from the sample size problem." The sample size problem? Are not we suffering here from a surfeit of rationalism? Shouldn't someone raise a fuss? "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs." Is that the attitude you want from your general manager, from the person guiding your franchise?

 

Beane-Ball Problems

Despite his postseason failures, Billy Beane has already had a significant impact on the game, and the important role he's playing in transforming the sport may not fully be appreciated until time allows us some distance and objectivity. But as is true with many innovators, he may be too willing to disdain and discard traditional methods. He's thrown the baby out with the bath water.

His rational approach has many virtues that are well documented throughout Moneyball. Particularly compelling are the emphasis on a player's ability to control the strike zone and the use of OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) as a better measure of a player's value than batting average, RBI, or other traditional offensive statistics. But many of his methods, while logically unassailable, somehow don't feel right.

Particularly telling is the fact that Beane doesn't like to watch the A's play. He doesn't watch the games because he doesn't want his mind to be fooled by what he sees. He'd rather draw his conclusions objectively by looking at the postgame numbers. This is an interesting application of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that the act of observing something alters the reality of what is being observed. This may be true in physics, but I'm not sure it makes for sound baseball policy.

All sports are a combination of art and science, of feeling and thinking. Moneyball convinces me that for too long baseball has been dominated by the art/feeling end of the spectrum. But in their admirable quest to bring about change, the Jameseans may have swung the pendulum too far the other way.

 

I Know It When I See It

In 1964, the year I was born, the Supreme Court dealt with the difficult issue of what was "obscene" under U.S. law and whether it was protected by First Amendment rights of freedom of speech. Justice Potter Stewart famously tried to explain hard-core pornography, or what is obscene, by saying, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . but I know it when I see it."

I watch a lot of baseball; far too much, according to my wife. I follow the Cubs, God help me, on a daily basis and watch as many other games as my life and my wife permit. So, based on nothing but my own assertion, I state the following: I know good baseball when I see it. Thus, from my unscientific observations, I hold these truths to be self-evident. . . .

 

Managers Matter

It's commonly said that an excellent manager is only worth four or five victories per season, a comment often made in a disparaging tone as evidence that field managers are not critically important. This is patently absurd. Last year, four victories would have made the difference between first and second place in three of baseball's divisions and in the National League wild card race—thus affecting half of the teams in the playoffs. Four more victories for the A's last year (under new manager Ken Macha) and Oakland, not the Anaheim Angels, would have won the AL West.

More central to my point is that Moneyball reveals former A's manager Art Howe as a dugout figurehead. Billy Beane apparently believes that field managers are overvalued and have very little impact on a team's success over the long term. Money-ballers believe that it doesn't make sense to have an organization run by a middle manager—which, they would argue, is what a baseball field manager is. This may initially sound persuasive, but let's take a closer look. I believe this is one place where Beane's purely logical approach results in poor decisions that doom the team to postseason failure. Here is one of several places where sports are simply different from other fields.

Rather than comparing baseball managers to middle managers in the business world, perhaps they are more like troop leaders in the military. Your soldiers better damn well rally behind their leader at crucial moments. Or, if military analogies bother you, consider other fields, such as the arts, where the director of a play or film needs to be able to draw out the best from his talent when it matters most. Would a good studio executive put a vacant figurehead in charge of directing an important film based on the notion that a director is only a middle manager and therefore not critical?

It's abundantly clear that Art Howe was not highly respected, valued, or empowered by the A's front office. So would the players rally around him? Would they raise their level of play against the best competition in the postseason? Apparently not, given the A's failure four straight years in the AL playoffs. The Jameseans would protest that we have a small sample size and cannot draw large conclusions from only four playoff appearances. But it would seem patently obvious to anyone with eyes, anyone willing to actually watch the games, that having an empty void as manager is probably not the recipe for success in the postseason.

As a counterpoint, look at Jack McKeon of the Florida Marlins—the ultimate Feeler who inherited a troubled Marlins team and took them to a World Series championship on a magic carpet borne aloft by confidence, enthusiasm, and a belief in their manager. Did the Beane-era A's have these intangibles entering the playoffs? Nope. Instead they had a manager who was an empty mouthpiece for a front office that believed the playoffs were about luck. Which leads us directly to my second self-evident truth. . . .

 

Statistics Count but Intangibles Matter

Bill James has written of baseball statistics acquiring "the powers of language." It's a beautiful phrase and one I can accept. But maybe other things can also acquire the powers of language—things like the blood on Derek Jeter's face. Remember that game last July when, running full-speed, Jeter dove headfirst into the stands at Yankee Stadium, his body at one point parallel to the ground, to make a remarkable catch of a foul ball hit by Trot Nixon of the rival Red Sox? That play was recorded for statistical posterity as no different from any ordinary pop out in foul territory. But Jeter's remarkable effort inspired his teammates and the fans in attendance. It altered the feel of the game—and the Yankees rallied to win in extra innings.

The true significance of that play cannot be captured statistically. Numbers on a page can no more capture the spirit of a game than sheet music can capture the power and grace and beauty of a live performance.

To bring the point closer to home, let's revisit another remarkable play by Derek Jeter. This one took place during Game 3 of the 2001 American League Divisional Series, with Oakland leading two games to none. Jeter preserved a critical 1–0 seventh-inning lead for the Yankees by ranging way out of position to back up an errant throw and, in one fluid movement, relay a flip to catcher Jorge Posada just in time to tag out the non-sliding Jeremy Giambi. Because this play was made on a two-out double, it not only cut off the tying run but also ended the inning and erased a man from scoring position. The Yankees, of course, went on to win the series.

Had Giambi slid and scored, the A's would have been in good position to take a commanding and likely insurmountable three-nothing lead in the series. But Billy Beane, who probably wasn't watching, isn't concerned about little things like baserunning. In fact, this single example could serve as Exhibit A against several Beane-ball maxims: baserunning is not important, defense is overvalued, clutch play does not exist, and intangibles are for dummies.

Yes, the Yankees often win because they spend more money than other teams. But they also win because they have players like Derek Jeter who run the bases intelligently and hustle to back up plays and dive headfirst into the stands. (And also, I'd argue, because they have Joe Torre—a true leader who commands the admiration and respect of his players.)

 

The Playoffs Are Different

Oakland's approach to regular-season success involves an element of Darwin's theory of natural selection. They get to play numerous games against the Detroit Tigers and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They face full five-man rotations and the dregs of every team's bullpen. In this environment of greater talent variance, the A's are able to capitalize on certain statistical advantages they've cleverly worked into their system.

In the postseason, however, Beane's A's cannot feast on the bottom dwellers of the league. It becomes more difficult, from a Darwinian perspective, to take advantage of others' weaknesses when facing only the top teams and the top players. In the playoffs, teams shorten their bullpens and use only their best starting pitchers—pitchers who typically don't walk a lot of hitters, thus minimizing the advantage the A's gain from their emphasis on patience at the plate.

Further, the A's below-average defense and team speed provide them with little flexibility to make up for the shortcomings of their bullpen. Billy Beane believes that closers are overvalued and somewhat interchangeable. As a result, in the 2002 ALDS against the scrappy Minnesota Twins (under the charismatic leadership of Ron Gardenhire, the anti-Howe), Beane relied on journeyman reliever Billy Koch, who responded with a postseason ERA of 9.00. Again, Moneyballers would object that we have a small sample size. But that's what the playoffs are every year in every sport: the ultimate small sample size.

So Billy Beane's approach to the postseason seems to be this: emotionally withdraw because the playoffs are about "fucking luck"; rely on mediocre closers and poor defensive players; don't run the bases aggressively because risking outs is the worst of all baseball crimes; try to rein in the natural aggressiveness of hitters like Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez; and provide your players with an uninspiring field manager.

Is this a recipe for postseason success? Certainly not. But even more troubling is that it doesn't seem as if the ability to win in the postseason was ever a consideration for the A's. They decided it costs too much.

 

Above All, Watch the Games

Reading over this essay, it seems as if I'm making a case against Billy Beane and the tenets of Moneyball. That's not my intention. I have tremendous admiration for the book and welcome the desire to instill more logic and rationalism into a sport that has been resistant to new ideas for far too long. The book may help usher in an age of Enlightenment for baseball that is long overdue. Baseball has lagged far behind football in the adoption of advanced methods of management and operations.

After the Enlightenment, however, we may need a period of Reformation—a time to blend the best elements of the Old School and the New School. We need to remember that a key element of both the historical Enlightenment and the Jamesean approach to baseball is to question traditional ways of doing things, to ask the tough, uncomfortable questions. But already we're seeing some of the same defensiveness from the Moneyballers that we've seen for so many years from the baseball establishment.

Toward the end of Moneyball, and in a postscript included in the paperback edition which originally ran in Sports Illustrated as a response to the book's detractors, Lewis begins to sound put off and defensive about those who question the sacred tenets of Bill James, Billy Beane, and other like-minded logicians. In an emotional attack on Old Schooler Joe Morgan, who had been critical of the book and of Billy Beane in particular, Lewis claims that Morgan had gone "stark raving mad." It's true that Morgan had some of his facts wrong, including who wrote the book, but was it necessary for Lewis to call Morgan the "Club Social Chairman" and to describe Seattle Mariners General Manager Pat Gillick as the "Grand Poo-Bah of the Raccoon Lodge"?

Now I'll grant you that Joe Morgan may not be a great announcer or an intellectual giant, but I can tell you this: I watched him play. I didn't just look at his statistics, as Billy Beane might have done to avoid having his eyes play tricks on his mind. During the heyday of the Big Red Machine in the mid 1970s, I lived in Louisville, Kentucky—just an hour or so from Cincinnati and home to many Reds fans. I know from simple observation that Morgan played the game with a passion and intensity and general excellence that didn't always show up in the box score. If Morgan were playing today, however, one wonders whether all those intangibles that made him a great player would even register on Beane's statistical radar.

So, for all those stats freaks who worship the objective truth, consider this: Morgan won three World Series rings, was twice named Most Valuable Player, played on one of the greatest teams of all time, and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. To quote an Old School phrase—them's the facts.

—EFQ

—EFQ

STEVE SHYMANIK is a graduate of the University of Illinois and has worked in corporate communications for the past nineteen years. He and his family live in the Chicago area.

© 2005 Steve Shymanik

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