We now know virtually everything about Moneyball except one thing. Is it real? The book, of course, and the hugely popular movie with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are real, and the legend that’s built around it seems to pervade all of baseball. Scarcely a week goes by without some franchise being credited with successful use of Moneyball statistics, which rely on sabermetrics, statistics associated with SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research.
On March 30 in the New York Daily News, former Oakland executive and current Mets GM Sandy Alderson was referred to as “the Godfather of Moneyball”.
April 1 saw the publication of Tabitha Soren’s Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream with then-and-now photographs of members of the Oakland A’s draft class of 2002, who were Moneyball’s primary focus.
Soren told Newsday: “I completely understand why the sports world associates this book with Moneyball. And I definitely came to meeting [the players] through my husband [Michael Lewis], but after that, in my opinion, it has little to do with that.”
The truth, though, is that without the fame that has attached itself to the Moneyball label, no one would be much interested in what became of the A’s 2002 draft class. The Moneyball brand has become so pervasive that scarcely anyone questions the premises upon which Lewis’s book was based. Let’s review.
In his preface, Lewis wrote: “For more than a decade, the people who run professional baseball have argued that the game was ceasing to be an athletic competition and becoming a financial one. The gap between rich and poor in baseball was far greater than in any other professional sport and widening rapidly.
“At the opening of the 2002 season the richest team, the New York Yankees, had a payroll of $140m while the two poorest teams, the Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, had payrolls less than a third of that, about $40m. A decade before, the highest payroll team, the New York Mets, had spent about $44m on baseball players, and the lowest based payroll team, the Cleveland Indians, a bit more than $8m. The growing disparity meant that only the rich teams could afford the best players. A poor team could afford only the maimed and the inept, and was almost certain to fail. Or so argued the people who ran baseball.
“And I was inclined to concede the point. The people with the most money often win.”
That’s the foundation of Moneyball. But in fact, in 2000, just two years before Lewis and Beane’s Moneyball season, there had never been, in the history of the major leagues, greater competitive balance. For the first time, not a single team finished with a win-loss percentage above .600 or below .400. Stated another way, for the first time, the difference between the best teams in baseball and the worst teams was narrower than it had ever been.
In 2001 and 2002, the Anaheim Angels and the Arizona Diamondbacks, teams from small markets, won the World Series. The Minnesota Twins, despite their modest budget, had two fine seasons, and the New York Mets performed poorly despite spending big.
Lewis – and all those baseball executives whining about how much they had to pay the players – were correct about the widening gaps between the richest and poorest market teams if they meant the difference in payroll. But this didn’t necessarily tally with the state of competition in the field.
If competition did look uneven by the end of the 20th century it was because the mighty Yankees – an organization built in the 1990s on not just the purchase of expensive free agents but also on player development (ie the “core four” of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera) – had won four World Series from 1996 through 2000. But the Yankees had dominated baseball since the 1920s, decades before the era of free agency, which didn’t begin until 1976.
In both 2001 and 2002, the high-salaried Yankees beat the low-salaried A’s in the playoffs. But over those two seasons, the Yankees won 198 games while the A’s won 205. In the end, the A’s just got unlucky in the playoffs. As Beane himself was fond of saying, the playoffs are a “crapshoot”, not a true test of quality.
Before and after the Yankees could outspend teams like the Oakland A’s for the best free agents, the A’s outperformed the Yankees. Beane became Oakland’s GM in 1998. In the previous 26 seasons, the A’s were the biggest winners in baseball, with six pennants and four World Series championships. The Yankees, by comparison, won five pennants and three World Series over that span. Three of those Oakland pennants and World Series titles – 1972, 73 and 74 – came during the reign of their irascible owner Charles O Finley. Then came free agency, which was supposed to wipe teams like the A’s off the baseball map. But Oakland had yet another three-year dynasty from 1988 to 1990, in which they dominated the Yankees and every other American League team, winning three pennants and going to the World Series three straight seasons.
Having the most money has never been a guarantee of winning in baseball. Injuries, bad luck, and poor front-office decisions (manifested by the signing of older and declining players to multi-year contracts) have always been among the reasons that the richer teams don’t win all the time. But not only has baseball over the last half-century been competitive, it has been, contrary to Lewis, far more competitive – not less – than other major sports.
One of the major flaws of Moneyball was pointed out by Sheldon Hirsch and Alan Hirsch in their 2011 book The Beauty of Short Hops. Lewis “distorts the reason for Oakland’s success. The team thrived primarily because of superb pitching. During its turn of postseason appearances, the A’s were second to third in the league in fewest runs allowed, whereas in some of these seasons they finished in the bottom half in runs scored.”
The A’s were led not by obscure, unheralded journeymen, but by three great starters: Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. All were high draft picks who had been well scouted and at no time were regarded as sleepers. Except for a few paragraphs, all three are absent from the pages of Moneyball.
“In a book ostensibly written to explain a team’s success,” the Hirsches wrote, “Michael Lewis treats three dominant pitchers as an afterthought.”
Another reason for the success of Beane’s A’s in the early years of the 21st century is also scarcely mentioned – the left side of their infield. The everyday stars of Oakland’s 103-win season in 2002 weren’t hitters who finished among the leaders in Beane’s favorite stat, On Base Average, but slugging shortstop Miguel Tejada and third baseman Eric Chavez.
Tejada is dismissed by Beane in Moneyball as “Mr Swing-At-Everything.” Well, Mr Swing-At-Everything batted .308 that season. Only he didn’t reach base Beane’s favorite way, via walk, but with hits – of which he had 204. And 34 of those hits were home runs, the main reason that Tejada was the 2002 AL MVP. Chavez also hit 34 home runs in 2002. Together Tejada and Chavez drove in 240 runs, 31% of their team’s RBI total, and hit 33% of the team’s home runs.
These two irreplaceable A’s, both established stars, provided a hugely disproportionate percentage of Beane’s A’s power. But if you look to Moneyball for their story, you’ll look in vain.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of Moneyball – the book, the movie and the legend – is its failure to address the most controversial issue of the decade: performance-enhancing drugs.
The 2001 A’s won 102 games during the regular season and made the playoffs. But nowhere in book or movie is it mentioned that two of their best players – Jason Giambi and Tejada – were later found to be using PEDs. In 2002, the year that most of the book is focused on, the A’s once again made the playoffs, topping their previous season by winning 103 games. Tejada later admitted that he was doping.
Reserve outfielder-third baseman Adam Piatt confessed that he dealt steroids to several A’s players, but except for Tejada, never named names. Is it possible that Piatt was dealing drugs but had only one customer among his team-mates? That certainly seems unlikely.
What seems even more unlikely, though, is that Beane, a former player himself, could not have known what the Mitchell report (Major League baseball’s official investigation into drugs in the game, published in 2007) discovered easily.
And while we’re on the subject of who knew what and when, what exactly did Michael Lewis know? And when did he know it? Miguel Tejada is mentioned 11 times in Moneyball with no reference to any drug use.
Apparently, Lewis still does not know about it, as the subject of the Oakland A’s and PEDs has gone unmentioned in subsequent reprints of Moneyball. Why have Michael Lewis, Billy Beane and the A’s gotten a free pass from the sports media on steroids and other PEDs?
There’s a book waiting to be written on the real lessons of Moneyball. A decade later, it wasn’t the Oakland A’s and OBP or other sabermetrics stats that came to dominate baseball. It was a team that won three World Series in five years with the old-fashioned virtue of great pitching, and Lewis should have spotted them – the San Francisco Giants play only eight miles away.
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