Eight years ago, writer Michael Lewis spent the entire baseball season with the Oakland A’s. He wanted to see how one of the major league's poorest teams could compete with the rich and powerful New York Yankees. Lewis wrote what he learned in “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”
Lewis says Oakland’s skill at using detailed and often obscure statistics to find winning players at cheaper prices has changed the way major league teams acquire talent.
“It’s gone faster than I imagined it would go,” says Lewis.
“I mean, you gotta remember: when I walked in to the Oakland A’s front office, they had been essentially applying new principles to their franchise for five years – and nobody had noticed. I know they thought it didn’t matter whether I wrote a book or not because they thought since nobody had paid attention so far, no book was going to make any difference.”
At the time, Oakland was in the middle of a streak of eight consecutive winning seasons. Despite one of the lowest payrolls in the big leagues, A’s general manager Billy Beane assembled enough talent during those eight seasons to win an average of 94 games a year; the Yankees, with a payroll that was at least double and sometimes triple what Oakland could spend,averaged 97 wins a year during those same eight seasons.
The “Moneyball” approach looks for players with skills that translate into wins. It downplays batting average and stolen bases and emphasizes walks and home runs. “Moneyball” also values versatile players who can play different positions.
But “Moneyball” general managers are also willing to trade players, no matter how good or how popular, if a statistical analysis shows that another player as good or better is available at a lower price.
Many baseball traditionalists – among them, ESPN baseball analyst Joe Morgan – pointed to Oakland’s playoff failures as proof that “Moneyball” didn’t work. The A's made the playoffs five times during their eight-season streak (2000-2003, 2006) and were eliminated each time.
But Lewis says the Boston Red Sox used “Moneyball” principles to build two World Series-winning teams. In 2005, the Tampa Bay Rays – at the time, baseball’s least successful team – hired 28-year-old former Bear Stearns financial analyst Andrew Friedman as general manager. Three years later, Tampa Bay finished ahead of the far richer Red Sox and Yankees – and made it to the World Series.
Says Lewis, “Once you introduce these really dramatic financial imbalances, once there’s such a thing as a poor team that’s going to be spending some tiny fraction of the money that the rich team is be spending on players, you all of a sudden have an environment where people are desperate to find a better way to do it ‘cause it’s the only way they can compete.”
Lewis says since “Moneyball,” all teams now have a “geek” in the front office who analyzes stats to find talent.
But the “Moneyball” approach isn’t foolproof.
A “Moneyball” tenet in evaluating amateur talent is to value college players ahead of high schoolers. They’re older and more mature so they’ll spend less time in the minor leagues. College statistics are also more accurate so it’s easier to predict whether a player can succeed in the big leagues.
In 2005, the Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta – who evaluated players in Oakland’s “Moneyball” front office – chose Luke Hochevar in the June amateur draft. He was the top pitcher in college baseball that year, putting up a 15-3 record and a 2.26 ERA with the University of Tennessee.
But DePodesta’s contract negotiations with his “can’t miss” college prospect soured. Hochevar went back into the amateur draft the next year; Kansas City chose him with the first pick, and signed him two months later.
The Dodgers had the seventh pick in that draft. By then, they’d fired DePodesta and hired Ned Colletti to be their general manager. Colletti ignored the “Moneyball” caveat against high school players and chose a left-handed teenage pitcher from Texas: Clayton Kershaw.
He has a 13-13 record in two seasons with the Dodgers. But last year, Kershaw’s 2.79 ERA and 185 strikeouts ranked in the top 10 in the National League in both categories. He’ll start on Wednesday for the Dodgers in Pittsburgh.
Hochevar, the “Moneyball” draft pick the Dodgers failed to sign, has pitched for Kansas City for three seasons. So far, his career record is a disappointing 13-26 with a 5.88 ERA.
Michael Lewis’s latest best-selling book is “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” published by W.W. Norton & Co.