Yesterday’s post about Kevin Kernan’s tweet got me thinking. What exactly is Moneyball? It’s been seven years since its publication, and I can’t help but feel like many people have completely missed the point on so many occasions.

In my mind, Moneyball is not a philosophy. It’s not a movement, nor is it a fixed idea. First and foremost, it’s a book. And at it’s root, that’s really all it is.

Author Michael Lewis wrote a story about the Oakland A’s, a baseball team that found success repeatedly despite its limited budget in a sport with great payroll disparities.  Lewis found it curious that this organization was able to compete annually when the prevailing thought was that championships needed to be bought. So Lewis examined the practices of the A’s General Manager, Billy Beane, and found that the A’s were incredibly good at maximizing the resources they had available. And if Moneyball has any lesson at all, that’s it right there. Maximize your resources.

Notice that so far, sabermetrics hasn’t entered the picture. That’s because Moneyball and sabermetrics is not the same thing. The latter is simply one of the tools that Beane and his crew were utilizing to maximize their resources. During the time that Lewis was writing the book, most organizations did not fully comprehend how valuable an out was. Beane recognized that an out was the only finite thing about a baseball game. It’s a sport with no time limit, so no team can run away with a game. There is no limit to how many pitches, hits, steals, strikeouts, walks, or even runs one can see in nine innings. But in a full nine inning game, each team gets only 27 outs to score more runs than your opponent. If a team does not make an out, the inning lasts forever and they score an infinite number of runs.

It’s this recognition that has given on-base percentage greater weight in the past decade.  Because that number doesn’t just show you how often a player gets on base. It shows you how often he does not make an out. While other teams were paying big money for sluggers who racked up RBIs, the A’s were finding players who had strong walk rates because that was a statistic that was more stable from year to year as well as one that the market undervalued. Therefore, the A’s were able to maximize their resources at that time.

Things have now changed. Since that book has been published, the market has caught up. The vast majority of teams are now utilizing the very tools that made the A’s successful, meaning that the cash-laden ballclubs got in on the bidding for the very type of players that Beane used to covet. So in effect, if Moneyball were to be given a sequel today, OBP would be quite un-Moneyball.

And this what I meant when I initially said that Moneyball is not a fixed idea. It’s a story about finding market inefficiencies – something that, by definition, is constantly in flux.  So I have no clue as to what Tony Siegle meant when he said that it’s “a bunch of garbage”, nor what Kernan means by “Moneyballers”. Because signing Aubrey Huff on a one-year $3M deal falls completely in line with Moneyball. Drafting and retaining the likes of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez is also very Moneyball.  Recognizing that playing Andres Torres was a better option than paying for a bigger name is incredibly Moneyball. All of these moves maximized the Giants’ resources.

I do understand why scouts generally tend to dislike sabermetrics. No one likes it when their job security is threatened by the new guy. But I will never comprehend why they, as well as writers and baseball fans, bad mouth Moneyball, which is just a book.  Because if teams ever start foolishly slashing their scouting budgets, it’s the scouts’ turn to be the undervalued tool for success.

3 Responses to “What Exactly Is “Moneyball”?”

  1. One edit needed – strikeout should be removed from “There is no limit to how many pitches, hits, steals, strikeouts, walks, or even runs one can see in nine innings.” As is correctly stated in the blog outs are the only finite thing, so the number of possible strikeouts is therefore limited to 27 per nine innings by default.

    • It’s possible for a player to strike out and still reach base safely, if the ball gets past the catcher. You could have a never-ending series of strikeouts and passed balls, allowing runner after runner to reach base despite swinging and missing at strike three.

  2. There is a video on youtube of a baseball player in Japan striking out but the catcher drops the ball and does not tag him out. The player waits as the other team leaves the field then runs around the bases and scores.

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