Published On: Wed, Mar 7th, 2018

Adapt or die: Why 'Moneyball' won't cut it anymore

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Nearly two decades ago, Michael Lewis helped revolutionize baseball with the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” The premise was bold, but with the benefit of hindsight, the movement appears less like “art” and more like common sense.

At the turn of the millennium, the thought of Moneyball – winning baseball games on a shoestring budget by building a roster of undervalued players – was groundbreaking. It’s no longer audacious to suggest these tenets can change the game. On-base percentage is finally considered a chief element of run creation, as sabermetrician Bill James suggested for years.

The Oakland Athletics‘ Moneyball-era GM, Billy Beane – since promoted to executive vice president of baseball operations and replaced by David Forst – recently quipped about how uneducated he is for the profession he holds compared to his colleagues. “In 10 years, I won’t be qualified to apply for this,” Beane told The Sporting News last season, “because I won’t be smart enough.”

Billy Beane has become the face of the Moneyball era, but could be witnessing its end.

All 30 major-league teams now employ research and development departments. They vary in size and depth, but the playing field is leveling out since the Moneyball revolution. It’s an interesting shift, as the original point of Moneyball was to be ahead of other teams.

Above all else, it’s a strategy that promotes a continuous search for market inefficiencies; finding ways to zig while others zag by acquiring players with an undervalued craft, and staying away from overvalued players.

The competitive edge is lost when teams work off the same rubric, as they appear to have done en masse this offseason.

Instead of the teams with progressive sabermetrics departments continuing to set the pace ahead of less advanced clubs, an equilibrium has been struck, at least in intelligence. This is positive, in theory, because it would seem to usher in a golden age of parity. However, it’s a troubling trend because the dollar rules all once more – not only in fielding a team but in employing the most well-trained statisticians and analysts. Baseball’s luxury tax is functioning like a salary cap, but there’s no such penalty for employing the smartest analysts and paying them more than smaller-market clubs can offer. That, in part, is why six teams reign supreme over baseball while at least three teams – and possibly up to 10 – are pretty openly uncompetitive this year.

So, while Moneyball as a theory promotes finding market inefficiencies where front offices disagree on the most effective and least expensive ways to compete, it has actually created groupthink. And the Athletics are set to enter the 2018 season with a payroll under $60 million. Last time the median MLB payroll dipped below that threshold, it was the year 2000, the Yankees were dynastic, and “Moneyball” wasn’t even published yet.

Michael Lewis is the best-selling author of “Moneyball” and “The Big Short.”

“I’ve had an occasional love-hate relationship with Moneyball,” Stephen Loftus, a former analyst in the Tampa Bay Rays‘ research and development department, told theScore, adding that it has sometimes pigeonholed analytics.

Beane knows it too. “There was a time when we wanted young players, and big-market teams wanted proven players and could afford the cost,” the baseball pioneer said in a recent interview with Dave Sheinen of the Washington Post. “But now, we’re all valuing the same things.”

That thought is penetrating front offices around the league.

“I do think that modern analytics has had a fairly large impact on this offseason,” Loftus said, “but in other ways that people don’t think of right off.

“Mostly, we see the slow offseason and hear that all the teams are valuing players the same way due to the analytics presence. We’ve seen analytics dampening markets for positions/player types before,” the former big-league analyst suggested, elaborating that first base/designated hitter types were the most recent casualty. “But further than that, think about the lost free agents from this offseason.”

Jose Altuve, Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout, Carlos Carrasco, Kyle Seager, and Matt Carpenter, among others, would’ve all been eligible for free agency this offseason if it weren’t for analysts identifying their value. Baseball operations departments would never have signed them to extensions before or during arbitration. So, it’s not as though analysts have suggested a hiring freeze, but investing in in-house players before they reach free agency has become a normal occurrence.

Mike Trout would have been a free agent this winter if he didn’t sign a six-year, $144.5-million extension in 2014.

Of course, for every Altuve and Goldschmidt, there’s a Jon Singleton, Loftus admitted. Despite him not playing a single game in the majors, the Houston Astros handed the first-base prospect a five-year, $10-million contract extension halfway through 2014. However, even though Singleton didn’t pan out – he has posted a .621 OPS over 114 career major-league games to date – a barely eight-figure extension for a 22-year-old poses significantly less risk than a nine-figure overture to someone near or over 30.

“So many factors could be playing into this offseason other than marginal win searching,” said Loftus, now an assistant professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. “The high-payroll teams could be legitimately concerned with the draft pick tax and repeat offender penalties.”

Related: How the latest CBA chilled this offseason’s hot stove

Alternatively, he added, mid-tier teams “may look at the ‘Big 6’ and be hesitant to spend big on players who won’t necessarily push them to the World Series.” He’s alluding, of course, to the juggernaut rosters assembled by the Astros, Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox, and Nationals – teams that top the league in payroll.

Surely, though, this is just the latest hurdle for clubs with less revenue. So what, if anything, can small-market teams do to curb this latest market correction?

“Small-market teams have in many ways been the pioneers of many advances. They’ll have to keep pushing the bounds of player evaluation, player development, and talent identification,” Loftus said, indicating that the poorer clubs have to continue unearthing new ways to evaluate players.

That comes with the caveat, though, that large-market teams are now run by executives previously employed by those small-market clubs who gained the competitive edges. Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations for the Dodgers and former GM for the Rays, immediately comes to mind. This cycle will likely continue to ensure no team holds the information edge for too long ever again.

One of Andrew Friedman’s first moves with the Dodgers was to hire Farhan Zaidi from the Athletics’ front office.

There are other answers as well, though. Part of what has made the Rays so successful over the past few years is their refusal to invest in expensive free agents. Long heralded as a bad use of funds, even big-market teams – the clubs that could afford the risk of exorbitant free-agent contracts in the later years of the deal for immediate present value – avoided spending huge sums on players entering the dwindling years of their prime.

Long heralded as a bad use of funds, even big-market teams – the clubs that could afford the risk of exorbitant free-agent contracts in the later years of the deal for immediate present value – avoided spending huge sums on players entering the dwindling years of their prime.

Of course, if every team does that, bargains will emerge in free agency. For instance, the New York Mets – known for their frugal front office – gave $17 million to Todd Frazier. The third baseman has a 113 OPS+ over the past four seasons while playing good defense, and is coming off the best year of his career by on-base percentage. The small-market Minnesota Twins, meanwhile, invested $16.75 million in Addison Reed, a reliable reliever undervalued because of his lack of saves – a traditionalist stat.

With spring training underway and Opening Day around the corner, Jake Arrieta and Mike Moustakas lead a crop of free agents who are still unemployed. Even Neil Walker (career .341 OBP) was reportedly offered a minor-league contract by the Kansas City Royals – a team with little to no hope of making the postseason or fielding a competitive team in 2018.

None of this is Moneyball’s fault, per se. The strategy’s promotion of finding market inefficiencies still resonates, but the presupposition that the art of winning baseball games has to do directly with a team’s investment strategy on the field is becoming dated. Dollar-per-WAR figures, while useful, tell a story in which a player’s on-field presence is all that matters. It also suggests each win above replacement is valued the same, but a roster of nine players worth 1.0 WAR would be worth much less to a team than one player worth 9.0 WAR.

Grady Fuson, the fictional scout from the film adaptation of “Moneyball” who embodied the arcane knowledge of the game, tells Beane that “baseball isn’t just numbers, it’s not science,” prior to getting fired. In the context of the early 2000s, the scout sounded out of touch with Beane’s plan – the viewer is begged to ask “but what if it is?” in their heads. Now, though, Moneyball is no longer a form of innovation, but a universal language among front-office executives. In other words, it has become the thing that needs to be pushed against.

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