The Forgotten Man Of Moneyball, Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

Modern analysis has shown a whole treasure chest of interesting and often useful performance metrics, but it remains so that the bedrock principle of classic analysis is simple: out-making controls scoring. What I call "classic" analysis is the principles that I presented to the Oakland Athletics in the early 1980s, which governed their thinking through 20 or so successful seasons, and which were dubbed "moneyball" by Michael Lewis in his book of that title. Because of that book, there has arisen a belief that whatever the A's do is, by definition, "moneyball"; with the decline in their fortunes in recent years has come a corresponding belief that "moneyball" is in decline — dead, some would say [1] — because the A's and moneyball are seen as essentially one thing.

That is simply wrong. Analysis is not moneyball, and moneyball is not analysis. "Moneyball," as the name says, is about seeking undervalued commodities. In my day, what I regard as the crucial aspects of run-generation, notably on-base percentage, were seriously undervalued, so "moneyball" consisted in finding batters with those skills.

A team that today sustains one of the lowest on-base percentages in baseball, and actively acquires players with drastically low career on-base numbers, is very obviously practicing a different "moneyball" than that for which it became famed. Today's A's, it seems, see the undervalued commodities as "defense and athletic players drafted out of high school" (as a recent article on the organization put it). These are not your father's A's. What success their new tack will have remains to be seen (their present fortunes are a transition state); but "moneyball" as practiced today by the A's seems no longer to have at its core the same analytic principles that then-GM Sandy Alderson and I worked with a quarter-century ago, and that I presented to Billy Beane in that now semi-famous paper.

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Back then, Sandy was fighting an uphill battle. As a man who had not come up through the baseball establishment, he met quite a lot of entrenched opposition, especially to the ideas of the then-new analysis. He thus kept mostly quiet about analysis, even while using its results to help shape both general approaches and particular decisions. When I had worked for the Giants, I was under express orders to not disclose my relation with the team; with the A's, I adopted a policy of silence on my own, but there were subtle suggestions that that was the way Sandy preferred it. I think almost everybody in the front office (including the Haas family, the owners) knew who I was and what I was doing, but I believe no one at the field level did.

In 1994, Sandy promoted Billy Beane to assistant GM. At the same time, he asked me to prepare an overview of the general principles of analysis for Billy, so that Billy could get in one sitting an idea of the way the organization was looking at talent. In the end, I delivered a report titled "Winning Baseball," with the subtitle: "An objective, numerical, analytic analysis of the principles and practices involved in the design of a winning baseball team." The report was 66 pages long; I still grit my teeth whenever I remember that Michael Lewis described it as a "pamphlet."

Both Lewis in Moneyball and Alan Schwarz in The Numbers Game have reported Billy's reaction to his first reading of "Winning Baseball." Lewis says Beane "experienced — well, he couldn't quite describe the excitement of it." He quotes Beane:

It was the first thing I had ever read that tried to take an objective view of baseball. Something that was different than just a lot of people's subjective opinions. I was still very subjective in my own thinking but it made sense to me.

Schwarz put it in much the same terms: Beanes's "eyes all but popped out of his head when he read it."

The Forgotten Man Of Moneyball, Part 2

One of those two (Lewis, I think) told me that the phrase Billy used to describe his initial reaction was "the scales fell from my eyes." Billy took up the new ideas with, as is now known, considerable enthusiasm. I remember once being in Billy's office when he told me — pointing to a sample copy — that he had had "Winning Baseball" printed up in quantity and distributed throughout the organization, to scouts and minor-league managers and coaches. (That was one of the very few times that either Sandy or Billy ever made clear to me that they were placing more than casual emphasis on the work I was doing for the club.)

My goal in that report, which I seem to have met, was to put the ideas — not the detailed principles, just the ideas — forward in simple, clear language and logical order, so that they would be comprehensible by and reasonable to a working front-office executive. Sandy Alderson didn't need a document like this, then or at the outset, but he was a Harvard-trained attorney; I considered myself to be writing not just to Billy Beane but to any veteran baseball man (which, as it turned out, was just as well).

As I now look back and reflect, I think that possibly the most important thing I accomplished in those years was not so much the actual analyses I did (though I believe they were important), but rather that communicating to baseball people what analysis was all about in ways that made it reasonable and plausible. Despite all the seasons that have flowed by since Rickey and Cook and James, there remains to this hour a great divide, a sort of cultural barrier, between "old-time baseball men" and the so-called "new breed" of analysis users. That pains me, because though the details of analysis can be abstruse and mathematical, the basic concepts, with only a modicum of patience, can be explained even to hostile disbelievers, who disbelieve for the very reason that no one has ever troubled to make those clear explanations to them — at least not in language they speak. Some of the published materials on analysis have been more educational than others, but none that I can recall offhand has ever been aimed at actual working baseball men. Indeed, not a few modern analysts almost brag about the fact that they have never been down on a field or in a front office.

At least in the receptive atmosphere of the Oakland organization of the 1980s, with that report I was able to bridge that cultural gap. I admit that we never tried to take it down to the field level during Tony La Russa's term, by the end of which I was 150 miles away from the Coliseum and not able to visit in person frequently. But it is my firm belief that there are few "old-time baseball men" who could not — unless they were to willfully refuse to listen — be persuaded of the logic and validity of analysis. It is, after all, the way things really work, and its logic is not hard to follow if presented with the idea in mind that the audience has hard-won preconceptions. Selling ideas to interested fans with open minds is a very different kettle of fish from selling ideas to men who have been acknowledged as important experts in their field and who have spent a lifetime acquiring a set of beliefs that they think work well. And the disdain for and sarcasm about such folk found in most books of analysis do nothing to ease the way.

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Re-reading "Winning Baseball" now, after 15 long years and a lot of advances in the field, I am pleased to see that it holds up remarkably well. Throughout the text, I placed in boxed, emphasized text such summary keystone statements as I wanted readers to remember. They were, many of them, quite iconoclastic at the time, though most will today sound quite familiar to anybody who's been paying attention to baseball over the past decade. Things like:

Winning a seven-game major-league baseball series is much more a matter of luck than inherent ability.

There is a definite relation between runs scored and runs allowed over a stretch of games and games won during that stretch.

Young pitchers' arms are easily damaged by extended outings.

Virtually all tactical ploys—the sacrifice bunt, the stolen base, the hit-and-run—operate on average to reduce run scoring.

From Double-A on up, minor-league stats mean just as much as major-league stats.

Trade all players by age 29.

No free agents!

And most important of all, on the subject of roster construction:

NOT ALL GIANTS—
JUST NO MIDGETS.

The only two particular player-personnel matters I can remember ever being asked about by Sandy were an evaluation of Reggie Jackson versus some other old DH possibilities prior to the 1987 season (for what it's worth, I recommended Jackson over the others, and he was the one they signed), and of the defensive play of shorstop Alfredo Griffin (Sandy wanted to get rid of his dreadful bat, but faced a lot of resistance from within the organization on the supposed value of Griffin's fielding), whom the A's did trade away after the 1987 season.

When Sandy left and Billy took over as GM, one of the major changes in my work was an especial emphasis on evaluation of six-year minor-league free agents, Rule 5 draft possibilities and some veteran free agents. Recall that translations of minor-league stats were, at that time, rather arcane matters; Bill James had published a methodology, but few if any other front offices were then (to my present knowledge) doing much in that area. A couple of names that I am particularly pleased to recall are Billy Taylor and Matt Stairs, each of whom I pushed hard for. Seeing their successes was, I must say, immensely gratifying. I certainly didn't have everything my way — the A's despite my continual pleadings, didn't acquire Mike Aldrete till late in his career (a career that could and should have been a lot more distinguished, the next Keith Hernandez, but he had the misfortune to come up at the same time as Will Clark) — but all in all it was rewarding work.

The Forgotten Man Of Moneyball, Part 2

I think the worst thing that happened during that era derived from the growing tension between the front office and the field level. A young man named Doug Jennings, who had outstanding minor-league translations (especially in OBP) was put on the 25-man roster. Tony La Russa apparently took the position that you can force me to have him, but you can't force me to play him. Jennings was on the big club's roster for parts of four seasons, and never accomplished anything; but it is hard to accomplish anything when in four seasons you get 323 plate appearances. A precious few men can still be productive with scant and irregular play, but most cannot (that's an analytic fact). The needless barriers between modern and old-time cost Doug Jennings a career — probably a pretty good career.

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Today, I have retired, both from baseball and from my non-baseball business, but I keep an iron or two in the fire (in fact, I keep far too many irons in). Besides my main baseball site, High Boskage House, I not long ago established another baseball-related site, Steroids, Other "Drugs", and Baseball. As Alan Schwarz put it in his New York Times article on it, "One of the most influential baseball minds of the last 40 years is angry. And he is coming out of retirement to vent." That site can and does speak for itself, but the long and the short of it is that I was, and am, sickened and angered by all the dolts, from senators to sports writers, mindlessly and pompously parroting as fact things about which they know as much as a fish knows about bicycles.

Maybe one of these days I'll desktop-publish a copy of my report to Beane, perhaps coupled with a reprint of The Sinister First Baseman, which folk are constantly inquiring about. Or maybe I'll just re-write the report a little and shop myself around again to some teams. Who knows?

I left the A's in the late 1990s (I forget the exact year). They did not, as The Numbers Game mistakenly put it, "stop contracting" my services. I resigned. Why? It's ironic, all things considered: The team I helped teach how to win on the cheap wasn't willing to pay enough to keep me.

[1] I hear a lot today that "analysis is dead," meaning that its crucial lessons are few and now understood and accepted as a basis for planning by virtually all organizations. What nonsense! The merest glance at even just team on-base percentages (never mind things like Pitcher Abuse Points) should make it blindingly obvious that a good fraction of ball clubs still Just Don't Get It.

That gravels me. I cannot think of another industry in which the uttermost basics of how the product works are a mystery to the people in that industry. There is nothing, to any with IQs much over their hat size, mysterious or controversial about analysis: it's just the way things work, and that's that. Yet a coach on the major-league level (coaching on a team last in all the majors in OPS) can to this hour be found publicly remarking, "You want to see a walk? Go watch a mailman." How is that possible? How can businesses with annual payrolls approaching a tenth of a billion dollars not have any least idea how their business works?

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Eric Walker lives in eastern Washington State. He currently maintains over a dozen web sites, two of which are related to baseball: The High Boskage Baseball-Analysis Web Site and Steroids, Other "Drugs", and Baseball. A full menu can be found at his main web site. He can reached at webmaster@highboskage.com.