“Moneyball doesn’t work.”
Get used to that phrase, because you’re about to hear it a lot for the next six months. Within hours of Oakland being eliminated from playoff contention by Anaheim, critics of Moneyball and Billy Beane were out in full force, from e-mailers, message board posters, ESPN personalities, and columnists across the country, jumping at the chance to attack the wounded animal that is the Oakland A’s. And trust me, it’s only going to get worse.
The basic thought being expressed by the suddenly voracious critics is that Oakland’s failure to make the postseason this year proves the worthlessness of Moneyball and the silliness behind Beane being thought of as a great GM. Oakland’s failure is, more than anything else, a great way for these same criticisms to be leveled with different “evidence,” since the same people have been saying similar things ever since the book came out, all while Oakland was winning division titles and going to the playoffs.
I’m not here to defend Moneyball as anything more than a very entertaining book. The author, Michael Lewis, presents what is a very enjoyable story, with interesting profiles of people and interesting insights into the ideas that are behind the running of a major-league baseball team. However, it is still a story, complete with some exaggerations and the use of creative license, which even Lewis would likely admit to. Everything in it is not the gospel, it is simply the stuff Lewis, who spent less time with the A’s than most probably think, chose to include in the story he told.
With that said, I will defend the idea that Beane is a very good GM and I will defend the idea that “Moneyball” works, at least if what people mean by “Moneyball” is whatever Oakland has been doing for the past 5-6 years (if you ask a dozen people what “Moneyball” means in this context, you’ll get a dozen different answers). Whether or not the A’s won a series against Anaheim during the final week of the season does not determine if their entire organizational plan works, it simply determines whether or not they made the playoffs in 2004.
Even while missing the postseason for the first time since 1999, what Beane and the A’s do — whether you want to call that “Moneyball” or something else — worked. Consider the details of their season that Beane and the A’s are likely most concerned with: winning and money.
WINS TEAM SALARY Anaheim 92 $101,909,667 Oakland 91 $59,825,167
(Salary data courtesy of ESPN.com.)
The reason “Moneyball” works is that Beane is able to build a team that competes for and, before this year, secures a spot in the postseason, despite a small payroll. The Angels were able to win one more game than the A’s this season, and it was an incredibly important one game, but also worth noting is the fact that Anaheim out-spent Oakland by over 70%, a difference of $42,084,500, in order to get that one extra win.
While Oakland was letting Miguel Tejada and Keith Foulke leave during the offseason, like so many expensive, veteran free agents before them, Anaheim was signing Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar to multi-year, multi-million-dollar contracts. That’s not to say the Angels and their management haven’t done an excellent job, because clearly the Guerrero signing was one of the best decisions made this offseason, but just as the facts are that Oakland is not going to the postseason, the facts are also that Anaheim needed to spend $42 million more than the A’s in order to narrowly beat them.
That monetary angle is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Moneyball. While people talk about fat catchers and not relying on scouts and focusing on on-base percentage (or, as John Kruk repeatedly calls it, “OPS”), the undeniable fact is that Beane spends less than most of the teams he is competing with and, in most cases, is successful at winning a lot of games (90+ in five straight years) and advancing to the playoffs.
This is a perfect example of the “how” versus the “what.” Everyone, from Oakland haters and Moneyball bashers to stat-heads and Beane lovers, have become obsessed with how Oakland has done things with Beane at the helm, when the real story is what they’ve done. Even in a year that will be seen as a failure and a reason for heavy criticism, Beane’s team won 91 games — second-best in their division and fifth-best in the league — with a payroll of $59.8 million, $42.1 million less than what Anaheim used to beat them for a playoff spot. And, for that matter, $65.4 million less than what Boston used to beat them for another playoff spot.
Argue all you want about the how of Oakland, Beane and Moneyball, but you’ll never get past the fact that they win a lot of games with a low payroll, which, at the most basic level, is what the book is about in the first place. In fact, if you pick up a copy of Moneyball and open it up to the very first page of the preface, this is what you’ll see:
But the idea for the book came well before I had a good reason — before I had a story to fall in love with to write it. It began, really, with an innocent question: how did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games?
This season, one of the poorest teams in baseball won 91 games and finished in second place, just one game behind a team that out-spent them by $42.1 million, or some 70.3%. You can argue about the how, just as Lewis did in his book, for as long as you want (and people almost certainly will), but it’s very different to argue with the what.