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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Allen Barra: The ‘Moneyball’ Myth

Alright, alright…so the “SLOBball” movie wasn’t ignatin’ and fell through. But did you have to drag the Hirsch brothers in?

But while the New York Yankees had far more money to spend, the competition on the field was not so lopsided. Baseball had been evolving into a more competitive sport for decades. In fact, 2000 marked the first season in which every team in the league finished between .400 and .600 in won-lost percentage. In other words, no matter how much money was being made or spent by each team, baseball had never been closer to parity.

Even now, a decade later, as the salary gap between big- and small-market clubs continues to grow, baseball is fairer than either professional football or basketball in terms of the number of different teams that reach the postseason and win championships.

...Contrary to the claims made by its devotees, “Moneyball” did not, maintains Alan Hirsch, change the game very much. “Consider Beane’s most revered stat, on-base percentage. In 2002 the American League average was .331, the year before that it was .333. Last season the league’s OBP had dropped to .327, and this year it’s down to .323.

“It’s fitting that ‘Moneyball’ went to Hollywood,” he says. “It’s a great read, but it’s more fiction than reality.”

Repoz Posted: September 22, 2011 at 01:54 PM | 29 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: athletics, books, business, history, media

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   1. Jose is Absurdly Unemployed Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:19 PM (#3933026)
Fish...barrel. I enjoyed this bit of selective end point usage;

in the 26 seasons before Mr. Beane became general manager in 1998, the A's were among the biggest winners in baseball, with six pennants and four World Series victories. The Yankees, by comparison, won five pennants and three World Series over that span.
   2. Tricky Dick Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:28 PM (#3933037)
...Contrary to the claims made by its devotees, “Moneyball” did not, maintains Alan Hirsch, change the game very much. “Consider Beane’s most revered stat, on-base percentage. In 2002 the American League average was .331, the year before that it was .333. Last season the league’s OBP had dropped to .327, and this year it’s down to .323.


I understand that some of the contentions from Moneyball are arguable. But this seems to totally miss the point. I'll skip the fact that overall offense is down in the AL compared to 2002 (slugging is almost 20 points lower than 2002), which raises questions about the validity of the comparison. The market inefficiency point relates to the valuation of OBP by team front offices. If front offices give greater value to on-base skill, that doesn't mean that the average on-base skills of the pool of available players will change--just that teams will be willing to pay or trade more to acquire the players who have that skill.
   3. AndrewJ Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:28 PM (#3933038)
I agree with the sentiments in this comment on the WSJ.com site to Barra's article:

The primary reason behind the number of different clubs winning the World Series is the changed play off system. It allows mediocre teams to make the post season, (by wild card or just being in a lousy division) get hot and give themselves a chance to win it all. St. Louis won 83 games and the World Series in 2006. When only one or even when two teams qualified for the play offs in each league, they wouldn't have been close. And they are talking making even more teams eligible for post season play.
   4. Bob Tufts Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:32 PM (#3933044)
Should someone who does not undnerstand marginal cost and marginal return actually write for the Wall Street Journal?
   5. tshipman Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:34 PM (#3933046)
I understand that some of the contentions from Moneyball are arguable. But this seems to totally miss the point. I'll skip the fact that overall offense is down in the AL compared to 2002 (slugging is almost 20 points lower than 2002), which raises questions about the validity of the comparison. The market inefficiency point relates to the valuation of OBP by team front offices. If front offices give greater value to on-base skill, that doesn't mean that the average on-base skills of the pool of available players will change--just that teams will be willing to pay or trade more to acquire the players who have that skill.


Wouldn't the relevant point be to track the spread of OBP and AVG?

If OBP really was regarded as being more valuable, then it should have decreased less and done so slower than AVG. That seems like a better argument for Hirsch's point.
   6. tshipman Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:38 PM (#3933054)
Following my own advice, according to BBREF, all of MLB hit .264/.332/.427 in 2001.

In 2011, all of MLB hit .255/.321/.399.

It's pretty solid evidence contrary to Hirsch's poor argument. Batting average as a whole has declined 9 points, but OBP has only declined 11. So while hitters lost 9 points of BA, they only lose 2 points of isolated patience. That seems to suggest that OBP is a higher priority than it used to be.
   7. DKDC Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:40 PM (#3933056)
Fish...barrel. I enjoyed this bit of selective end point usage;


In fairness, the beginning of that range (1972) roughly corresponds with the start of free agency.

But this article is mostly nonsense - I especially liked this part:

In fact, 2000 marked the first season in which every team in the league finished between .400 and .600 in won-lost percentage. In other words, no matter how much money was being made or spent by each team, baseball had never been closer to parity.


I'm not going to check, but I'm going to guess that hasn't happened since 2000 either, so it's not really indicative of any trend whatsoever.

The bottom line is that the article main contention of the article doesn't pass a basic smell test. Clearly there is a signficant correlation between team payroll and team winning percentage.

In fact, there is a higher correlation between 2011 opening day payroll and 2011 winning percentage, than there is between 2010 winning percentage and 2011 winning percentage. If you knew nothing about baseball, you'd do a better job predicting W-L records if you only knew each team's payroll than if you only knew each team's winning percentage from last year.
   8. Tricky Dick Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:46 PM (#3933063)
If OBP really was regarded as being more valuable, then it should have decreased less and done so slower than AVG. That seems like a better argument for Hirsch's point.

That may or may not be true, depending on whether on base skills can be modified or are teachable. At the margins, maybe some minor leaguers get promoted or get demoted because of the change in valuation, but I'm not sure enough of those changes occur to significantly change the rate of that skill in the population of players.

I notice that the AL walk rate in 2011 is 8.5%, compared to 8.4% in 2002. I haven't looked at other years to know if that reflects a true increase. It may simply mean that walk rates are distributed in more or less a fixed rate. However, I think it does indicate that the decrease in OBP is due to mostly a decrease in batting average. (Edit addition: batting average was .258 in 2011 compared to .264 in 2002. Note that the denominator for BA is at bats and for OBP is PA, so I'm not sure about the percentage comparision.)
   9. Jose is Absurdly Unemployed Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:52 PM (#3933067)
Even if OBP is down and isolated patience is down that would not prove that OBP is not a matter of focus for clubs. Presumably just as teams have realized that gaining OBP is a positive for their offense they are similarly going to build pitching staffs designed to decrease OBP. Given what we know about baseball statistics over time, they generally regress to a mean so I don't think an emphasis on OBP is going to drive the league average up to .340 for any length of time.
   10. McCoy Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:58 PM (#3933073)
The primary reason behind the number of different clubs winning the World Series is the changed play off system. It allows mediocre teams to make the post season, (by wild card or just being in a lousy division) get hot and give themselves a chance to win it all. St. Louis won 83 games and the World Series in 2006. When only one or even when two teams qualified for the play offs in each league, they wouldn't have been close. And they are talking making even more teams eligible for post season play.

Did they change the playoff structure that they had from the mid 90's to 2000 when it was the Yankees and Braves every year?
   11. Misirlou doesn't live in the restaurant Posted: September 22, 2011 at 02:58 PM (#3933074)
As a Cub fan, I'm puzzled by this OBP you speak of.
   12. Rally Posted: September 22, 2011 at 03:06 PM (#3933080)
At some point, too many walks, and too many homeruns coming from big guys batting in hitter's counts is going to beg for a correction. At some point MLB did revise the strike zone - 2001? 2002? I forget.

I do remember in Moneyball they talked a bit about the A's using an in-house defensive metric, and when they saw how many runs Damon saved it surprised Beane a bit - higher than he thought. Since then they have made quite a few player decisions with the intent to build strong defenses. They could have continued to play guys like Matt Stairs in the OF and gotten walks, power, and bad defense. You can't say he was overpriced, just look at the contracts Stairs got after leaving Oakland. They simply made a choice to go in a different direction.

Strong defensive players are generally not the same players who specialize in drawing walks and hitting homers. In the few cases where the skills are found in one player you've got a superstar on your hands.
   13. RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: September 22, 2011 at 03:08 PM (#3933082)
With no wild card/divisional alignment, here are your playoff teams (if you put ATL and CIN in the East, and CHC and STL in the West. I also put HOU in the East and MIL in the West, so MIL/STL/CHC could be together, but who knows how they'd have it)

2010 TBR vs. MIN, PHI vs. SF
2009 NYY vs. LAA, PHI vs. LAD
2008 TBR vs. LAA, PHI vs. CHC
2007 BOS/CLE vs. LAA, PHI vs. ARI
2006 NYY vs. MIN, NYM vs. SDP/LAD
2005 NYY vs. CHW, ATL vs. STL
2004 NYY vs. MIN/LAA, ATL vs. STL
2003 NYY vs. OAK, ATL vs. SFG
2002 NYY vs. OAK, ATL vs. ARI
2001 NYY vs. SEA, HOU vs. STL
2000 CLE vs. CHW, ATL vs. SFG
1999 NYY vs. TEX, ATL vs. ARI
1998 NYY vs. TEX, ATL vs. SDP
1997 BAL vs. SEA, ATL vs. SFG
1996 CLE vs. TEX, ATL vs. SDP
1995 CLE vs. SEA, ATL vs. LAD

This of course, is with the unbalanced schedule, which we would not have under the old divisional alignment.
   14. McCoy Posted: September 22, 2011 at 03:36 PM (#3933099)
If you knew nothing about baseball, you'd do a better job predicting W-L records if you only knew each team's payroll than if you only knew each team's winning percentage from last year.

Standings according to payroll:
AL East:============Actual========Last Year
Yankees-----------------------Yankees-------------Rays
Red Sox-----------------------Red Sox-------------Yankees
Orioles-----------------------Rays----------------Red Sox
Blue Jays---------------------Blue Jays-----------Blue Jays
Rays--------------------------Orioles-------------Orioles

AL Central:
White Sox---------------------Tigers--------------Twins
Twins-------------------------Indians-------------White Sox
Tigers------------------------White Sox-----------Tigers
Indians-----------------------Royals--------------Indians
Royals------------------------Twins---------------Royals

AL West:
Angels------------------------Rangers-------------Rangers
Rangers-----------------------Angels--------------A's
Mariners----------------------A's-----------------Angels
A's---------------------------Mariners------------Mariners

NL East:
Phillies----------------------Phillies------------Phillies
Mets--------------------------Braves--------------Braves
Braves------------------------Nationals-----------Marlins
Nationals---------------------Mets----------------Mets
Marlins-----------------------Marlins-------------Nationals

NL Central:
Cubs--------------------------Brewers-------------Reds
Cardinals---------------------Cardinals-----------Cardinals
Brewers-----------------------Reds----------------Brewers
Reds--------------------------Cubs----------------Astros
Astros------------------------Pirates-------------Cubs
Pirates-----------------------Astros--------------Pirates

NL West:
Giants------------------------Diamondbacks--------Giants
Dodgers-----------------------Giants--------------Padres
Rockies-----------------------Dodgers-------------Rockies
Diamondbacks------------------Rockies-------------Dodgers
Padres------------------------Padres--------------Diamondbacks
   15. Benji Gil Gamesh VII - The Opt-Out Awakens Posted: September 22, 2011 at 03:59 PM (#3933116)
I'm not going to check, but I'm going to guess that hasn't happened since 2000 either, so it's not really indicative of any trend whatsoever.
It happened in 2007, but that's it.
   16. winnipegwhip Posted: September 22, 2011 at 04:14 PM (#3933129)
In regards to #13:

I have done the same excercise and another factor regarding the Yankees should be considered - if the Yankees weren't involved in the post season in 1996 and 1997 does one think that Joe Torre would have lasted that long under Steinbrenner?

And when looking at the scouting vs. stats argument the list of Atlanta annually on that list also should be noted.
   17. smileyy Posted: September 22, 2011 at 04:16 PM (#3933130)
[13] I remember the good old days of the Reds in the NL West and the Cubs in the NL East. Ah, geography.
   18. Ron J Posted: September 22, 2011 at 04:37 PM (#3933142)
#7 But there's a higher correlation between previous year's winning percentage and opening day payroll and current year's winning percentage and opening day payroll.

And it's nowhere near as strong as it seems to imply. (Or at least it wasn't)

For the 90s opening day payroll explained ~22% of the variation between team's winning percentage. This may have changed -- I haven't checked recently.

Frankly, I think it's evidence that there were inefficiencies out there. It "should" be higher than the mid 40% correlation that I found when I looked about a decade ago.

Though one thing that works against a higher efficiency. Young players as a group are far more cost-effective than those that you can just pay for.
   19. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 22, 2011 at 04:52 PM (#3933151)
In regards to #13:

I have done the same excercise and another factor regarding the Yankees should be considered - if the Yankees weren't involved in the post season in 1996 and 1997 does one think that Joe Torre would have lasted that long under Steinbrenner?


Hell, when the Greatest Team of All Time™ began the 1998 season with a 1 and 4 record (and outscored by 36 to 15), there were all sort of rumors that Torre was on his way out. Lucky for everyone concerned that things picked up a bit after that.
   20. Rants Mulliniks Posted: September 22, 2011 at 05:00 PM (#3933160)
Following my own advice, according to BBREF, all of MLB hit .264/.332/.427 in 2001.

In 2011, all of MLB hit .255/.321/.399.

It's pretty solid evidence contrary to Hirsch's poor argument. Batting average as a whole has declined 9 points, but OBP has only declined 11. So while hitters lost 9 points of BA, they only lose 2 points of isolated patience. That seems to suggest that OBP is a higher priority than it used to be.


Am I being thick or does this not make any sense at all? Wouldn't you expect OBP to decline by less than 9 points in that time period if you were looking for evidence of an increased acknowledgement of the importance of OBP?
   21. spike Posted: September 22, 2011 at 05:16 PM (#3933169)
At this point even I am beginning to wish Billy Beane had never written that damn book if it means this many repetitive lazy articles about the damn thing.
   22. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 22, 2011 at 05:20 PM (#3933173)
At this point even I am beginning to wish Billy Beane had never written that damn book if it means this many repetitive lazy articles about the damn thing.

And your children are going to have to deal with the fact that there are going to be at least a dozen questions about it on next year's SAT.
   23. Jose is Absurdly Unemployed Posted: September 22, 2011 at 05:24 PM (#3933176)
Walk rates since 2000. I thought about using BB/9IP to see if I could make cardsfanboy go crazy but decided against it;

2000    9.6%
2001    8.4%
2002    8.7%
2003    8.5%
2004    8.6%
2005    8.2%
2006    8.4%
2007    8.5%
2008    8.7%
2009    8.9%
2010    8.5%
2011    8.1
   24. DKDC Posted: September 22, 2011 at 05:33 PM (#3933184)
For the 90s opening day payroll explained ~22% of the variation between team's winning percentage. This may have changed -- I haven't checked recently.

22% is actually a huge number, isn't it? I get 21% for 2011.

Let's say I add one more factor and I run a linear regression on 2011 win pct using 2011 opening day payroll and 2009 Baseball America farm system rankings. Doing this, I get an r-squared of 32% for explaining 2011 win percentage.

So, the question is, how much of of a team's winning percentage is actually predictable before the season starts? A substantial portion of the variation is related to injuries, performance in high-leverage situations, trades, signings, fluke performances, etc.

Let's say you constructed a complex model to project the performance of every single player in baseball based on their historical stats and historical aging curves. Then, you plug those players into the expected rosters, project injuries and playing time for each player, and plug in the actual unbalanced schedule for each team. How accurately would that predict win percentages? In PECOTA's case for 2011, an r-squared of 35%.
   25. Kiko Sakata Posted: September 22, 2011 at 05:37 PM (#3933189)
In fairness, the beginning of that range (1972) roughly corresponds with the start of free agency.


Not really. Free agency started in 1975-76 and most important to this comparison, the onset of free agency decimated the Oakland A's, who won World Series in 1972-74 with the reserve clause firmly in place, and then had their team gutted, and contributed heavily to the resurgence of the Yankees, who made 3 straight World Series from 1976-78, winning the latter two, thanks to key contributions from free agents - and, in fact, specifically from free agents who used to be Oakland A's (Reggie, Catfish).
   26. Joyful Calculus Instructor Posted: September 22, 2011 at 05:53 PM (#3933197)
In fact, 2000 marked the first season in which every team in the league finished between .400 and .600 in won-lost percentage. In other words, no matter how much money was being made or spent by each team, baseball had never been closer to parity.


And yet, by 2002, you had 4 100 loss teams and 3 100 win teams. In 2001, you had the team with the most wins in history. And in 2003, you had a team with 119 losses. And the 2004 NL had a 105 win and a 111 loss team.
   27. bigglou115 is not an Illuminati agent Posted: September 22, 2011 at 06:10 PM (#3933210)
Walk rates since 2000. I thought about using BB/9IP to see if I could make cardsfanboy go crazy but decided against it;


I still don't think it matters. The point of the book is about market inefficiencies, so its really about picking out a kind of player from the talent pool. I think it'd take a longer time for selective signing of marginal players (because those are the ones who would get picked up, a good player is a good player) to change the talent pool as a whole, which is what your measuring.
   28. Turfblitz Posted: September 22, 2011 at 06:54 PM (#3933243)
I think if I ran the site, "Moneyball" would be the only word I would nanny.
   29. valuearbitrageur Posted: September 23, 2011 at 08:33 PM (#3934335)
Am I being thick or does this not make any sense at all? Wouldn't you expect OBP to decline by less than 9 points in that time period if you were looking for evidence of an increased acknowledgement of the importance of OBP?


OBP contains BA, i.e. OBP is BA+walk rate, essentially.

So when BA declines 9 pts and OBP only declines 11 pts, it means the walk rate declined only 2 pts, at a much smaller rate than the hit rate.

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