Sunday, August 12, 2007

Moneyball




I must admit, I'm not a huge baseball fan anymore. The Blue Jays lured me as a kid. Fun times watching Speedy Blue Jays Baseball on CBC. Around 2000, the full-time baseball fan of me disappeared. Perhaps I was just a bandwagon jumper all along, or perhaps I found better forms of entertainment. Or perhaps, my interest in professional sports other than hockey dwindled. Whatever it was, I ceased to become a full-time fan - or even a part-time fan. I watch a few innings here and there, and follow the storylines, but the days of 3 hours/day summer commitments are gone.

So what the fuck am I doing reading "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis?

Interest in the business/economic/financial side of sports. Whereas I used to get wet dreams 10 year ago optimistically believing CUJO would lead the Oilers to the cup, numbers became my new passion.

It took a while, but I've found respect for the "number guys" on the Oilogosphere who use a problem-solving scientific approach to the hockey game. There is still a long way to go before it becomes widely recognized, but it will in time, become mainstream in the NHL. Currently, only a handful of teams such as the Minnesota Wild employ full time statisticians.

Anyways, back to the National Best-Seller, "Moneyball."

It's an entertaining book. Many of the strategies and logic used by Billy Beane seem sound and innovative. A guy who willingly challenged the traditional baseball methods (subjective approach) of evaluating talent, in an attempt to win ball games.

Which, he did. At least so in the regular season, objectivity didn't fail him.

There are, however, some criticisms I have about the the book and the Moneyball Approach. Agree, or disagree - feel free to provide your comments

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1) In my opinion, evaluating Moneyball based on the performance of just seven draft picks (and only 1 draft year) is a weak methodology. Billy Beane has been the GM for the A's for 8 years (4 years when the book was released) - his overall draft success should rather be evaluated. Moreover, only 3 out of those 7 become regular ball players. Was he THAT successful?

2) The book failed to expand on Beane's statistical use of evaluating free agents

3) Beane's strategy fails to look at the human element of trading away player. Is it sustainable in the long run?

4) The NY Yankees are an extreme outlier. The author conveniently and too simplistically points out the payroll gap between the Bronx Bomers and the Athletics - but what about all those teams in between who incurred only a marginal higher payroll. What about the success of lower payroll teams like Minnesota, whom contended for the division title?

5) What about the fact the Oakland A's played in division of only 4 teams, the smallest in baseball. Surely, odds are better to begin with.

6) How much alone did the trio of Hudson, Zito, and Mulder play in the success of the A's, rather than the on-base %?

7) By the "average wins per dollar spent" standard, I am sure that there are other teams, including losing teams, that could celebrate their frugality. For example, how much did Atlanta spend per win during this period, and are they the mark for success in the NL (despite the fact that another team has been the NL representative in the World Series in each of those years)? How about Minnesota, including its success in reaching the post-season during these years?

8) Beane's draft seemed to flunk some basic precepts of game theory and economics. Spending a first-round pick on someone no other team is going to pick in the first 10 rounds is overpaying, even if only in terms of opportunity cost, even if the player turns out to be a hidden-gem success. A better strategy would be to draft the BPA , meet the contract demands, and if necessary, trade him to the rich-pockets of the MLB.
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Lewis wrote an entertaining book, but he tended to too often paint things in stark black and white, rather than recognize the shades of Grey.

Last question - is there less of an incentive in baseball to win Championships than any other sport?

1 comment:

Mark said...

I've been reading Moneyball too but I don't believe that hockey will make the move to "Sabermetrics" like baseball has. This is for two reasons, in my humble opinion:
1) The majority of baseball can be reduced to control of the strike zone: as a pitcher or as a hitter. That's to root of most of the statistics: on base percent, slugging average, walks, strikes, pitch count ... all have to do with the strike zone. I don't think you can reduce hockey to one MAJOR area of control.
2) Concievably in baseball, if you have the best positional players at each position, you have the best team, because, even in a defensive role, the players on the team depend on each other so little. However ... in other sports, namely hockey, team chemistry and interdependance are of the utmost importance. How can you statistically analyze those.
What Moneyball is primarily is an allergory for the search for truth. Is truth found in the mind's eye or in cold hard facts. Can we predict the future from some elaborate model? The aritist in me says, no way ... but the "scientician" in me says, of course.