Will the Real Billy Beane Please Stand Up!?

Whenever I post on baseball, people get very agitated. So I figured it was time to ruffle a few more feathers.

My contention is that the secret to Oakland’s success has little to do with the things described in Moneyball, such as the emphasis on finding the skills in baseball that are good at producing runs, but not properly valued by the market.

Billy Beane’s devotees (who have been quite vocal in response to my past postings) would have you think that the way Oakland’s offense generate runs is very different from the way other teams generate runs. As usual, my view is that we should let the data speak. I have assembled the average yearly offensive statistics for five American League teams over the period 2000-2004. The statistics are as follows:

Team A…200…0.276…0.348…0.454…0.802…867…1045…591
Team B…222…0.271….0.351…0.450…0.801…865…1022…638
Team C…202…0.264…0.343…0.436…0.778…838…1029…633
Team D…193…0.269…0.341…0.437….0.778…829…1041…575
Team E…159…0.275….0.349..0.422….0.771…828…1022…619

So two questions for baseball fans:

1) One of these five teams is Oakland. Which one?

2) When you compare these statistics, do you really feel comfortable suggesting that the reason that Oakland has been so incredibly successful can be attributed to the fact that they are following a different offensive strategy than other teams that have achieved roughly the same measure of success (as measured by runs generated)?

The fact is that all of these teams are generating runs in almost exactly the same way. Oakland has been successful because they have great pitchers and because they have had good hitters (who look a whole lot like the good hitters on other good teams). Billy Beane may have done it with a smaller budget, but that is not the point that is in contention. Lot’s of general managers do well with small budgets and don’t get best-selling books written about them. The story in Moneyball was how Billy Beane did it, and that story just isn’t an important part of the true explanation when it comes to generating runs.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Levitt et al.,

    Obviously, money is the main issue of the book. Economics is the study of scarcity, without which allocation problems evaporate.

    Your main point is that Beane did not actually follow the strategy outlined in the book to success. You make no statement about the validity of his strategy if he were to follow it. I happen to believe that he did chew out his scouting staff, he did select a fat catcher with good stats, he did pick up a catcher with a bum arm to play first base, he did pick up an underarm throwing relief pitcher, he does draft college players, etc. I think there is enough clear evidence that he does follow a coherent strategy.

    As for the validity of his strategy, I don’t doubt its merits, but I can see how it can be misinterpreted. Most literature I see on the subject focuses on expected number of runs created, with little or no regard to the variance of strategies. Walks and homeruns are great for increasing the expected number of runs scored, just as sacrifices and base stealing are detrimental, because they tend to limit high run innings. But in a close game one or two runs may make more of a difference than a chance for 5. I’m not saying that Beane actually does this, but subscribing to the mantra of walks, walks, walks, may lead to a poor strategy or worse the inability to use a flexible strategy.

    I think everyone here will agree that your debunking of SABRmetrics would be way more interesting than your attempt of taking the money out of moneyball.

    Here’s a sports question of great interest to me. Does the NFL have more parity or just fewer games? MLB has already played more games than the entire NFL season and my WhiteSox have the best record while the Yankees are in last place in their division.


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  2. Randy says:

    Thomas is close to right, it’s wins per dollar of payroll. And the fact that the yankees spend a smaller percentage of their net worth than the A’s is immaterial, the fact is the Yankees are buying the same goods with four times the payroll, so if they are spending their money with equal intelligence the Yankees should have a substantially better outcome over time.

    The only other small market GM who has been successful over a similar period of time to Billy Beane is Terry Ryan of the Minnesota Twins. But he’s not close to as successful as Billy for the following reason. The Twins play in the worst division in all of baseball, where first place averaged 92 wins the last five years. Because of this they play many more games each year against mediocre competition than Oakland does. The average payroll in the central this year is $56m.

    In contrast, the A’s play in a division where first place averaged 100 wins the last five years, in fact, the West 2nd place team was better than the centrals 1st place team three out of the five years. Average payroll this year is $73m.

    Note that when you compare Oakland’s average stats the last five years to it’s division mates, you are ignoring the fact that until this year, Oakland had the smallest payroll by a huge margin. Being able to buy similar OPS (or any other stat) on that budget is impressive.

    Steven, I think you are tilting at windmills here, since Moneyball is an entertaining book, not a provable hypothesis. Even when you try to disprove some of the author’s contentions, you unwittingly help provide support for them. Case in point, you repeatably (and correctly) attribute much of Oakland’s success to their pitching staff, ignoring the chapter in the book that talks about how the A’s focused on College players, esp. pitchers, over high school phenoms because their future performance was easier to predict. The “big three” who were responsible for most of the A’s sucess were all college pitchers drafted based on this philosophy.

    Secondly, Moneyball’s chapters were selected by the author based on how interesting he thought they were. They aren’t meant to document what techniques the A’s use today, just what they’ve done in the past. And the book isn’t clear on what still works and what doesn’t. So it’s really unclear whether there has been an innefficient market in OPS for the last five years at all. Most of what Moneyball writes about was already know to saber friendly organisations in early part of this decade.

    If you want to find an assertion that is more “provable”, try “Billy Beane is the best GM in baseball”. So I would argue the proper way to measure a GM’s performance is some measure of cost per RPI increment. RPI is a power rating that takes into account a team’s opponents win % (as well as it’s opponents win %). It’s a more accurate way to identify good teams than just wins. If you can’t do an RPI, than dollars per marginal win is another (but less accurate) way to measure Billy.

    And you shouldn’t measure a GM based on one year, the most accurate measure should be over his entire tenure, maybe skipping the first year or two at most. Tell me if you want to take stab at this, or if you want me to do some preliminary work on it (assuming someone else hasn’t done it yet) drop me an e-mail at crandyhill@mailshell.com.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    As others have said, these continued posts about the A’s ignoring the financial constraints on the organisation completely miss the point. Would you say a company that makes the same product 20-70% cheaper than its nearest rivals is just doing the same thing other companies do? GMs such as Beane and the (not terribly sabremetric) Terry Ryan who consistently win on small budgets deserve better analysis than this sort of straw man.

    As a result of these blog entries, I’m now not inclined to buy a book I initially had every intention of purchasing. If it is as flawed in its analysis as this stuff, it won’t be worth investing the time to read. Nice job, Prof!

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  4. Although I have never been a baseball fan, the entire subject here is stimulating. Factor in the numbers and an entire world opens up. Thanks for the inspirating post!

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  5. Nick says:

    My thoughts are expressed better by the posters in this thread on your article.


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  6. Anonymous says:

    Professor Levitt will be performing brain surgery tomorrow morning. I’ve read that this procedure could be risky, but he has assured me that he knows what he’s doing and all those silly, agitated doctors don’t know what they’re talking about.

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  7. Scott says:

    i like when very smart people start talking about things they know very little about, and make bad arguements.

    watching them falter reminds me to be more humble about my own arguements, since i’m sure i’ve done the same thing before.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    You are all still wrong about how little the As have spent in the past five years. If you look at any team that has been successful in the past 15 years, they all follow the exact same salary arc. They start at a low point and build up as young players earn more. The As spent less than their competitors in the past five years, but the Giants did the same thing from 1997 on. Look at the facts, please. They are available right here:

    The As formula is this: lousy record for several years, high draft picks, good young players as a result, win with a low payroll until the numbers catch up with you. Then the work starts. There is absolutely nothing new about this, despite any claims that the As got to this point differently. Look at the Braves, Expos, Yankees, Indians, Blue Jays, Tigers, etc.

    In the late 1970s, the Mets did the same thing. They used their high draft picks to obtain the best players in the nation (including Billy Beane). Many of these players panned out (except Beane).

    Obviously Beane did a good job, because Randy Smith wasn’t able to do the same thing with the Tigers in the same span, for example. But what was the market inefficency? The importance of low ERAs and high OPS? What winning team doesn’t have the same thing? Billy Beane is a genius but Pat Gillick was just really lucky?

    So what was unique about Beane’s strategy? Drafting college pitchers? The White Sox have had the same policy in place for years. Using SABRmetrics? The Red Sox have had SABRmetricians on staff for almost a decade, before they contracted with Bill James. Finding underrated players? Luis Sojo and Joe Girardi were really sought after superstars, weren’t they. Looking the other way when players injected themselves with steroids? That’s going on on both sides of the Bay.

    The only market inefficency is there are a lot of really stupid GMs out there and a few really smart ones. Beane is one of the smart ones, but the fraternity isn’t as small as the cult of Moneyball would lead you to believe. And the only market correction is good young players like Tejada came on the free agent market and signed with other teams. This happens in all sports all the time.

    And the idea that throwing money around is all GMs like John Schuerholtz does is absurd. Many teams spend like drunken sailors. Few win like the Braves, Yankees and Red Sox.

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