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.


But why isn't the fact that Billy Beane has generated an equal offense on a smaller budget--and a better pitching staff on a smaller budget--the point at issue? To punch above your weight is a very interesting phenomenon, common to the Oakland As and to U.C. Berkeley...


The bugget and the players he is winning with is exactly what the book is about. Sending Tejada to Baltimore because of his salary was a money decision because they needed that money for Chavez. I would say they pay Kotsay much less than Damon and are receiving about the same production. Another part of Oakland systems success is how it has started to penatrate into other organizations like the World Champion Red Sox. I consider this a greater accomplishment then the consistency of winnning teams. A pioneer of the American pasttime is certainly book worthy.

Agent Bones

By the time Moneyball came out and became popular, the market had already begun to correct itself. There is a recent paper by Jahn Hakes and Raymond Sauer, professors of economics that studied the issue...I don't have the link handy, but I remember it used some compelling analysis to show that for a period of time, Oakland was utilizing a niche that other teams weren't exploiting, but that since the value of what they were doing at Oakland was established, the market then corrected for that...

Steve Carr

Professor Levitt, the book is called "Moneyball." It's called that because it's about the intersection of money and baseball. The fact that Billy Beane was able to assemble a team that scored lots of runs while spending significantly less money than other teams that scored lots of runs is not tangential to the argument of the book. It's central to it -- as the title, again, indicates pretty clearly. I honestly don't understand why you persist in offering up such willful misreadings of the book.It's not, in the end, clear to me what you think you're proving with the list of five teams. Any team that successfully scores lots of runs over an extended stretch of time is, almost by definition, going to have a high OBP and a high slugging percentage. Since we all know that the A's were not the only high-scoring team during the Beane era, it doesn't exactly come as a surprise that there are other teams out there that drew lots of walks and hit lots of home runs. The point is that while the Yankees ended up on that list by paying Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield tens of millions of dollars, the A's ended up on that list by drafting and developing great young hitters and by signing guys like Matt Stairs and John Jaha and Scott Hatteberg, guys that other teams thought were has-beens or never-wases, but who turned out instead to be genuinely productive offensive players. That's what Moneyball's about, about understanding that value doesn't always come in obvious packages, and that you can put together a top-five offense while spending significantly less money than other squads.I also would like to see that list from 1999-2002 -- the data set that "Moneyball" was based on -- because I suspect there would be fewer teams on it that look just like the A's.


Steve Carr

By the way, I'd also like to see your list of those "lots of general managers" who have done well over an extended period of time on "small budgets." I'll be very surprised if it isn't a very short list.


I defy you to find me a serious baseball analyst who really thinks that "the way Oakland's offense generate runs is very different from the way other teams generate runs." If you can find a statement anything like that in Moneyball, I'd love to hear about it. I'll even accept an approving comment by someone fairly well known and/or recognized as having some understanding of the game or sabermetric issues involved. Random blog or Internet forum comments such as mine don't count.Others have pointed out that you are disregarding money in this "analysis." This is certainly a valid complaint. I merely point out that you are engaging in rather transparent straw-man-ism.Baseball analysts tend to agree that a combination of power, walks, and batting average tend to combine to create runs, and that (for instance) stolen bases are pretty negligible. Neither Beane nor Lewis has claimed, to my knowledge, to have reinvented offense in the way you suggest, and I doubt many of their fans have either.Unless you can disprove something that people actually think/say/believe, stop pretending to be cleverer than you are.



To me, winners get books written about them, while losers don't. It doesn't necessarily mean the winners had a better strategy - usually they were just lucky.


I agree with everyone who says that Prof. Levitt is posing the wrong issue. The real issue is wins per dollar of player payroll. And the question is whether, by that statistic, the Oakland A's record (over the relevant period) is significantly different (and, if so, by how many sigmas) than the records of all teams in major league baseball (for periods of the same length) going back to, say, 1969 (the year in which the major leagues expanded to 24 teams and began divisional play). All payroll data would have to indexed. But if the payroll data are available, the rest becomes relatively easy. Any volunteers?

robert d

It used to go pack, peck, pick, pock, puck. Something to assist a tyke with his vowels. But with its n-1 degrees of freedom and the possibility that a one to one correspondence would be nonlinear in the betas, well this was just too much. One could start and then finish at different places, depending on such arbitrary things as food and drink, the One would become many, dogma and lemma forsaken, no etiology, a tower of Babel, blasphemy.Snapped out,d

Joe S. Sausage

What correlation exists between winning teams and wurst(sausage)sales?


Hi Steven, Boy you drew some flak above. I just discovered bloggo, but humour is a big part of all this. No need for tight shorts here. Here's a problem for you...eh?


Is this a trick question? When I added up the 1999-2004 runs scored from Baseball Reference & divided by six I get a different answer than teams A to E.Of course, I could have added wrong or something (very possible).


Your first two sentences give you away. You're not serious about any of this, are you? Just ruffling feathers. Clever ruse.I almost fell for it.'...not the point in contention...' is exactly the point in contention.'how Billy Beane did it' should refer to spend player salary money.Question 1) Can't tell. Duh, did you think we should be able to tell? Wrong.Question 2) Do not. Have not. If I did it would be in regards to steals, which is a strategic element.

Atticus Finch

you have waaaay too much time on your hands



You should definitely read the article in Playboy about GM's using stats now. I remember a past article, probably in Maxim, depicting Beane's strategies and how it is revolutionary compared to the old way of picking prospects (such as how fat one's ass is). Anyway, I agree Moneyball's concept is centered around the payroll issue, but as i said, Beane should be ultimately praised for breaking away from older, more speculative manners of choosing future baseball superstars.Don't forget to check out my blog...

J. Cross

Where's the part where you debunk sabermetric myths or at least say something people don't already know?


Is it really a good idea to promote a book about unusual applications of valuation by making poorly conceived attacks on a popular and entertaining book about an unusual application of valuation?


It sounds like a Freud propagation issue; that is, consider that when Psycho came out, it was shocking and successful because pop-psychology and Freudian analysis were not broadly known. Now that Freudian analysis has intruded deeply into the American cultural consciousness, it has become a less-useful analytic tool because of its ubiquity. The same may be said for the managerial style of Billy Beane vis a vis monetary efficiency.Or can it?


Look across the Bay, Beane fanatics. The Giants have followed the exact same path in both salary and OPS. Start looking at the Giants in 1997 and the As in 1999. There is nothing special about what Beane has done compared with other good GMs, just as Levitt said. There was no market weakness to exploit in 1999, by the way. Every team that won 90 games that year had an OPS of more than 100 and the Giants had an even higher OPS than the As. All good teams have a high OPS. But not all teams with a high OPS are good. The worst season the Houston Astros have experienced in the past five years has coincided with the team's highest OPS.Also, everyone is hung up on wins per dollar spent. Another way to look at it is salary as a percentage of team value. In 2004, the As spent about $59 million on payroll, versus $184 million for the Yankees. According to Forbes, the As were valued at $185 million in 2004 and the Yanks at $950 million. So on a percentage basis, the As spent 32 percent of their total value, while the Yankees only spent 19 percent. By this measure, the As were downright profligate!