Moneyball – The Concept, The Book, The Movie

Moneyball the concept is often considered the fusion of economic thinking and sports. However, we can assume that owners have always attempted to maximize profit, and winning is not necessarily the only way to do it. The Yankees just signed Derek Jeter for three years at about $15 million per year. Is he worth it? On the field, no. In the retail stores? Probably.

Moneyball isn’t just the attempt to maximize profit—that’s been going on for years—it’s the attempt to maximize wins with a scarcity of resources. Wins often lead to more fans and more money, but it’s not always a strong relationship. Just ask the Rays. Tampa Bay went into its last game of the season—a playoff elimination game of sorts—facing the Yankees, and Tropicana Field was somehow only 82% full. A similar game for most teams would pack the house.

Why so empty? Try naming the Rays lineup. Here’s what I got: B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Casey Kotchman, Sean Rodriguez…and honestly, I can’t name Tampa Bay’s catcher, shortstop, right fielder or left fielder off the top of my head.(Five minutes later: Oh right, Sam Fuld actually plays center, so Upton must play a corner outfield position.) What about Boston? Easy peasy. Varitek/Saltalamacchia, Gonzo, Pedroia, Scutaro, Youkilis, Ellsbury, Reddick and Crawford. Tampa Bay won one more game than Boston, but I can only name five of its starting position players.

I’m sure Boston’s principal owner, John Henry, wants to win. Hell, he’s paying statistically-inclined people like Bill James and Theo Epstein to help him do it. But Boston has enough money to think beyond winning. The Sox can throw money at an aging Carl Crawford and take a stab at Japanese phenoms like Dice-K. For rich teams, maximizing profit and maximizing wins often coincide, and shooting for either goal independently will probably work out. For Tampa Bay? They can’t even afford players whose names we can remember.

Tampa Bay and its $41-million payroll is this decade’s version of the Moneyball A’s. The Rays spent $450K per win, the least of any Major League organization. The Yankees and Red Sox spent the most—2.1 and 1.8 million bucks, respectively. Only two of those teams will be playing in October.

Time out. Rewind to 2003, to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, in which the author followed Billy Beane for a season recording the ups and downs of being a forward-thinking GM with relatively few resources to work with. The Oakland Athletics did not win 301 games in a three-year stretch by throwing darts at pictures of five-tool athletes hanging on the wall…blindfolded. They followed a logical process of team creation, and optimized that process with the given resources. The focus was on the process.

When we get caught focusing on results, we miss what it took to get there in the first place. The Ms were swept in the 2001 ALCS after winning a record 116 games during the season. But that’s not failure. They put a team together that included possibly one of the best outfield defenses of all time, playing in a new ball park that featured a cavernous outfield. The pitching staff was built around low-walk guys (except Paul Abbot). They may not have been able to strike many batters out, but the ballpark and the defense would take care of that. It was a process, a process that was beautiful for 162 games. The playoffs, however, are the statistical equivalent of a coin flip, and they did not treat the Ms well, just as they did not treat the A’s well in the three seasons to follow.

What am I getting at? The Rays are already a huge success story. They succeeded the day they signed Evan Longoria to a 9-year contract that would pay him an average of just $5M per year (he’s worth between $20M and $30M per year, by the way). They succeeded when they signed the speedy Sam Fuld to fill Crawford’s shoes…for 1/50 the price. When they signed Kotchman—coming off a down year with the Ms—for just $750K. When they traded an injured Scott Kazmir and his soon-to-inflate contract for a trio of youngsters with current second baseman, Sean Rodriguez, among the haul. The process of avoiding overpaid players and focusing on underpaid players got them to the World Series in 2008, and it may very well again in 2011. But even if they get swept in the divisional series…even if they had lost to the Yankees on Wednesday…they won. That’s Moneyball. The process wins season after season.

Now fast-forward eight years. Brad Pitt is playing Billy Beane in Hollywood’s version of the story. He’s sitting in the film room with his assistant GM after losing in the divisional series for a second consecutive year. He’s focused on the fact that the other team scored more runs than his team in three of five games. But then his assistant GM shows him film of their fat, AAA catcher Jeremy Brown. He hits a deep fly, stumbles around first and falls, crawls back to first frantically, and then realizes he’s hit a homerun. Where other teams scoffed at such players, the A’s ignored the less-important flaws and focused on the bigger picture: what wins baseball games. Beane’s assistant was articulating a point that transcends even Moneyball: you don’t have to win to be a winner. The results are far less important than the process that leads to them.

The book is a fantastic read, written to appeal to stats people, baseball people, and everyone in between. The movie made me laugh, made me tear up*, and nailed down “Moneyball” as well as anything could in 2 hours. This decade’s reality sitcom version is likely playing on some channel on your TV Friday at 2:07pm Pacific Time. Enjoy the results, but appreciate the process that got them there.

*I had to hold it back, being on a man date and all…

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