July 28, 2011

Guest Post: Moneyball: A great book, an upcoming movie, a correct baseball theory

Ryan writes a WordPress blog where he blogs about music, politics, and sports (namely the Yankees) with a graduate school classmate. He’s written for LenNY’s Yankees before when he discussed the Yankees false reluctance to move their top prospects. You can follow him on twitter @Ryan_Kantor.

I just finished reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis—a phenomenal book that explained how a more objective way of managing baseball was discovered and resisted. It was great for its statistical objective look at baseball, its bashing of Joe Morgan, and its nostalgic reminder of Scott Hatteberg, Chad Bradford, Jeremy Giambi, and the Oakland A’s always falling just a hair short of beating the Yankees.

There’s also a movie based on the book coming out on Sept. 23, with Brad Pitt playing the role of Billy Beane. It should be pretty good, but it’ll be hard for it to capture even half of what the book gets into. You can see the movie trailer here.

If you want to read a book review you can read one on my personal blog, but I’m going to use the rest of this post to discuss about the actual style of baseball that Moneyball purports.

Nick Swisher is portrayed as the beloved poster boy of the theory (along with the disgusting Kevin Youkilis). Swisher is the guy Beane wants more than anyone else. Why? He takes walks, a lot of walks. He has a good on-base percentage, and it’s a lot cheaper to get a player with a high on-base percentage than someone with a high batting average. It’s also a lot more effective. The basic tenets of Moneyball are:

  • There is a strong causal relationship between run differential (runs scored-runs allowed) and the number of wins that team will have at the end of the year. Therefore the goal of every front office should be to make moves that will increase the total amount of runs scored; reduce the total amount of runs given up. This seems like an obvious given, but it’s not always acted upon.
  • Batting average and stolen bases actually don’t have a strong relationship with runs scored.
  • On-base percentage and slugging percentage have the strongest positive relationship with runs scored, even more so than home runs.
  • Outs are the scarce resource of a baseball game, and sacrifice bunts have a negative relationship with total runs scored.Stolen base attempts also have a negative relationship with total runs scored until SB% reaches 70%. By that metric Elvis Andrus’s base running last year (2010) when he stole 32 bases actually hurt the Rangers because he got caught stealing 15 times giving him a 68% Stolen base percentage.

These principles were pretty well illustrated in 2002 when at season’s end Oakland was matched up with Minnesota who had a higher team batting average and a more homeruns, but less total runs scored. Why? Because Oakland’s on-base percentage was higher and they had much fewer sac bunts and base runners caught stealing.

What frustrated Beane the most was that the sample size in a short playoff series wasn’t big enough for any of it to matter. (The A’s lost to the Twins in 2002). Essentially he was making the most efficient team in baseball only to see their season end in what amounted to a total crapshoot in the playoffs and then he had to hear pundits like Joe Morgan make up nonsense about how they lost because they didn’t bunt and steal.

Now I’m making the assumption that most readers of this blog are Yankee fans. Our team doesn’t have the suffocating financial restraints of the A’s, and we’re nowhere near satisfied with a 102-win season and elimination in the ALDS. So does this philosophy still hold up?

Frankly, there’s no doubt. This “theory” is proven through a series of statistical tests. While not perfect, there’s no real doubt about its validity.

So should the Yankees try to abide by it more?

Well yes, like I said it’s statistically proven. Speeding around the bases, an aggressive approach at plate, and sacrifice bunts are all great ways to score less runs.

Admittedly, there are some limitations. After other teams realized what Beane was doing they started taking OBP more seriously. That’s why you see OBP shown more often. He can’t get overlooked veterans with amazing OBP as cheap anymore. The market is now more “efficient.” Nonetheless, we can afford it and OBP is still the most telling stat.

The theory works on the fact that more total runs equals more total wins, which in general is true, but you don’t need to win by 10 to win, so the one situation where I’d still sacrifice bunt (and the this is the one and only situation) is late in a tight game with runs on first and second and a righty or slow runner up to bat. I’ve seen Jeter ground into a double play in that very situation a million times and I still say he should be bunting there. Will the Yankees score fewer total runs by the seasons end if they bunted in these situations? Most likely yes, but they’ll win some close games that they would have otherwise lost (and win some games by less runs).

But overall, yes, Moneyball is correct and when the Joe Morgans of the world try to say otherwise just know they’re wrong.

Editor’s note: Thanks so much for this, Ryan. Excellent job summing up a staple in the baseball blogging community. For those interested in guest blogging with LenNY’s Yankees, you can contact me with your ideas here.

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