Stupid Moneyball Arguments

Earl Weaver once posited a theory regarding baseball success: the best teams will lose 60 games, the worst teams will win 60 games – it’s what you do with the other 42 games that matter.

Never before in the history of baseball have approaches on how to win those 42 games been more hotly debated. And the fault lines divide between the game’s traditionalists and the growing brood of statistically-driven analysts can be summarized in two books – Three Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger and Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.

Picking up Three Nights in August after just re-reading Moneyball left me exasperated. The debate between the LaRussaistas (traditionalists) and Moneyballistas (statisticians) presented by Bissinger portrayed both parties as despotic tyrants trying to win over the masses. And that is the problem – that somehow baseball must be played and explained from either of these mutually exclusive perspectives and no overlap between the two schools of thought can exist. Dumb.

In Three Nights, J.D. Drew serves as Larussa’s example as to why a numbers-driven approach to baseball won’t work. Despite very appealing stats, LaRussa’s experience tells him Drew will never fulfill his potential as a ballplayer because the player refused to play through injury and generally lacks the heart and hustle needed to succeed in professional baseball. But the singular emphasis on intangibles such as heart and hustle misses the mark just as easily as the Moneyball crowd failed to see a flawed player. Focus too much on heart and hustle and the Cardinals miss out on the production Drew can deliver. Focus too much on the numbers and someone will overpay for a passionless under-producer in the free agent market.

The walk represents another common misunderstandings between the two philosophies. LaRussaistas believe the Moneyball crowd place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the walk and incorrectly value players based on those walks. But its not the walk the Moneyballers care about – they care about players not making an out. In a timeless game where outs exist as the only scarce resource, Moneyballistas believe outs are too precious to be wasted.

This argument accelerates when the conversation turns to the sacrifice bunt. Again, the numbers-driven crowd maintains a consistent position – the out is too valuable to be sacrificed in moving a player into scoring position, particularly when the next batter faces a diminished probability of plating the run. LaRussaistas see the sacrifice as a game-changing strategic gambit aimed at unsettling the opponent and gaining a shift in momentum. In a game devoid of human emotion, the numbers view certainly works best.

But traditionalists believe momentum can turn a game and unknowingly engage in a very Moneyball-esque calculation when deploying the sacrifice bunt: will the marginal emotional benefit of executing the sacrifice exceed the reduced numerical probability of scoring a run? When the traditionalist can answer this question in the affirmative – they employ the very technique they easily dismiss as a lack of understanding and appreciation of the subtleties of a well-played baseball game.

Reading these two books back-to-back certainly exaggerated the differences. But like any complex issue, the oversimplification of each philosophy prevents progress. Teams like Tampa employ the Moneyball philosophy throughout the entire organization from the ownership, front office, and on the field. Cincinnati, on the other hand, operates with a more traditional front office and managerial approach. Both have found success in recent years.