What with the new "Moneyball" movie being released next Friday, all of a sudden sabermetrics is being talked about in a wide number of places. Movie reviews are popping up everywhere, and even regular ol' news news sources are jumping into the discussion about stats in baseball.
And this is great....kinda. It's certainly fun to see something that's a niche interest even among baseball fans gain some mainstream publicity, but as is wont to happen, many of the conversations that happen end up being uninformed or spouting misleading information.
So what is this "Moneyball" philosophy? What does the book tell us, and more importantly, what doesn't it say? If you're reading this site, you probably already know the points I'm going to make. But just in case there are any people new to sabermetrics out there, I figure this might be worth a rundown.
What Moneyball Is Not
An indictment against any form of baseball analysis that isn't stat driven. The book may come down hard at times against scouts and baseball "traditionalists", but at its heart, Billy Beane's approach to baseball analysis is all about knowledge. That's what sabermetrics is all about: the quest for more knowledge. Whether that knowledge comes in the form of scouting data or spreadsheets, it can still have value. Baseball traditionalists and saberists didn't used to get along, but these days, both sides are begrudgingly acknowledging that the other side does bring something to the table.
A representation of sabermetrics today. "Moneyball" was published back in the early 2000s, and baseball analysis has come a long way since then. Research has become more detailed, and our understanding of the game has become more nuanced. Yes, it's true that On-Base Percentage is still awesome, but we've learned there are significant downsides to stocking up on unathletic sluggers that walk a lot (hint: defense).
An example of why stats and fandom don't mix. Contrary to popular belief, you can be a baseball fan and like sabermetrics; appreciating stats doesn't prevent you from feeling emotions or caring about the sport. Most of the time, saberists are hardcore fans that simply can't get enough baseball. Craving more and more information, they eventually turn to statistics and delve in because the wealth of knowledge is oh so deep. Billy Beane didn't watch games, but that wasn't because he was a cold-hearted, baseball calculator; it was because if he watched, he knew he'd get way too emotional and make spur of the moment, irrational decisions.
What Moneyball Is
A wonderful primer on market inefficiencies. Billy Beane's approach to baseball can be summed up with that one phrase: market inefficiencies. I summed this up this past offseason in The Process Report 2011:
"Market inefficiencies" was a term first coined in Moneyball by Michael Lewis, and it has become a catchphrase for small-market teams. The basic concept is simple: are teams over- or under-valuing a specific type of player? If they are, then whichever team realizes this inefficiency can make a killing by signing players for less than they are worth. The early 2000s A's did this with high-OBP players, while the 2008 Rays did it with good defensive players.
These holes in common knowledge do not last long, though, so this concept has limited utility: instead, it is better to think in terms of specific players being over- or under-valued. Is this player getting overlooked on the free agent market because of his recent injury? Is this player going to sign a below-market contract simply because he has few suitors left? While large, market-wide holes rarely open up, it is not uncommon for one or two players each year to slip through the cracks and receive a below market-value contract.
A very important book. Simply put, "Moneyball" helped spark a revolution within baseball front offices. Almost all teams have at least a few stats people working within their front office, and some teams put much more reliance on the stats than others. From a historical perspective, the Moneyball approach ushered in a new era of team management.
So please, don't knock Moneyball for being something it isn't. It was a great story and helped revolutionize baseball, but we shouldn't take all of its messages at face value these days. Scouts and statistics are both important, and it doesn't make you any lesser of a saberist or fan for thinking so. We're simply on a quest for knowledge, a quest that Moneyball helped kickstart.