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It’s truly amazing how many of our best and brightest baseball minds in the media still misunderstand the concept of Moneyball. To some, it’s still rigidly defined as teams who value on-base percentage over everything else. To others, it simply means finding ways to win with little money. However, the true definition is much more complex. The true meaning is still largely unappreciated and misunderstood.
Take New York Daily News Columnist, Bill Madden, for example. On Friday, he wrote a piece detailing the demise of Oakland A’s Moneyball. After watching the Yankees bludgeon the Athletics in a four game sweep, Madden surmised that Moneyball is insufficient to defeat the mighty Yankees. Of course, this viewpoint assumes that the A’s are the central characters in the “Moneyball era” that has evolved over the past decade. Now that Michael Lewis’ best seller detailing the evolution of Moneyball is being made into a movie, the Oakland franchise serves as the reference point for all debate surrounding the concept. If Oakland wins, Moneyball is considered successful; if they lose, the whole strategy is pronounced dead. This thinking completely misses the point.
The definition is quite simple. Basically, Moneyball means using advanced statistical analysis to find undervalued talent. Early on, these analytics were used by small market teams hoping to compete on the cheap against bigger market foes. The Oakland A’s served as the poster child for this as Billy Beane was the first GM to take these stats seriously and build a team around them. Early in the decade, the new stat was on-base percentage, which many teams simply overlooked when building lineups. It worked for a while, but soon (and especially after the book was written) other franchises co-opted the tactics employed by Beane, including teams with high payrolls. Over the past few years, Oakland has slipped into mediocrity leading many to write off the concept of Moneyball. Again, this is flawed thinking.
Now that on-base percentage is no longer undervalued, other metrics have been used to build rosters while making efficient use of resources. The Tampa Bay Rays serve as the best example. By using new defensive statistics, the 2008 Rays were able to improve from the worst team in baseball to a World Series runner up. They accomplished this feat without signing any marquee free agents, or spending significantly more money. They simply developed young talent and brought in players who could improve the defense as a whole. Of course, Moneyball can’t be viewed in a vacuum. Use of new stats alone won’t turn a woeful team into a contender. Even the Rays had some nice young hitters and good arms. However, the point is that Moneyball type thinking allowed the Rays to compete with financial beasts like the Yankees and Red Sox without spending anywhere near the same amount. Use of new stats by the Tampa front office contributed to building a contender. This is thanks to the definition of Moneyball; the use of cutting edge stats to build contending teams, while making more efficient use of money.
The A’s may be going through an era of mediocrity, but to dismiss Moneyball as a result is foolish and shortsighted. Teams that don’t use new statistical analysis and Moneyball tactics are now in the minority around Major League Baseball. There will always be a demand to find and develop undervalued commodities. Though many in the mainstream media, especially those from an older generation, dismiss new stats and analysis, the monster created by Moneyball is here to stay.