Moneyball Movie Coming, A Lot Too Late (part 1)

It boggles my mind that Moneyball has been made into a Hollywood feature film, but it has – and the marketing campaign is well underway. It’s a little less than three weeks until it actually hits the theaters, so you won’t be reading any reviews here. What this is about is an attempt to test the basic underlying ‘idea’ of Moneyball and the personnel philosophy of the book/film’s hero A’s GM Billy Beane.

This is Tigers blog, but here’s a post that isn’t really about the Tigers, just about baseball in general. The question is: can or should you build a team around walks? As a Tigers fan, this has some relevance: if the Tigers have a real organizational philosophy at the plate it is to go after BABIP, teach guys to (and acquire guys that do) take good cuts and drive the ball into the gaps. What the Tigers don’t try to do is what the book Moneyball made Brad Pitt, I mean Billy Beane, famous for: take pitches.

For those unfamiliar with Moneyball (if any such folks are reading this blog) the basic idea behind Beane’s strategy starting in the late ’90’s was that speed, defense and batting average were ‘overvalued’ by the baseball market while the ability to take a walk was ‘undervalued’. Therefore a team with little money to spend, either on free agents or on prospects, could get ahead by avoiding players like Juan Pierre but chasing guys like Matt Stairs. Billy Beane’s A’s won a lot of games on a shoestring budget in the years after he was promoted to GM in 1998 giving Beane a sort of ‘guru’ status and inspiring Michael Lewis’ book.

Of course, the A’s haven’t won all that many games in the past 5 years – though Beane is still in charge. Smarter men than me have statistically ‘proven’ that walks are no longer ‘undervalued’ by the market, so Beane won’t necessarily be able to scoop up guys that other teams pass on. Defenders of Beane will say that what it’s all about isn’t the importance of the walk but the importance of finding what other GMs are ignoring now and going after it hard. Rumor has it that the market has been undervaluing defense of late, or incorrectly valuing it by ignoring the profusion of advanced defensive metrics that have been created in the past decade, so Beane and other like-minded GMs have been looking to find cheap gloves.

I had another theory, one that I wanted to test: That Beane’s walk-centric offense doesn’t work anymore, period. It doesn’t really seem to me that Beane has stopped chasing the walk, but it’s clear that his teams have stopped scoring runs at any particularly impressive rate as they have stopped winning games. Bad A’s (since their last playoff appearance in 2006) have been 4th in the AL with a 9.1% walk rate. Good A’s (between 1999 and 2006) trailed only the Yankees (and them by a hair) with a 10.1% walk rate. Granted, that’s a bit of a drop – but not so huge as their drop in offense. Good A’s were 6th out of 14 in runs scored over that period, Bad A’s have been second to last (behind the sad, sad Mariners). I’m guessing that the reason for that is that the A’s have been 13th in slugging percentage, 13th in isolated power and 12th in home runs since 2007. Good A’s were 7th in SLG and ISO, 5th in homers.

The theory is two-pronged: the first part is fairly obvious and not at all original, that guys who walk still need somebody to drive them in. Baserunners are important in creating the ‘3-run homer’, but they aren’t as important as the home run itself. Granted, it doesn’t require a home run to convert walks into runs, but Beane seems to have long considered BABIP and by extension batting average itself to be unworthy of chasing after. The A’s were last in the AL in BABIP during the good years and last in the bad years – which is basically what you would expect if a GM doesn’t believe that a skill exists. If the A’s aren’t going to be all that great at driving guys in with singles and doubles and they certainly aren’t going to be wreaking havoc on the basepaths, it’s not easy to drive in runners without swinging. Good A’s were built on a combination of walks and power, not just walks – again not a secret. They didn’t typically lead the league in power categories, because those were valued by other teams as well and hence potentially expensive. BUT, they did hit their fair share. Since then they have continued to walk, but have not had any pop. My theory is that adding more walks to an otherwise awful offense doesn’t do much to create runs.  Power is required to convert those walks into crooked numbers.

That’s obvious, right? The question would then become why the A’s aren’t hitting home runs any more. They were cheap then just like they are cheap now. I doubt that power has become more highly prized since Beane’s glory days, home runs have always had a certain cachet. That leads to the second part of my theory, which might be more contentious: that walk-driven Moneyball offense thrived when it did because home runs were a dime a dozen.  Between 2000 and 2004 the A’s averaged 202 HR, which was only good enough for fourth in the AL.  Last year they hit only 109 and so far this year only 93.   My hypothesis is simply that since Oakland’s offensive heydey coincided with MLB’s asterisk era of juicing, Beane could chase walks and walks alone and simply expect the ball to fly out of the park.  If it turns out that walks don’t do much without the homers, the second round of statistical tests will be necessary to see power has become more ‘concentrated’ as HR totals dropped following the testing regime of 2005.

This has gotten very long already, so if you’re interested in reading about the statistical tests themselves and the results, check back this afternoon for part 2.

Tags: Billy Beane Moneyball

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