Baker’s columns on Moneyball

DMZ · August 16, 2006 at 11:04 am · Filed Under General baseball, Mariners 

Here are some reader-submitted Baker snippets (thanks msb!)
“Rain Man rules Jays”, September 28, 2002. Kinda rags on Keith Law a little, also mentions the ill-advised purge of Blue Jays player development personell Ricciardi carried out.

It takes a journey deep inside a maze of SkyDome offices before one hears the telltale tapping sounds of the mysterious Blue Jays employee that curious colleagues have dubbed “Rain Man.”

The sole job of this first-year hire, nicknamed after the character in the Oscar-winning Dustin Hoffman movie, is to peck away at an ultra-fast computer laptop and conjure up statistics he can then spend the rest of the day arguing about with his boss. It helps when that boss is Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, a modern breed of baseball executive who shuns tradition in favour of business methods many of his peers consider off-the-wall.

That’s why the 43-year-old Ricciardi’s approach to the business of baseball doesn’t include any stopwatches, radar guns, or notepads stained with chewing tobacco. It’s instead about hiring Rain Man – a 29-year-old Harvard graduate whose only previous baseball experience came as a fan – to crunch a myriad of statistical percentages, probabilities, and cost factors into his computer and then giving him top-level input into the most serious player decisions the Jays have to make.

And anyone in the Jays’ organization who doesn’t play along with Ricciardi, Rain Man, and their statistical approach will quickly become as much a part of history as all that baseball tradition.

This is a little misleading. Ricciardi did many, many things that drove the sabermetric-oriented columnists batshit crazy.

“It’s time to turn the page on Moneyball theories,” 12/3/2004 argues that Moneyball’s full of crap

The biggest hole was the book downplaying the impact of Big Three starting pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito on the A’s success. Anyone who crunched the numbers from 2000 to 2003 would have seen a gradual decline in Oakland’s offensive production coinciding with a sharp rise in the Big Three’s fortunes.

In other words, a book could have just as easily been written about how the key to winning on a budget is to gather three potential Cy Young Award winners and use any remaining cash on assembling a mediocre offence. That’s not as sexy as the Moneyball premise, but arguably more accurate as Beane wrestles with what to do now that the Big Three are heading towards free-agent status.

Yeah, that was a disaster, wasn’t it? Essentially, this article argues that Moneyball was about offense, no closers, etc, and that pieces of it were disproven. I’d argue that Moneyball, for all its flaws, was about trying to be smarter than the competition and exploit market conditions to find ways to win, rather than the simplistic “OBP, no-name offense, draft college players who look horrible in jeans” it was boiled down to.

He returns to this in 2005 with “Chisox disprove the theory of ‘Moneyball'” 10/28/2005.

One additional passenger joined the Chicago White Sox on their private plane here and flew off into the sunset with manager Ozzie Guillen, slugger Jermaine Dye and the rest of baseball’s champions.

That would be the concept of Moneyball, a great read but lousy franchise blueprint that appears to have bid adieu to the baseball world after these 2005 playoffs. Sure, there will still be more teams rightfully employing statistical experts to assist front offices in player decisions, a trend that began well before author Michael Lewis penned his 2003 best seller.

But the idea that Billy Beane and his Oakland A’s had discovered the divine formula to success at the expense of traditionalists, scouts and supposed “dinosaurs” was laid to rest in a post-season that culminated Wednesday night with Chicago’s four-game dismantling of the Houston Astros to win the World Series.

Again, I’d argue that it’s not a magic formula, few people would argue that you can dispense with scouts (and those people are nuts) and so on. It’s a convenient straw man.

Then there’s the “Old is new in baseball again” 12/3/2005, which hails a counter-revolution:

Philadelphia’s entrusting of Gillick to secure a championship is being hotly debated by fans burning up online chat sites with their opinion. At a time when the role of statistics based analysis in baseball is being questioned like never before, it’s impossible to ignore Gillick’s stature as one of the sports grandest “old guard” members, the same way Epstein and DePodesta were hailed as the vanguard of the new-wave “Moneyball” movement.

I’m a little discouraged by these pieces.

It’s easy to make “statheads = online geeks” arguments. USSM gets tarred as being a bunch of statheads a lot, which always strikes me as laughable since Dave’s been as strong an advocate for “get as much data as possible, and understand that the value of any school varies” since before Moneyball became a controversy, and I’ve argued that there are no camps and the whole fight is an artificial construction of people with axes to grind (or agendas to pursue or books to sell) on one side or the other.

It’s easy to point a finger at statheads like they’re a homogenous group of AD&D players who’ve taken to rolling stats instead of dice, but that’s ridiculous, an easy crutch. It’s a bully’s approach, and I’m disappointed to see it appear in these pieces.


16 Responses to “Baker’s columns on Moneyball”

  1. eponymous coward on August 16th, 2006 11:26 am

    Oh, good. The Times hired Toronto’s version of Bill Plaschke.

  2. Mat on August 16th, 2006 11:37 am

    Having read at least one beer OR tacos debate, I can at least see where those in the scouting community might get a little up in arms about guys like me potentially taking their jobs because teams are using more of their budget on statistical analysis. But, like you D, I get sick of the way the media plays it up.

    It’s easy to point a finger at statheads like they’re a homogenous group of AD&D players who’ve taken to rolling stats instead of dice, but that’s ridiculous, an easy crutch.

    Exactly. Not much time ’til deadline? Let’s make a couple wisecracks about guys with pocket protectors and throw in some references to tobacco chewing to make sure we get the scout stereotype down right, too. Some day maybe they’ll stop with this really boring angle, but I’m not holding my breath.

  3. joser on August 16th, 2006 2:08 pm

    As usual, the characterizations of “stat geeks” and “scouts” reveal more about the writer than the debate (if debate there even is).

    Moneyball, for all its flaws, was about trying to be smarter than the competition and exploit market conditions to find ways to win, rather than the simplistic “OBP, no-name offense, draft college players who look horrible in jeans” it was boiled down to.

    Exactly. Beane’s approach (as distinct from “Moneyball” the book and the second and third and nth-hand reductions of it) is not a particular set of strategies, but a philosophy (and one seemingly shared by USSM): try to know more than everybody else. When applied to a small-market team like the A’s, it got expressed as: Identify the things that matter, identify which of those things aren’t being valued (by other teams) as highly as they should be, exploit that discrepency. It’s arbitrage applied to inefficiencies of information rather than inefficencies of markets (though obviously there is a market involved). It just so happened that OBP was one of those undervalued qualities when the book was being written, and people who didn’t “get” what Beane was doing fixated on that (among other things) while missing the larger point.

  4. gag harbor on August 16th, 2006 2:42 pm

    hmmm, so an opinion writer that is paid to write articles for a private company in Toronto (that wants to sell newspapers) who says some things that you are disappointed to see? What’s wrong with taking a stab at discussing thoughts on a set of theories that have never garnered a trip to the world series for Oakland or Toronto or Los Angeles (or where ever the prototypes all ended up)? Offended by the “bullying” of statheads? This is sports and it’s media and they’re both businesses.

    The only “camp” that I saw identified in Baker’s and your words above is the “homogenous group of AD&D online geeks” that only one of you brought up. I saw Baker say teams should rightfully employ statistical analysts (now and in the future) and I noticed he said those same statistical experts were around long before Moneyball (the Book) was written. Maybe he knew about you and Dave last October?

  5. waldo rojas on August 16th, 2006 3:17 pm

    He’s gonna have to drop the “u” from “favour” if he wants to make it in the USA.

  6. DMZ on August 16th, 2006 3:35 pm

    Baker argues throughout his articles that stathead/whatever = OBP-obsessed, offence over defense, and that that camp has failed. It’s a portrayal of a wide spectrum of opinion as collapsing into an easily-attacked straw man. He refers to Moneyball as a “craze” that seized GMs.

    Scouts & baseball traditionalists, meanwhile, are portrayed as smart, saavy, experienced people who know what baseball’s really about.

    Baker also makes the argument that if you believe Moneyball is about seeking value, you’re dumb:

    Revisionist historians now argue that Moneyball wasn’t really about seeking hitters with high on-base percentages, while ignoring defence and “small ball,” but finding “value” in a changing marketplace. That’s a nice try, but most baseball teams have, by their own value judgments, used a version of that practice for generations.

  7. Bender on August 16th, 2006 4:09 pm

    Wait, what exactly are you trying to say about AD&D players here?

  8. Joshua Buergel on August 16th, 2006 4:23 pm

    It’s easy to point a finger at statheads like they’re a homogenous group of AD&D players who’ve taken to rolling stats instead of dice, but that’s ridiculous, an easy crutch.

    Yeah, seriously. I mean, it hasn’t been called AD&D for years now.

  9. darrylzero on August 16th, 2006 4:24 pm

    Having already braced myself for what was coming, I’m actually a little pleasantly surprised. He’s actually a pretty good writer! Imagine if the man he is replacing had penned those.

  10. dw on August 16th, 2006 5:06 pm

    We really, really have to invite him to the next feed. I doubt he’s man enough to show up, though.

  11. AMarshal2 on August 16th, 2006 7:07 pm

    I wonder if he’s looked at Billy Beane’s team lately. Last I checked they were last in the league in OBP but did a number of different things well. Most notably pitch, play defense, and put the ball in play. It’s ironic that:
    1) moneyball the book was about finding market inefficiencies.
    2) moneyball caused a market over-correction which lead to a market inefficiency is some of the more traditionally valued commodities (which Beane has tried to exploit)
    3) writers now try to argue that moneyball was only about OBP and had nothing to do with market inefficiencies.

  12. JMB on August 16th, 2006 10:30 pm

    Hey, at least he doesn’t think Billy Beane wrote Moneyball.

  13. msb on August 17th, 2006 8:15 am


  14. tangotiger on August 17th, 2006 8:19 am

    If I had my way, I’d hire more scouts. The lifeblood of a sabermetrician is data. Sabermetrics is the convergence between performance analysis and scouting.

  15. Evan on August 17th, 2006 2:56 pm

    It’s easy to point a finger at statheads like they’re a homogenous group of AD&D players who’ve taken to rolling stats instead of dice,

    Instead? In addition to, maybe. I still have d12 on my dresser.

    And while it hasn’t been called AD&D in years, you can still play AD&D, as long as you don’t call it that:


  16. colm on August 17th, 2006 2:56 pm

    What’s the A stand for? (I’m pretty much a fantasy game virgin)
    D&D = dungeons and dragons.
    AD&D = Accidental Death and Dismemberment – not a fun game for nerds or anyone else for that matter.

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