Sunday, April 16, 2006

John Schuerholz Still Doesn't Get "Moneyball"

This point-counterpoint comes courtesy of Braves GM John Schuerholz's new book, Built to Win. Perhaps I'll post a full review once I've finished reading it but, for now, it's Chapter 2 ("Gentlemen, Start Your Moneyball Arguments") that has me all fired up. With apologies to FIRE JOE MORGAN:

Moneyball contends that the low-budget A's, forced to play little checkbook baseball, were able to win their division in 2003 and contend during recent seasons by primarily cobbling together an economy roster of inexpensive kids and scrap heap vets on the basis of some trendy statistical analysis.

Gentlemen, start your strawman arguments! This "trendy statistical analysis" you speak of. Please, tell me more about your understanding of it.

This "revolutionary" formula virtually discards not only the trained eye of seasoned scouts, bunting and base stealing, but brands as meaningless the value of an effective closer.

No, no, NO. Nobody's discarding anything; the point of Moneyball was to reassess the traditional assumptions that have driven player evaluation and acquisition. So in rebuttal:

1) Seasoned scouts are fine but the Moneyball approach concedes that they are prone to subjective judgments and human biases. By combining a scout's observations with objective statistical measurements, you get a clearer picture of a player's true potential. Statistics are a tool best used in tandem with scouting and these tools should complement one another. This doesn't have to be a zero sum game.

2) Bunting and base stealing are fine in certain situations. You just have to understand the risks and rewards since you have a finite supply of outs to use each game -- 27 is all you get. Wasting them with sacrifices and poor baserunning is probably not the optimal way for your offense to operate.

3) Closers are "meaningless?" Says who? Not the A's, as evidenced by their employment of Jason Isringhausen, Keith Foulke, Octavio Dotel, and Huston Street. Next.

The basic Moneyball theory is, substantially, on-base percentage for position players and groundball outs for pitchers -- a pure statistical way to put a team together.

Well, sure, if you actually want to win. Bill James studied these issues years ago, and his regression analysis determined that on-base percentage was the highest correlate for scoring runs. Which should be the focal point of the offense. And groundballs are a laudable goal since they're tough to hit over the fence and even better for inducing double plays. But true Moneyballers will tell you to stock up on power pitchers since strikeouts remove nearly all the vagaries of balls in play. But whatever.

In fairness, Moneyball made for a good read, even though I feel the basic premise is terribly flawed.

In fairness to Schuerholz, at least he's read the book, unlike some of its less enlightened critics. But to reiterate: no, no, NO. Moneyball was not just about stats. The book explains a system for identifying and exploiting inefficiencies in the player marketplace. The premise is that it's possible to use statistics to identify undervalued or underappreciated commodities languishing in the minor leagues or on major league benches -- replacement players that are freely available and far cheaper than "established" major leaguers. The idea is to outflank your deep pocketed rivals by getting 75%+ of the production of a high-priced free agent at 25% (or less) of the cost. If anything, Moneyball is about the efficient employment of resources even more than statistical analysis.

And the application of economics, where Moneyball is concerned, is about more than money. To fully appreciate the lessons of Moneyball, the savvy reader needs to have a basic understanding of the principles of economics. For example, baseball GMs need to understand and appreciate concepts such as supply and demand, opportunity cost, and the idea of replacement level talent in order to succeed in a dynamic marketplace. Understanding and applying these concepts can mean the difference between being on the right or wrong side of a Brian Giles for Ricardo Rincon or Bobby Abreu for Kevin Stocker trade.

In a sense, Schuerholz is an unwitting proponent of Moneyball principles. The Braves have never overpaid for a closer, either in a trade or via free agency, throughout Schuerholz's tenure. And this is much to John's credit. Schuerholz intuitively understands that it's insane to pay relief pitchers tons of money because of some magical "closer" designation, where value is bound up in managerial usage patterns rather than some intrinsic skill set on the part of the pitcher. While the Mets overpay for Billy Wagner, Schuerholz acquires decent relievers at bargain basement prices, and any one of them could mature into the closer role. It makes little sense to overpay for a role when cheaper talent is there for the grooming. And when a guy gets too expensive, the Braves let him go and start the process anew. The formula has worked for 15 years, with such luminaries as Alejandro Pena, Mike Stanton, Greg McMichael, Mark Wohlers, Kerry Ligtenberg, John Rocker, and Kyle Farnsworth ably handling the job. Though Schuerholz might not acknowledge it, this is as much a Moneyball concept as anything, and it's surprising that more teams haven't tried to emulate this pattern.

It's infuriating that Schuerholz is so dismissive of a philosophy that, properly understood and deployed, might have made the Braves even better. Schuerholz is quick to crow about his successes, citing the good value he got from Julio Franco and Jaret Wright despite their questionable pedigrees. OK, fine. But he doesn't satisfactorily address the misses. Yes, he touches on the failed chance they took on Raul Mondesi, but the Schuerholz era is littered with bad decisions and contracts, failures that any Moneyballer could have anticipated, including: Rico Brogna, Albie Lopez, Vinny Castilla, Walt Weiss, Mike Hampton, Danny Kolb, B.J. Surhoff, Jose Hernandez, Rey Sanchez, etc.

It all comes back to the concept of opportunity cost. Doling out money and roster spots to mediocrities like those guys takes away resources that could be used on better players. We see that the Braves have won fourteen consecutive division crowns, but what we don't see (and can never know) is how much better they might have been (115 regular season wins? A couple more World Series titles?) with improved strategies, processes, player acquisitions, etc. And the whole point of Moneyball is that you don't have to break the bank to get better players. It just requires taking a chance on unproven talent, trusting your system, and having the courage to see it through rather than taking the safe, uncreative solution of wasting money on "proven" mediocrities.

Under John Schuerholz's stewardship, we'll never know how much better the Braves could be by integrating Moneyball concepts into their team building approach. That Schuerholz seems so hostile to the new thinking, rather than seeking to use it to reassess and complement his own methods, is the real flaw here.

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