Today’s post is Part Two of Two, the “Con” argument in an ongoing and mostly friendly NerdsOnSports debate over “Moneyball,” the stats-driven baseball management popularized by Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane.
My esteemed friend and fellow Nerds on Sports contributor Perich laid out a series of perfectly reasonable, incontestable facts (the rules of baseball – a team needs to score more runs, each team has 27 outs to do it, fixed number of players to acquire, etc) to begin his conversation. He then, keeping those facts in mind, laid out the crux of Moneyball: certain statistics mean more than others and by finding and properly weighting those statistics, a GM can better evaluate potential than his competitors. It all makes a lot of sense, given the nature of the game and how the machinations of baseball scouting work.
My issue is not with any of these facts or assertions surrounding Moneyball, per se, but rather with the strategic implementation of the science. Allow me to explain. Paying for undervalued or overlooked talent is fantastic, as is paying for any undervalued commodity in the marketplace. In 2006, Beane compiled the 5th best record in baseball with the 21st highest salary. Seems like a series of sound investments. Expanding it back to prior seasons – in 2005, Beane got the 10th best record with the 21st highest and in 2004, it was the 9th best with the 16th. Solid year in and year out. The A’s, with this strategy have produced far more than their salary level would suggest. Seems like Moneyball is working.
But I’d like to reveal another set of numbers – 26th, 19th, 19th. That’s where the A’s finished in game attendance in 2006, 2005 and 2004. Of note, they’re on pace for 26th place again this year. That’s a downward trend in the number of folks that are interested enough in the A’s to go shell out money to watch them play. In that, I believe, lies one of the hidden costs of Moneyball. It is tough for a fanbase to get behind a team which such a revolving door concept of talent. Miguel Tejada left town before the 2004 season, Jermaine Dye before 2005 and Zito and Frank Thomas before 2007. The A’s, in keeping with their spending and scouting strategy, got what they could out of these players while they were still reasonably priced and were forced to jettison them after the market got smart. It’s part of the game that Beane has to play with his budgetary constraints. It’s chicken-and-egg scenario though. Beane doesn’t have the money to keep/retain big name talent, and fans get disgusted and don’t attend games with regularity, and empty seats prevent Beane from getting the money to keep/retain big name talent. Sure, you might be able to get more VORP per Dollar with Nick Swisher than Jermaine Dye, but is that what the ticket-buying, jersey-wearing fans care about? Or do they care about having a masher they’ve heard of drilling them into the seats at McAfee?
Baseball pundits and average fans alike don’t generally believe the A’s are going to ever mount a big-time run deep into the playoffs. Certainly not this year (they’re sub-.500) and most likely not next year. And if they have, they’ve been quiet about it. The A’s, using their strategy, can be a middling team at the price of a basement team. From a financial perspective, it’s wonderful because they always beat expectations. But from a baseball perspective, there’s just no fire there. The object of a baseball game is to score more runs than the opposing team. But the object of a baseball season is to win a championship. Moneyball can help the A’s accomplish the first against teams with a mightier payroll. But until I see them in a World Series Game, I’ll be skeptical of the second. Haven’t St. Louis and Arizona been getting there on the cheap lately? I wonder what their GMs are using.