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A Rebuttal: Moneyball Wasn't Really About the Money

A few days ago resident economics expert son of ptbarnum (SoPTB) wrote a very well received article exploring the term "moneyball"; it's a word ingrained in the baseball lexicon thanks to the 2002-2006 A's and the book Moneyball. While the article was an entertaining review and revisit of the book, I felt it missed the mark when attempting to answer the question "What was Moneyball about?". Specifically, I took umbrage at this remark:

If you refer to anything as "moneyball," and nowhere else in your reference is the word, "money," then you are unclear on the concept.

Good line. But I think it sells the Beane-led front office short. Yes, Moneyball was in part a book about a man who had to battle financial inequity and did so by acquiring under-valued talent. But was Beane's accomplishment simply this realization?

No. Every cash-strapped (non-Yankees) team seeks out undervalued talent. Roy Clark gained notoriety as an Atlanta Braves scout for chasing other teams away from local Georgia prospect talent. Deflating prospect draft status is all about undervaluation, yet we don't hear about the Braves adopting "moneyball" techniques. It's not amazing insight that poorer teams should target undervalued players.

The real story is how Billy Beane was able to successfully identify said undervalued talent. Another SoPTB quote:

One of the smaller lessons I sensed from the book was this: determining the problem requires science, but solving the problem requires art.

Really? I learned the opposite. I learned from reading the book that front-office Major League Baseball organizations has stagnated in the development of state-of-the-art baseball analytical tools. Moneyball tells the tale of Billy Beane, but underneath is hidden another story about one of the first MLB teams to start using sabermetric analysis to inform construction of a professional baseball roster.

The Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) was founded in Cooperstown in 1971*. The term sabermetrics derives its name from that society. Sabermetrics had been around for decades, but the A's led the pack in bringing the analysis off the spreadsheet and onto the baseball diamond.

I too was spurred by SoPTB's article to go back and reread Moneyball. I was struck by how important the role of Eric Walker was in the development of what would be called the A's "moneyball ways". Many of you may not know Walker's name, but he was mentioned in Moneyball, and was a much more important real-life character than Scott Hatteberg ever was. Note this passage from the book:

Sandy Alderson [former A's GM] had never met, or even spoken to, Bill James. He wasn't a typical baseball insider but he still recognized a distinction between people like himself, who actually made baseball decisions, and people like James, who just wrote about them. But he had found James's approach to the game completely persuasive, and had reshaped a professional baseball organization in James's spirit. That's why he had hired Eric Walker, in the hope of 'getting some Bill James-like stuff that was proprietary to us [the A's].

At this point you should stop reading this article and go read an amazing story about an amazing baseball man, Eric Walker, who was one of the true revolutionaries of the sport (no offense Billy!)

The Forgotten Man of Moneyball

And if you hate the Giants for territorial rights and Phone Booth Park, my oh my will you love them for their ignorance after reading the linked article. Note that in both the Eric Walker article and in my own piece here, never once was the word "money" used, though the term undervalued will crop up a few times. son of ptbarnum wrote eloquently about Michael Lewis, Billy Beane, and the A's financial woes, but he short-shrifted the A's sabermetric legacy. That was a key part of the Moneyball book and the A's deserve more, and better understood, recognition for their role in the stats revolution.

What follows below is my own summation of the Eric Walker story (heavily influenced from the article linked above) and how it ties back to the term "moneyball".

Walker was a media analyst in the Bay Area in the late 70's. Journalism was the day job, but Walker was also deeply interested in researching sabermetrics. He published his own book of analysis in 1982, The Sinister First Baseball (on the subject of baseball books it's a wonderfully lyrical read, stats and all). Around the time the book was being worked on, Walker gained the ear of Frank Robinson, the Giants manager at the time. Walker was brought on to Giants payroll to provide data analysis for the team but was never taken seriously by Giants GM Tom Haller, (a former player and classic old guard baseball type). When Robinson was ousted as manager in '84 (the year the Giants were so bad they made the infamous Crazy Crab anti-mascot) Walker was sent, well, walking. We'll revisit the subject of walks in a moment.

Across the Bay, Sandy Alderson had just been instated as the new Oakland A's General Manager (in 1983). Alderson was not a "baseball guy", he was a product of the military, a Harvard Law School graduate, and was the A's lawyer before becoming their GM. In hiring Anderson, A's owner Walter Haas gave the team a front office unafraid to embrace change. Whereas the Giants scoffed at Eric Walker's ideas, Anderson openly embraced them. The two had been chatting even while Walker was still a Giants employee, and once Walker was fired from San Francisco he was hired straightway in Oakland.

Alderson and Walker soon set about applying sabermetric principles to the Oakland roster. One of the first discoveries was that on-base percentage, not batting average, was a better metric of success in determining what generates runs, which is really what wins ballgames. Walks were a critical component of this new A's hitting approach, but they were only one part of a broader early philosophy described in the Moneyball book (pg. 59):

1) Every batter needs to behave like a leadoff man, and adopt as his main goal getting on base.

2) Every batter should also possess the power to hit home runs, in part because home run power forced opposing pitchers to pitch more cautiously, and led to walks, and high on-base percentages

3) To anyone with the natural gifts to become a professional baseball player, hitting was less a physical than a mental skill. Or, at any rate, the aspects of hitting that could be taught were mental.

That philosophy is what spawned the late-90's beer league softball A's rosters featuring John Jaha, Matt Stairs, and Jason Giambi. They took walks, hit homers, and won, as explained in this fun old newspaper article I came across.

It was the aptly named Eric Walker who helped come up with the OBP-fueled team building strategy that become one definition of the term "moneyball". But that was just one early example of a much broader philosophy of using statistical analysis as a tool to find undervalued commodities. And that is the true story of Moneyball.

*It is rather ironic that the headquarters of the "newfangled" stats group responsible for proving false many old baseball wisdoms was founded in the town that houses baseball's history, though one day Hall of Fame plaques may well display career WAR.

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Afterward - The Role of Billy Beane

I argued above that the adoption of advanced statistical analysis in the Oakland front office was the central Moneyball theme, but as pointed out in SoPTB's original article, and in the motion picture adaptation of the book, it's also the story of Billy Beane.

While it was Eric Walker and Sandy Alderson who first set the A's on the course of becoming a flagship SABR-friendly ballclub, it was Billy Beane who passionately and ferociously drove the entire organization to adopt modern analytics as part of the A's culture.

In 1994, when Billy was hired as Assistant GM, Walker was instructed to write a primer document on baseball analytics for the new Asst. GM. Michael Lewis referred to the document in Moneyball as a pamphlet, but it was really a 66-page report titled "Winning Baseball":

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In Lewis' words, Billy Beane couldn't even quite describe the excitement he had felt upon first reading the text, but another author, Alan Schwarze, in The Numbers Game, wrote that "Beane's eyes all but popped out of his head when he read it". Poetic license aside, the enthused Beane did soon thereafter print up copies to hand out to every scout and coach in the organization.The Eric Walker story I linked above mentions some philosophies from the text, and many are quite recognizable as classic Beane philosophies (see below for examples).

The A's have advanced beyond these early guidelines, and Beane has had as much to do with that as anyone. It's the A's willingness to leave no stone unturned (low K pitchers, platoons, quality defense at all positions, aging veteran talent, and on and one) in pursuit of the undervalued that defines this era in Oakland history. Beane's relentless passion for finding the new undervalued asset has yet to cease and is part of what makes him a successful MLB GM.

Some guidelines from Eric Walker's "Winning Baseball":

- Winning a seven-game major-league baseball series is much more a matter of luck than inherent ability.

- Trade all players by age 29

- No free agents!

- Virtually all tactical ploys—the sacrifice bunt, the stolen base, the hit-and-run—operate on average to reduce run scoring.

- No free agents!

- NOT ALL GIANTS—JUST NO MIDGETS.

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