How Moneyball Strikes Out

March 11th, 2011 at 6:20 pm | 26 Comments |

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Forgive me while, in the shameless but time-honored tradition of columnists, I give myself a plug.  McFarland & Company has just put out a book, coauthored by myself and my brother Sheldon, The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball. The subtitle is perhaps too modest.  The book doesn’t merely “confound” the Moneyball approach (which sees baseball wholly in statistical terms), but aims to mount a counterrevolution.

A few decades ago, Bill James was just a numbers-loving baseball nut whose annual “book”, a mimeographed collection of his eclectic thoughts, attracted roughly 75 buyers.  Today, the movement James pioneered (called “sabermetrics”) is taking over baseball.  Believers in sabermetrics permeate the media and, increasingly, the front offices of major league teams.  The catalyst was Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ best-selling book that describes how, in the early 2000s, the Oakland A’s thrived because their General Manager, Billy Beane, employed insights culled from sabermetrics.

As we show at length in The Beauty of Short Hops, the basic premise of Moneyball is fallacious.  Oakland, which crashed and burned shortly after publication of Moneyball, succeeded primarily because Beane was fortunate enough to land three terrific starting pitchers.  When those three departed, he apparently became a lot less smart.

Just as Moneyball’s central conceit collapses upon scrutiny, ditto many of its specific claims, ranging from the best ways to scout players to the proper statistics for evaluating pitchers.  These and many other sabermetric “insights” are demonstrably silly.

More importantly, the saber-obsession with numbers occludes a major aspect of baseball’s beauty – its narrative richness and relentless capacity to surprise.  Baseball, thank goodness, transcends and often defies quantitative analysis.  Games are decided by bad hops and bad calls, broken bats, sun and wind, pigeons in the outfield, and fans who obstruct players, among other unforeseeable contingencies  That may seem obvious (apart from the pigeons), but not to the folks who increasingly run the show.  Rather than celebrating baseball’s delightfully spontaneous quality, sabermetricians deny it or rebel against it.

Take Billy Beane, whose perspective Moneyball describes as follows: “the game can be reduced to a social science. . . .  it is simply a matter of figuring out the odds, and exploiting the laws of probability” because “baseball players follow strikingly predictable patterns.”  Sadly, this distorted perspective has spread to other sports.  The NBA’s Houston Rockets employ Sam Hinkie as “head of basketball analytics.”  In an article in the New York Times Magazine lauding Hinkie and the Rockets, Michael Lewis quotes Mr. Analytic as follows:  “I care a lot more about what ought to have happened than what actually happens.”  This staggering statement captures the impoverished perspective of sabermetrics: Sports as a plaything for social scientists, a laboratory to manipulate probabilities and chart results in order to assist the next simulation.  The game itself conveys no beauty or meaning.

Lewis reports how Hinkie flipped out because the Lakers’ Trevor Ariza hit an off-balance three-point shot.  “That Ariza shot, that is really painful,” Hinke said, “because it’s a near-random event.”  Every basketball fan understands the frustration when good defense is thwarted by bad luck, but surely such “near-random events” are phenomena to be embraced, not wished away.  Hinkie doesn’t see it that way.  To him, a wild shot is the sort of thing that happens but ought not, and thus undermines rather than enhances the sport.

I look at it very differently.  You can dismiss the desperation three-point heave as unfair and somehow beside the point, or you can celebrate it as a wondrous event lying at the heart of sports.  If you worry that baseball and other sports are drowning in statistics, at the expense of a richer understanding and appreciation, check out Short Hops.


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26 Comments so far ↓

  • Elvis Elvisberg

    More importantly, the saber-obsession with numbers occludes a major aspect of baseball’s beauty – its narrative richness and relentless capacity to surprise. Baseball, thank goodness, transcends and often defies quantitative analysis. Games are decided by bad hops and bad calls, broken bats, sun and wind, pigeons in the outfield, and fans who obstruct players, among other unforeseeable contingencies That may seem obvious (apart from the pigeons), but not to the folks who increasingly run the show.

    No. That is not correct.

    Use of statistics is a way to enhance our understanding of sports.

    Of course any given pitch, shot, or game can have crazy stuff happen. We all know that. It’s a big part of why we like sports!

    The issue is, how can we better understand a player’s value & predict his performance going forward.

    And the jury is in– OBP is a better measure of value than AVG. qERA is a better predictor of next year’s performance than ERA. WPA rarely is consistent across seasons so the concept of “clutchiness” is largely made up. BABIP tends to regress to the mean so it helps us guess at what a pitcher’s next season will be like. And so on.

    This doesn’t make us disregard all those chance events and crazy things that happen, at all. It just helps us appreciate the big picture, to see what’s likely to happen over the long haul.

    To folks who find these new statistics off-putting or irritating, I suggest… you don’t read about them! It’s easy enough to enjoy a game without ever having heard of VORP. People who do & people who don’t use newer, better methods of measuring value have no cause to be upset with each other.

    To him, a wild shot is the sort of thing that happens but ought not, and thus undermines rather than enhances the sport.

    Well, I’d say that he’s just upset that it was the sort of fluke event that really shouldn’t have happened, so he’s sad that it hurt his team. I’d say the same thing if someone hit a half court shot to beat Boston College in the Tournament (of course, Clemson didn’t need that today to beat BC (who may well miss the Tournament altogether as a result of their brutal showing today, but whatever)).

    The good folks at Fire Joe Morgan wrote about how stats are a useful tool, not a way of life. They were quite right. See, e.g., http://www.firejoemorgan.com/2008/03/theres-war-brewing.html (“It’s not purely scientific. But it goddamn is kind of scientific.”); http://www.firejoemorgan.com/2008/09/holy-cow-does-jon-heyman-hate-vorp.html

    I have never watched a baseball game, so I can’t speak to this. I’m not even sure what it is. What I can tell you is: watch live baseball all you want. I’ll be in my grandmother’s attic (following a legal dispute over squatter’s rights with my mom w/r/t her basement), staring at my computer, looking at a little think I like to call “data.” That’s all I care about. Data. Raw data. Baseball is good for one thing only: the production of data. That’s what I believe. If I and my friends had it my way, the games wouldn’t even be “played,” but rather “simulated” by 1000 PCs, and the results would be downloaded directly into my brain through Optical Quanta Resonance (OQR), and instead of “discussing” the games the next day, my friends and I would just await the Retinal Scans and then text each other brief congratulations, depending on whose favorite “team” won, and then we would all go on with our lives, grateful that the annoyance of actual “baseball” had been removed from our lives, allowing us to spend more time writing code for our start-up social network site, which we are I think going to call “Together-ing!”

  • balconesfault

    As we show at length in The Beauty of Short Hops, the basic premise of Moneyball is fallacious. Oakland, which crashed and burned shortly after publication of Moneyball, succeeded primarily because Beane was fortunate enough to land three terrific starting pitchers. When those three departed, he apparently became a lot less smart.

    Not sure I agree. Much of Oakland’s success was also in valuing OBP at a time other teams were focusing on batting average when buying talent. Thus, when you look BA at the of lineup for the 103 win 2002 A’s – .233, .280, .272, .308, .275, .266, .240, .252, .274 – it’s easy to not be impressed. Only one .300 hitter, and 3 regulars below .255.

    Now look at their OBPs – .313, .374, .359, .354, .348, .376, .298, .333, .350. These guys were consistently getting on base – which is the real key to being able to score runs … and not whether you got there with a single or a walk.

    Oakland hit .261 as a team … actually below AL average that year. But they .339 team OBP, 5th best in the league. And that wasn’t a fluke – in 2001 they were 9th in BA and 3rd in OBP.

    In 2000, 11th in BA and 3rd in OBP.

    What that allowed the A’s to do, for a sliver of time, was to keep around guys like Matt Stairs (2000 BA .227/OBP .333) and Randy Velarde (2000 BA .275/OBP .354) without paying an arm an a leg, because some other teams were spending their money on guys like Garrett Anderson (2000 BA .286/OBP .307).

    Unfortunately for Oakland, other GMs caught on over time.

  • alexbasson

    Mr. Hirsch seems to have a fatal misunderstanding: that his motivations as a fan and spectator are or ought to be the same as the team’s General Manager’s. But in fact, his motivations as a spectator—to enjoy an exciting game—differ entirely from the GM’s motivation to assemble a winning team.

    The wild shot anecdote is a perfect example: Of course it’s an exciting play, and I have no trouble understanding why a spectator would “embrace” it. But it’s not a play that reliably leads to wins, which is what Hinkie is mostly concerned with. If his players often made wild three point attempts, the crowd might enjoy it, but the team would lose a lot of games. And Hinkie knows that in the long run, fans would rather the team win. Hirsch writes, ” Every basketball fan understands the frustration when good defense is thwarted by bad luck, but surely such ‘near-random events’ are phenomena to be embraced, not wished away. Hinkie doesn’t see it that way.” Right, exactly. Because Hirsch isn’t a basketball fan—he’s an employee of a basketball team, charged with helping the team maximize their wins.

    Yes, games can be decided by random events outside the control of the players; sabermatricians would be the first to agree. But would you build a team around the strategy of relying on such events? Not if you want to win games consistently. So you look for the skills and strategies you can control, because those are repeatable. Random events, no matter how fortuitous, are by the definition of random, not reliably repeatable.

    For example: A batter can control whether he swings at strikes but not at balls, but he can’t control whether the balls he puts in play take bad hops. If you’re a GM looking to sign a batter, would you look at his bad-hop percentage or his pitch recognition ability? You look at the latter—not because a bad hop can’t be a good (or even a winning) play, but because the batter can’t control it and therefore can’t repeat it. He may win the game today, but what will he do tomorrow and for the rest of the season? As the person hiring him, you want to know which skills he can reliably repeat, not how lucky he’s been in the past.

    But these questions are irrelevant to the spectators. We’re not responsible for hiring players—in fact, beyond our financial support we have no responsibility for the team’s success or failure at all. So we may very much enjoy the bad hop that wins the game. We’re just looking for a good, exciting time.

  • Rabiner

    Balconesfault lays out why Moneyball was successful. Basically the concept is to analyze sports to find undervalued statistics which have an impact on winning and to go after them since they are undervalued. Texas did this recently with regards to defense statistics 2 years ago going from a poor defensive team to a great defensive team to become better at a marginal increase to payroll.

    If you have a budget as all sports teams do, then you have to find the most efficient way to allocate your funds to acquire talent.

  • KingKaufman

    It’s very impressive that the Hirsh brothers were able to parlay a series of factual errors (saying the A’s “crashed and burned” after “Moneyball” when in fact they won 90 games in each of the next four years after the season covered in the book, going to the playoffs twice and the American League Championship Series once; not understanding that a statistically inclined general manager being upset that a lucky shot beat his team does not equate to statistically inclined fans hating the idea of lucky shots, and so on, and, I’m guessing, and so on and so on) and a pile of strawman arguments (saber-”obsession” is somehow opposed to appreciating the game’s beauty and surprise; sabermetricians “deny or rebel against” baseball’s spontaneity, etc.) into a book contract.

    Nice work if you can get it.

    In their next book, the Hirsh brothers put the boot in on those round-earth fools, whose stubborn refusal to see the beauty and wonder in the flat landscape around them threatens to deny the rest of us the simple pleasure of a picnic at which our drinks don’t spill.

  • sublime33

    Is Hirsch part of the “know-nothings” contingent for baseball? As previous commenters mentioned, Oakland had trouble succeeding in finding the same hidden value in players that they found earlier because the rest of the league caught on and that value was no longer hidden. As for the randomness of events dictating success, I have always contended that if your team lost because of a bad call or bad bounce, your team wasn’t any better than the team you lost to. Because if you were truly better, the bad call or bad hop wouldn’t have had much impact on the overall result.

  • jwilliamb

    A few quick thoughts:

    1) After those “three terrific staring pitchers” (who didn’t just walk up to Beane’s door and ask to pitch for the A’s, either; Beane was GM or Assistant GM when those players were drafted) departed, the A’s have consistently out performed their payroll relative the the rest of baseball, which is ultimately the point of Moneyball tactics. “Luck” (or the “beauty of short hops”) don’t account for that success. Don’t mock what you don’t understand.

    2) Just ask the Tampa Bay Rays how successful Moneyball tactics can be. The authors will have to tackle Jonah Keri’s “The Extra 2%” for their next book.

    Of course, I have not read Short Hops so I cannot comment on it per se, but based on this article, I suspect that the authors have created a false dichotomy. Either you love sports for its inherent randomness, or you are a nerd that analyzes cold numbers in their basement. This article seems to ignore the grey area in between.

    • balconesfault

      1) After those “three terrific staring pitchers” (who didn’t just walk up to Beane’s door and ask to pitch for the A’s, either; Beane was GM or Assistant GM when those players were drafted

      Oh yeah – and that reminds me of another point.

      Beane hated drafting high school pitchers, thinking college pitchers were much more predictable, and would make it to the majors much quicker.

      Tim Hudson – Auburn University (6th round, 1997)
      Mark Mulder – Michigan State University (1st round, 1998)
      Barry Zito – UCSB, USC (1st round, 1999)

  • Jim in DE

    Hinkie doesn’t see it that way. To him, a wild shot is the sort of thing that happens but ought not, and thus undermines rather than enhances the sport.

    Alex Basson kinda hints around this, but to put it more directly, I think analytical fans may be more appreciative of the random hops and luck than other fans are, because they acknowledge their randomness. For instance, when the Phillies lose to the Giants in the NLCS, an analytical fan will stand by the Phillies, think they are still a good team (perhaps even the better team), understand that any team can win a short series, understand that a hot week from Cody Ross and one team hitting better than the other with runners on or in close late spots will happen in a six game stretch, etc. From what I hear on sports radio, non-analytical fans tend to look for scapegoats and “chokers.” One wonders whether Hirsch would find that sort of scapegoating and belittling of the character of players like, say, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, who played huge roles in bringing this town its first sports championship in years way back in 2008, doesn’t “undermine” the appreciation of sports.

    (And don’t even get me started on “disgraceful choker” Donovan McNabb and “dimwit” Andy Reid, who have only led their team to championship contention practically every year and contributed to the most compelling stretch of Eagles football that this town has ever seen.)

  • Brien@IIATMS

    “Oakland, which crashed and burned shortly after publication of Moneyball, succeeded primarily because Beane was fortunate enough to land three terrific starting pitchers.”

    If the author would kindly open his copy of Moneyball to page 22, he’ll notice that the book…says exactly the same thing. Notably that the ability of baseball teams to pay players well below their market value is a crucial element to Moneyball.

    But thank you for confirming what pretty much everyone assumed, that we have another “rebuttal” to Moneyball from a person who either hasn’t read the book or didn’t begin to understand what it was saying.

  • Amos

    Mr. Hirsch, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  • Rabiner

    Amos:

    haha, I love that movie for that one line especially.

  • Larry@IIATMS

    I pride myself on being a nice guy. But some of Hirsch’s statements above are so bizarre, it’s difficult to react in a nice way, particularly since Hirsch himself appears to approach his topic with a unique combination of arrogance, ignorance and a lack of interest in making any kind of sense.

    For example, take Hirsch’s statement that “the saber-obsession with numbers occludes a major aspect of baseball’s beauty – its narrative richness and relentless capacity to surprise.” Beautiful. The word “occlude” is not one I toss around much: it means to cause something to become closed, blocked, stopped up, or obstructed. It is as if baseball’s beauty used to be like blood flowing freely through a vein, then sabermetrics came along like a nasty clot, so now the beauty no longer flows.

    We’re forced to take a step back and wonder what in the world could Hirsch have meant when he said this. I gather that the “occlusion” of baseball’s beauty must be a bad thing — it does not appear that Hirsch intends to praise sabermetrics for occluding baseball’s beauty. But surely when Hirsch employed the word “occlude”, he meant to say something more than sabermetrics are bad. What more did he mean to say? That baseball’s beauty used to flow like a river, and now it is dammed up like a lake? Are rivers better than lakes? Perhaps Hirsch envisions himself on the wrong end of the sabermetrics dam: baseball’s beauty used to flow past him like water, but then Bill James built this big dam upstream and now Hirsch finds himself standing on the banks of a dry river bed. Is this what he’s saying?

    If so, I’m puzzled. Hirsch might have said that sabermetrics “obscures” the true beauty of baseball, that baseball fans who read Bill James are looking at the wrong things and missing what makes baseball such a great game. I might argue with Hirsch on this point, but at least I’d understand what he was trying to say. But an “occlusion” is not a matter of perception, it is not a matter of myopia or perspective, and it is not a problem limited to a particular group of observers. If a flow is occluded, then it is occluded for everyone. Moreover, an occluded flow is a CHANGED flow — the objective state of the flow was once free and it is now blocked. Is Hirsch saying that sabermetrics has actually changed the way baseball is played, as if the game was once played beautifully, then Bill James wrote his Baseball Abstracts, and now the game is played in an objectively different (and uglier) way?

    Evidently not, because Hirsch goes on to say that “[r]ather than celebrating baseball’s delightfully spontaneous quality, sabermetricians deny it or rebel against it.” In other words, while the sabermetricians have somehow occluded the flow of the beauty of baseball, Hirsch himself is unaffected by the occlusion — he can still see baseball’s “delightfully spontaneous quality” flowing downstream as always. Hirsch does not explain how he is able to pull off this trick. Does he use mind-altering drugs so that he can experience a flow even though the flow is blocked? Perhaps Hirsch is secretly a Jedi master, or more realistically, perhaps Hirsch can appreciate the flow of an occluded river the same way as a Zen master can drink tea from an empty cup.

    But since Hirsch does not appear to possess remarkable spiritual powers, nor does he seem to believe that sabermetrics have ruined the beauty HE can see in the game of baseball, Hirsch must have meant something else by his use of the word “occlude”. My best guess is that when Hirsch uses the word “occlude”, he’s not talking about a real-world occlusion, like a dam or a blood clot. Nor is he talking about an occlusion that he imagines to exist, as he seems perfectly aware that there is no such occlusion. Instead, he must be talking about an occlusion that he thinks OTHERS imagine to exist. By others, I’m talking about people like me who think that there is something to the work of authors like Bill James.

    I know this isn’t easy to follow, but try to stick with me here. What Hirsch seems to be saying is that by reading a Bill James book and finding value in some of the advanced statistics used to analyze a baseball game, I have built an occlusion in my thinking, that I have intentionally dammed off my ability to perceive the beauty of a game of baseball, and as a result I am effectively staring at a metaphoric dry river bed of my own imagination. Moreover, Hirsch is saying either that I am too stupid to realize that the river bed is dry, or that I am so boorish that I prefer a dry river bed to a flowing river.

    To which I respond in three ways:

    1. Look Mr. Hirsch, if all you’re trying to say is that I’m missing the point, or that my enjoyment of sabermetrics is somehow obscuring (not occluding) my appreciation for what baseball is truly all about, then why don’t you just say so, instead of torturing the English language in ways that make me have to interpret what you’ve written ten different ways (all in your favor) to make any sense of it.

    2. You’re an extremely arrogant man to think that you can look at a Bill James book, or a Michael Lewis book, and conclude from it that I am either stupid or a lout.

    3. Screw you, buddy.

  • Brien@IIATMS

    Wow, you know you’ve done some grade-A trolling when you get my colleague Larry to say “screw you.”

  • Rabiner

    Damn, I feel bad for the author now more than before. Btw, I love the baseball blogs that are associated with ESPN. They have some of the best baseball analysis and discussions anywhere.

  • Larry@IIATMS

    Brien, I know when I’ve been insulted.

  • Brien@IIATMS

    Thank you very much Rabiner.

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  • Westside guy

    I wonder if Hirsch actually believes this? This seems almost crafted to our political times – with the rise of the Tea Party folks and anti-intellectualism being celebrated, I tend to suspect the author more of an attempt to find a new, unfilled (and therefore profitable) niche in sports writing rather than actually holding these statements seriously.

    He makes counter-arguments against points that don’t actually exist – almost as if he were to state “red is not the opposite of two, despite what others say”. It’s as if he’s lamenting against the statistician that warns how five heads in a row doesn’t change the odds of the sixth toss – “those sterile lab-coated analysts who refuse to enjoy the mystery of the coin flip”.

  • jim in nc

    Wow. How fitting that this delusional book is plugged on a right-wing forum, and comforting to see it slammed so effectively and persuasively in comments. The limitations of a statistical approach to baseball are well-known–to the best statheads! The basic premise of this book is completely wrong. It’s not that statheads ignore chance, as these clowns claim, but that statheads stress the role of chance in ERA, BA and esp pitchers’ wins and RBI. The laws of probability still apply when a large number of random events are included. Old-school guys lament that Jason Werth didn’t drive in enough runs last year; all intelligent baseball fans know that there was a lot of luck involved in his low RBI total. Old-school guys say that Bert Blyleven didn’t win enough games, and that Jack Morris was a big winner; intelligent baseball fans know that Morris was pretty good, but lucky, and that Blylevyn was great. The publication of this book is testimony to one of our society’s worst problems: stupid rich people control the media and use their influence to promote all sorts of stupid and/or unscientific nonsense. When is the author going to be interviewed on Fox News by a clueless bimbo (male or female)?

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  • JEnotJEJE

    @jim in NC

    “Alan Hirsch appears to be a civil libertarian (and thus probably a liberal, just given the relative size of these populations) whose life’s work has been documenting the weakness of confessions as evidence and fighting for the right of the accused within our legal system.”

    http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/newsstand/discussion/alan_hirsch_how_moneyball_strikes_out/

    (Comment 39.)

  • ditka

    I don’t know why people think Money Ball is so new. If you look at alot of the ideas actually employed under the system – no bunting, don’t steal bases, patience at the plate – it seems really similar to Earl Weaver’s Orioles. All they did was win a World Series and win the pennant three more times.

  • sublime33

    “I don’t know why people think Money Ball is so new. If you look at alot of the ideas actually employed under the system – no bunting, don’t steal bases, patience at the plate – it seems really similar to Earl Weaver’s Orioles.”

    Or the Milwaukee Brewers of the early 80′s who took the Cardinals 7 games into the 1982 World Series. Sure they had Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, but they also had Rob Deer, Gorman Thomas and Ben Oglive who had so-so batting averages but very good on base percentages and even better slugging percentages. Oh, and some pretty good pitchers.

  • czontixhldr

    Hirsch totally misses the point of Moneyball and sabermetrics: It’s about using stats to exploit market inefficiencies when valuing players. It’s not static. How those players are valued can change over time.

    I suggest he take a reading comprehension course.

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