Tuesday, July 01, 2003

And Now for Something Completely Different: Misery Loves Company Literary Review

I just finished Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, an outsider's look at the internal workings of the Oakland A's front office. The book has created a whirlwind of controversy in MLB management circles, largely because it paints nearly everyone in the baseball front offices as idiots who serve to make A's GM Billy Beane look like a genius. Lewis is worshipful of Beane and his front office team, so it's difficult to tell how much of the book is a true reflection of reality, but the following themes are undeniable:

1. Baseball management, as currently configured, is a network of conservative thinkers who function with the preservation of the as a primary goal. In this environment, new ideas are openly mocked, and creative thinkers are largely surpressed.

2. Past performance (as measured by statistics) is a vastly more efficent method for predicting future performance for players than the current "tools"-based method. In other words, a player that has demonstrated an ability to hit, pitch, field, etc. is more likely to succeed than a player who looks like he can play. This is, in my opinion, the really critical insight that the A's have leveraged to great success. Baseball scouts love guys who look like Adonis and run like deer. The A's don't care if they look like Ben Stein, as long as they understand the strike zone and have shown an aptitude for hitting a baseball.

3. As a result of 1. and 2., the market for baseball talent (players) is grossly inefficient. Teams have failed to internalize reams of scientific evidence indicating that their current scouting and development practices are suboptimal. Scouting, drafting, signing and developing players is a crapshoot, and it doesn't have to be - at least not as much of one.

4. The very few teams that understand 1. and 2., and actively use performance-based measurements in running their systems, have a distinct advantage in the near term over those teams that continue to operate using traditional methods. The A's, Blue Jays, Red Sox, and - to a lesser extent - Padres, have all moved to a new model, and are among the league's best teams (with the obvious exception of San Diego, who has been crippled by injuries).

5. The Yankees' unlimited funding renders a lot of this moot. That's not in the book, but it is true.

I'll be interested in the impact that this book - and more to the point, the success of the teams listed above - has on the way baseball is run. In most markets, inefficiencies don't last very long as the market moves to eliminate the advantages held by the few. Baseball has proven to be an exception, as the "baseball minds" that run the game have resisted the imposition of market efficiencies for decades. Does this mean that the Sox under John Henry will have a long, successful run? Does it mean that baseball will finally pull its collective head out of the sand and move to a model that forces continued evolution, like nearly every other market system? Will the Yankees just buy everyone else and make them all part of their farm system? Stay tuned, because the future of the game is at stake.

No comments: