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Oakland A's performance shows that 'moneyball' doesn't always pay off

The use of statistical analysis to identify underappreciated players may lead to periods of success, but the concept has never been a panacea for the problems of a low-budget team.

September 10, 2009|MICHAEL HILTZIK

If anybody out there happens to be interested, the Oakland Athletics are on track to turn in their worst performance on the baseball field in more than 10 years.

Normally, the travails of a losing ballclub wouldn't be of much note outside its hometown. But the A's aren't just any faltering ballclub.

Over the last decade or so, the team and its general manager, Billy Beane, have been the leading exponents of a style of major league management known as "moneyball," after the title of Michael Lewis' 2003 book about the franchise.

Moneyball, in Lewis' formulation, meant the use of sophisticated statistical analysis to identify underappreciated -- and therefore underpriced -- players and assemble them into a successful team.

This is a powerful concept in a sport where have-nots face the challenge of competing, on the field and in business, with permanent haves such as the New York Yankees. The A's, not exactly a small-market but certainly a low-budget organization, employed it to stay competitive for years at a time, reaching the playoffs five times since 1999 despite a payroll consistently ranking among the lowest in the game.

This won't be one of those years. The team's won-lost mark of 62-77is tied for fourth worst in the American League.

The A's performance presents an interesting question. Does it show the limitations of moneyball -- do the immutable economics of Major League Baseball, in which the rich get richer and leave the other teams in the dust, trump even the best statistical analysis?

Or to put it another way, does it actually confirm the utility of moneyball -- are the A's behind the eight ball in part because every other team in the league is now using the same methods?

Certainly the latter phenomenon is a real one.

"Every team today has a guy doing this sort of analysis," Kevin Goldstein, a writer for the website Baseball Prospectus, told me recently. "Oakland originally was getting more bang for the buck, but players today are more properly valued as a whole. So it's harder to find diamonds in the rough."

The Boston Red Sox went to the extent of adding Bill James, baseball's godfather of statistical analysis (whose annual 1982-88 Baseball Abstracts still occupy an honored place on my bookshelf), to their front office in 2003.

He helped the Red Sox build the team that won the World Series in 2004, their first championship in 86 years, and again in 2007. The statistics-based insights popularized by James and his followers and absorbed by other teams included the importance of on-base percentage, the costliness of unsuccessful stolen-base attempts and the need to assess defensive skills in new ways.

These concepts contributed, directly or indirectly, to the success of poverty-row teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, a gang of unheralded youngsters that snagged the American League pennant last year.

The Rays' opening-day 2008 payroll, $43.8 million, ranked 29th among the 30 major league clubs and came to about 21% of the top spending club, the Yankees, who didn't make it into the playoffs.

Many teams have gotten better at using statistical analysis to counterbalance the prevailing economic realities of the sport.

Consider that the most important inflection point in the relationship between a young player and his club comes three years after his rookie year, when he becomes eligible for salary arbitration and his price can skyrocket -- as happened when an arbitrator jacked up the salary of Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard to $10 million from $900,000 in 2008. (A player can become a free agent three years after that.)

That means that if you can identify a promising talent ahead of your rivals and lock him into a long-term contract that moves the arbitration deadline off by a year or two, you can develop young players and keep your payroll under control for a long time.

It's no mystery why there's been a surge in rich contracts for untested prospects -- Exhibit A being the four-year, $15-million contract the Washington Nationals gave their No. 1 draft pick this year, a 21-year-old fireballer from San Diego State named Stephen Strasburg.

The deal will still give Strasburg two years of eligibility for salary arbitration, but the Nationals get four years to make him the centerpiece of their pitching rotation before an arbitrator gets a crack at him.

"He's still a bargain if he's as good as they say," Goldstein says.

Making such deals with amateurs puts a premium on high-grade analysis, though it has to be integrated with more traditional skills.

"Moneyball works in giving you another set of tools," says Maury Brown, a veteran baseball analyst and founder of the Biz of Baseball website. "But you still need good scouting, and luck -- you have to draft well and get everyone hitting at the same time."

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