Does Moneyball Work?

The commercials are all over television promoting the new movie Moneyball, which details the success of the Oakland A’s in the early 00’s. 

Oakland GM Billy Beane used a statistic based approach, featuring the use of on base percentage and slugging percentage to take a team from a small market and make it a contender.

The A’s won some division titles, but never got to the World Series, let alone winning one. 

Several other teams use similar approaches to building their clubs, and the Indians are among them.  Of those teams, only the Red Sox have ever won a World Series, and you can make the argument  their triumphs are dependent more on their large payroll than the “moneyball” approach.

A lot of this approach makes sense.  For example, having a leadoff man with a high on base percentage is perfect logic.

Carlos Santana is a player you might think is having a poor season because he’s hitting .235, but he gets on base almost 35% of the time, and his slugging percentage has been over .450 for most of the year.

He’s having a solid season.

However, there are things that the moneyball people overlook. 

One is baseball IQ.  Older baseball people used to call this “doing the little things”.  This includes things like hitting behind the runner, hitting a fly ball with a man on third and less than two out, and hitting the cut off man.

With power numbers down in the sport, these things are becoming more and more important. 

It’s an area the Cleveland Indians need a lot of improvement in.

A second area overlooked is making contact.  The “seamheads” will say a strikeout is just another out, the same as a flyball and groundout. 

These people revere the “three outcome player” (home run, walk, or strikeout).  Guys like Adam Dunn or Russell Branyan.  However, those guys aren’t run producers for the most part.  Their RBI totals are low compared to their home run totals.

Of course, the stat people undervalue RBI’s in general, saying it is dependent on the number of times you hit with men on base.

This argument does have some basis in fact, but can they explain why Manny Ramirez drove in more runs than Jim Thome when they played together with the Indians?

The reason is Ramirez put the ball in play, driving runners home with singles and outs. 

If you read this blog regularly, you know this is another area where the Tribe needs to get better in.

The stat based people have even influenced the way the sport’s major award are voted on.  Last year, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award despite winning just 13 games. 

Yes, he had an ERA of 2.27, but isn’t the starting pitcher’s job to win games?

This year, many of those writers are thumping for Toronto’s Jose Bautista to win the AL MVP, although the Blue Jays have virtually the same record as the Indians.

Old school people would point out that although Bautista is having a marvelous season, Toronto could probably finish 4th without him.

The point is that statistics need to be looked at and taken for what they are.  Manny Acta overlooked them in watching Orlando Cabrera, but in that case the intangibles didn’t outweigh the lack of production.

But devaluing strikeouts and not looking at the baseball smarts of players shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Hopefully, the Cleveland Indians keep that in mind this off-season.



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