Moneyball: I KNOW Billy Beane Is a Great GM, But...

Even though I’m not a serious, hardcore sabremetrician, I do respect and admire the great job Billy Beane did for many years. I have to say that up front because, inevitably, threads like this devolve into insult fests, with one side insisting that “geeks” like Billy Beane and Bill James have completely drained the fun from baseball, and the other side screaming that anyone who doesn’t genuflect before Beane is a troglodyte.

So, before anything else, I acknowledge that Beane is a smart guy who, on the whole, has done a great job with limited resources.

I’ll also say that “Moneyball” was a pretty good (not great- it’s too long, for one thing) movie- even people who don’t normally care about baseball at all (like my wife) are likely to enjoy it.

That said, check out this clip from the new movie “Moneyball.”

Way to go, Billy! You’re not gonna let some old-school manager tell you who’s good and who’s not. Your numbers tell you Scott Hatteberg is The Man, and you’re not gonna let some fat, old-school ex-jock play somebody else based on his gut.

As a movie scene, it’s great. But there’s one problem, and it’s a problem the movie never, EVER acknowledges.

“Pena” was Carlos Pena. And the record shows clearly that Carlos Pena has been a much, much better player than Hatteberg!

In other words, the old fart manager who supposedly didn’t appreciate the genius of Billy Beane was RIGHT, and the supposed cutting edge genius was wrong.

Now, I’m NOT pointing this out in order to gloat. Yes, Beane screwed up big time in this case, but that’s forgivable. Even geniuses make mistakes, and they’re entitled to.

I just have to wonder… there are all kinds of GOOD moves Beane has made that the film could have used to show how smart he was. Why on Earth would they use one of Beane’s biggest BLUNDERS in a scene that’s supposed to show how much smarter he was than Art Howe?

What part of the record shows that Carlos Pena was better than Hatteberg?

All of it. Are you kidding?

For ease of reference, going by the list in Wiki, some players Beane was adamant about not taking based on a stat-geek approach: Prince Fielder, B.J. Upton, Scott Kazmir. He also thought A-Rod was equivalent to Eric Chavez, and that Kevin Youkilis was “The Greek God of Walks” (wrong on every count - he’s Romanian, he doesn’t walk that much, and Terry Francona noted “I’ve seen him in the shower - he isn’t the Greek god of anything”).

The guys Beane would have taken in the 2002 draft “in a perfect world” :rolleyes::

If you find yourself saying “Huh?” about most of these guys, there’s a reason.

Note especially that Oakland is not one of the chronically better-performing teams even by small-market standards. If fantasy-type shit weren’t so seductive to the geekism-oriented, there wouldn’t be so much disdain for actual scouting and drafting and judgment and baseball knowledge around.

Such as what? Seriously, what has he done that shows he’s even as good as the real baseball people in other organizations?

I’m not familiar with the timeline, but from looking at Pena’s and Hatteberg’s careers, I’m guessing that a decision on whether to pick one over the other would have had to been made in 2002 or the following off-season.

A few things:

  1. We’re talking 1B/DH players here, so fielding really isn’t a factor.

  2. Comparing Hatteberg’s and Pena’s numbers at, I don’t see where Pena’s become obviously superior until 2007. Judging by his salary numbers, that must’ve been Pena’s last season before free agency.

  3. The main difference between them from the perspective of 2002 is that Hatteberg was 33 that season, while Pena turned 24. Pena’s going to get better, while Hatteberg’s going to decline. If they’re roughly equal talents over the next few years, I’d think the main factor for Beane is which one you have to pay more to.

And Pena, thanks to those pre-arbitration years, is much the better deal: over the 2003-04-05 seasons, the Tigers will pay Pena $3.2M, while Hatteberg costs the A’s $6.5M over that same stretch of time.

Considering the financial constraints the A’s were dealing with at the time, and given the logic that sabermetric tools were enabling Beane to find talent that was nearly equivalent to that of other contenders, but of necessity much cheaper, ISTM that this angle is where the choice of Hatteberg over Pena seems to really break down for Beane, rather than over their on-the-field performance.

Moneyball is a victim of the same problem as The Social Network. The more you know about the real story, the more the utter wrongness of the whole thing shines through.

But The Social Network was an entertaining flick and I’ll bet Moneyball is too.

Which player do you think had a bigger impact on their team:

Scott Hatteberg for the 2002 Oakland Athletics or
Carlos Pena for the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays?

This is from Joe Posnanski’s review on


The problem is that they had to dramatize an actual trade that happened during an actual baseball season. Here are the trades Oakland actually pulled off during the 2002 season:

The 3-way deal had bigger names involved, but was also a lot more complicated and didn’t happen right at the trade deadline. (Even if you simplify it to Pena for Lilly for Weaver it’s relatively complicated). If the story was about a fictional team, they could have thrown a Bagwell-for-Anderson swap in there, but it wasn’t, so they couldn’t.

It’s no surprise that ElvisL1ves wasn’t going to let your prediction go unsupported.

As for your question about the Hatteberg/Pena thing, it’s not clear to me why it’s such a big deal in the movie, because i haven’t seen the movie. RTFirefly’s analysis seems pretty good to me, especially the observation about salaries.

On Beane more generally, it seems to me that there are multiple issues to deal with in making evaluations. First, there you have to be careful about what Beane did versus what Michael Lewis focused on in his discussions of Moneyball. If you look at media discussions of the book, and indeed at a lot of Lewis’s interviews about the book, you’ll see that an incredible amount of attention is paid to the issue of OBP. It’s true that this was an important part of the book, and an important part of Beane’s strategy, but it wasn’t the only part and the constant focus on it tends to oversimplify what is really quite a complex story.

We also need to beware, especially, of both the rabid supporters of Beane and Moneyball among the Sabermetric community, and also of the rabid haters among the anti-sabermetrics crowd. The rabid supporters don’t want to hear any criticism at all of Beane’s strategy, while the rabid haters generally love to cherrypick stuff that helps their cause, while failing to appreciate the complexity of the strategy that Beane used. The haters also, in quite a lot of cases, have never read the damn book, and base their criticisms on media discussions of it. Hell, Joe Morgan, one of the most vocal critics of the book, not only hasn’t read it, but the last time i heard him discuss it, he seemed to think it was *written *by Billy Beane.

There have been some very good economists and stat people who have been critical of certain aspects of *Moneyball *and Beane’s management. Steven Levitt, of *Freakanomics *fame, noted that the Athletics were actually pretty average in a lot of the stats that *Moneyball *supporters claimed were so important, like OBP. And he was right. One aspect that he left out, though, is that the story is not one of Billy Beane getting using his strategy to get awesome players; it is about Beane using his strategy to get undervalued skills at below-market value. While the A’s might have been about average in OBP during the seasons that Levitt examines, others have pointed out that he was getting these average stats at below-average prices. Which was a key part of what he needed to do, given the financial constraints that he was under.

Also, J.P. Bradbury (Sabernomics blog) suggests that Beane’s willingness to be so open with Lewis about some of his strategies reflects the fact that there were aspects that Beane probably did not talk about so much. Bradbury suggests that if the stats that were the central focus of the book don’t explain all of Oakland’s success, there were probably other things that Beane didn’t say. Bradbury believes that “valuing defense and developing new tools for measuring process instead of outcomes” have been as helpful as the focus on OBP and SLG in helping the A’s win.

Bradbury also notes—and this is something that the sabermetrics-haters either fail to understand or intentionally ignore—that sabermetrics “is as much about a philosophical approach to analyzing the game as it is about using data analysis.” It’s not just crunching spreadsheets in your mother’s basement; it’s about using data analysis alongside more traditional tools of player evaluation.

There’s also a need for an understanding of history and chronology and consequences. The Athletics, in the period just before and after the release of Moneyball, did incredibly well. And not just for a small-budget team. They did well in absolute terms. In the seven seasons from 2000-2006 inclusive, they made the playoffs 5 times. They won their division 4 times, and in the year that they won the Wild Card, they did so with 102 wins, more than the winners of either the AL East or AL Central.

During that 7-year span, Oakland won more games than any other AL team except the Yankees (NYY 679 wins; OAK 664). Their worst season was 88 wins (.543) in 2005. Over that period, they averaged 23.2 out of 30 teams in payroll. Their highest year was 16th in payroll, and they had years at 28th and 29th during which they made the playoffs.

None of this is to say that Oakland was the only low-payroll club to have some success. But the success was quite sustained for quite a long period, in a market where they were always below the median salary (often well below).

Obviously, the past few years haven’t been anywhere near as good, and some critics argue that this recent slide should count against Beane’s system. J.C. Bradbury noted, back in 2005, that Beane’s success needed to be measured in the long term as well as the short. He agreed with Levitt when Levitt argued that “if the A’s win 81 games a year for the next five years, it is more likely that Beane was lucky than good. If they win 97 a year, I’ll happily concede that Beane is the best. Even an average of 90 games a year and I will acknowledge he is brilliant.”

Oakland have only even managed to get to .500 once since 2006, so maybe Beane isn’t so crash hot, but this also ignores the issue of change over time. All clubs now are using sabermetric strategies in their decision-making. Early on, Billy Beane wasn’t just looking for undervalued skills and players, he was actually using an undervalued strategy. When other clubs began to look for undervalued skills like OBP, that talent was no longer undervalued. And when other clubs began using sabermetric strategies to run their clubs, the early adopters lost their temporary advantage.

328 walks in 412 games in the minors, above average walk rates in the majors. I do not believe he meant that he was actually born in Greece, and I really *want *to believe that you think that’s what he meant, but it’s hard. It’s not clear why you’d bring up Terry Francona calling him a fatass.

Yes, we know.

You missed the actual point of the scene, and possibly the movie (which is the point that 99% of all Moneyball-haters miss). Of course Hatteberg isn’t as good as Pena now* - it’s not about Player A being better than Player B. It’s about “the difference in Player A’s value and Player A’s perceived value” being higher than “the difference in Player B’s value and Player B’s perceived value”. Pena was traded for Ted Lilly. Lilly did alright as an A, nothing spectacular. But they needed pitching, and Lilly was a great target. Hatteberg would not have produced nearly as talented a player in a trade. (Lilly was later traded for Bobby Kielty, who turned out to be a giant bust.)

*However, in 2002, Hatteberg was quite a bit more valuable than Pena was, even after you adjust for playing time.

Yeah, I remember that from the book. The book was structured around the A’s remarkable 20-game win streak and Beane’s frantic pursuit of this player from Cleveland. I read the book ~3 years after it came out, and I remember thinking, Ricardo Rincon? Srsly? The win streak, well, yeah, that’s wonderful. But Ricardo Rincon?

It’s also rarely mentioned that the A’s success at that point was due in very large part to the strong arms of Zito, Mulder, and Hudson–all of whom were admired by scouts and baseball people in other organizations at the time and (as indicated by the contract SF gave Zito) afterward. I don’t care how good Scott Hatteberg was in '02–if you don’t have those three pitchers you don’t have a great season. The A’s deserve plenty of credit for choosing them, signing them, and most of all developing them, but let’s not pretend that the A’s somehow picked these guys up off the scrap heap and no one else wanted them.

And as i say this as someone who thinks the sabermetric perspective is often a very good one.

Oakland was the first team to use sabermetrics in forming a team. There are a hell of a lot more stats since that time, but at that time, OBP was huge. In the movie Beane tells a player to quit trying to steal. He responds with" you brought me here to run and steal’. Beane replies’ I have you here to get on base, not get thrown out at second.’
They relied heavily on OBP. But since it was an unused stat at that time, Beane could get players who appeared of low value to other teams, that fit in with his plans.They did not know what Beane was after.

Oh, and the other thing is the elephant in the room whenever we talk about the A’s of that time–PEDs.

We know about Giambi the elder and Tejada, we know about some other bit players like Adam Piatt and Giambi the younger, we know that Chavez has been the target of much suspicion (though never anything definitive), we know about the clubhouse climate established a few years earlier by McGwire and Canseco…

There’s a lot we don’t know and never will know about PEDs in baseball during that period, but the A’s have “steroids” written across their team picture at the time in a way that few if any other teams do. I repeat there’s stuff we never will know, but there’s always that question: to what extent was Billy Beane’s success based on leveraging the difference between perceived value and actual value, and to what extent did his success come in a vial?

Actually, the people i mentioned in my previous post, as well as anyone else who knows anything about Oakland, are all well aware that the team’s pitching was a major component of its success.

This gets a big fat “meh” from me.

I really don’t find much merit in your contention that the Athletics were somehow especially prone to steroid-based success. And if Beane turned a blind eye to PED use, he was not the lone ranger. It’s completely unreasonable to use this as a major factor in explaining his success.

Okay, maybe we’ve been looking at different articles. But let’s go to the source: Lewis’s original book pretty sharply downplays the role of the starting pitching. In fact, the book barely mentions the three pitchers. According to Google Books, Tim Hudson’s name appears 7 times in the book, Barry Zito’s six. One of those (for each) is in a note from the author that says “Tim Hudson and Barry Zito helped me far more than their brief appearances in this book suggest.” Mark Mulder is mentioned once.

Scott Hatteberg is named many more times than any of those three pitchers, and I’m sure you don’t think that Hatteberg was equal to any of the three of them, let alone equal to all three of them, let alone equal to all three of them several times over. But that’s the impression Lewis leaves. It’s a bit like writing a book about the 2011 Phillies and attributing their success to, I don’t know, the catching, or maybe Ben Francisco. Forget Halladay, Hamels, Lee…it’s that backup infielder that put them over the top! Well, I exaggerate, but not by all that much.

In any case: the thrust of the book is most emphatically not that the A’s were great largely because they had three great starting pitchers. It is that the A’s were good because Beane was able to collect players like Hatteberg. I’m glad you see through that, and I’m glad many of your sources do too. I wish more people did.

As for the steroids issue: you may well be right that the A’s weren’t any worse in this regard than anyone else. And I certainly don’t say that Beane was encouraging players to take the stuff or that he looked the other way more than any other GM. I do maintain, though, that from what we know, Oakland had an unusually strong connection to PEDs, and to the extent that PEDs helped players play better, rebound from injuries faster, etc., that gave the A’s an advantage. Not a turning-a-70-win-team-to-a-95-win-team advantage, but an advantage nonetheless.

You realize, I hope, that the term was a joke based on the way his name sounds. They did not actually believe Kevin Youkilis was from Greece.

“Youkilis” is a Greek name, for what it’s worth.

Well, that was precisely the point i made in my earlier post, when i said that we need to draw a distinction between what Beane actually did and what Michael Lewis wrote about in the book. I happen to think that the book is a well-written story, and points to some very important aspects of Beane’s management strategy, and of new ways of determining value in the baseball market. I’m sure there are aspects of Beane’s strategy that didn’t make it into the book, partly because, as Bradbury suggests, it seems unlikely that Beane told Lewis all of his secrets.

Also, even if the book does focus largely on the issues that you discuss, and doesn’t spend a whole lot of time discussing the pitchers, the pitchers are still part of the overall argument. And i don’t think, either, that Zito was quite as admired by scouts before the draft as you suggest. From the book:

And you seem to also fall into the trap of forgetting chronology. Sure, as you say, the Giants liked Zito enough to give him that massive contract, but that was after he won a Cy Young award and spent 7 solid seasons in Oakland. They, and other teams, were nowhere near as interested in him in 1998 or 1999:

It is possible, i guess, that Lewis is misrepresenting the draft situations of these players, and if you have evidence that he is, i’d be happy to consider it. But it’s hard to argue, based on these paragraphs, that the pitchers are ignored in the book. And Lewis, it seems to me, makes clear that their place on the team is part of his overall argument.

Beane not only had Barry Zito for 7 years, he had him at the precise part of his career when a good player can provide the best value to a team: in the years before free agency, when he is a cost-controlled player.

Over the seven years that Zito was with the Athletics, he gave them (depending upon whose figures you use) 26 Wins Above Replacement for $18.4 million (Baseball Prospectus) or 28.8 WAR for $18.0 million (Baseball Reference). I don’t think there’s a single GM in baseball who would turn down that performance-per-dollar result.

Also, he’s not actually a god.

Just trying to look at some damn facts. I presented some key ones, which you join your fellows in not addressing. The nature of your comment was unfortunately entirely expectable, of course.

It’s called a “joke”. :rolleyes:

Maybe you could explain it to Jimmy.

Have fun continuing your adoration of this clown Beane, guys. I’ll enjoy watching Prince Fielder and B.J. Upton in the playoffs, while his dream-team draftees are working construction and teaching PE .