Levitt on Beaneball

The Sports Economist links to an article in the Financial Times about University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt. Levitt, the most recent winner of the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal, is a very interesting fellow. If you had me for senior seminar, you know how much I admire Dr. Levitt’s work. But this quote at the end of the article surprised me.

There has been much hype recently about baseball clubs finding statistics to identify good players. Levitt read Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball about the supposed innovators, the Oakland As, and is unimpressed. “If you look at all the stats they say are so important, the As are totally average! There’s very little evidence Billy Beane [the club's general manager] is doing something right.”

Really? So I looked at the numbers, and he is right (at least on offense). The table below (oh you know I’m going to overuse this little tool) lists the Mean OBP, SLG, and OPS for the Oakland A’s and the American League (AL) from 2000-2003. I also include the SD of the variables for the AL.

Oak 0.337 0.429 0.766
AL 0.332 0.426 0.759
AL(SD) 0.015 0.026 0.039

Note to self, never doubt Steven Levitt. Wow! So what does this mean? Maybe Billy is not so innovative after all. I think I’ll submit the article over as a Clutch Hit to Baseball Primer to see what the Primates have to say about it.

Update: I sent David Pinto of Baseball Musings an e-mail about this. He kindly responds to me that while the A’s offense may not be all that impressive, the pitching probably is. You have to look at both sides. I don’t have the pitching statistics handy, but I would suspect he is right. Also, David points out that Beane is getting his average talent for less than the average price. Thanks David!

Another Update: Baseball Primer has started a discussion thread on this article. There’s nothing like getting that Primer pointer glory.

Even More: I could not resist. I had to check out a sabermetric-approved pitching statistic to examine the claim that the A’s might be winning with excellent pitching and average hitting. Luckily, Futility Infielder calculates the DIPS-corrected ERA (dERA) for all pitchers in 2003. The site has all of the relevant information about the DIPS correction. The average dERA for the AL in 2003 was 4.97 with standard deviation of 1.95. The average dERA for the 2003 A’s was 4.43. It is lower, but not by much. I think Levitt is onto something. Even if the A’s are paying fewer dollars per OBP-point (for example), that should only make the A’s an average team with a below average payroll. This means that the Moneyball-approved statistics may not fully explain what has caused the A’s to succeed in the past few years. I am beginning to see why Beane may have been so loose-lipped in the company of Michael Lewis.

And Finally (I think): I want to say that I disagree with Levitt’s statement that there is no evidence that the A’s are doing anything right. Clearly, Bean & Co. have done a very good job of winning over several seasons. I am concentrating on Levitt’s statement that “If you look at all the stats they say are so important, the As are totally average!” I take this to mean that the stats hyped in Moneyball are not explaining much of Oakland’s recent success. A more sabermetrically-inclined friend tells me that this is old news. I think much of what Bean didn’t say — valuing defense and developing new tools for measuring process instead of outcomes — has helped the A’s win. Levitt is pointing out that the main metrics do not tell us much about the success of the A’s, which is something I did not realize. Sabermetrics is as much about a philosophical approach to analyzing the game as it is about using data analysis. There is no doubt the A’s are winning and performing well in some less sophisticated measures of performance (e.g., the A’s pitching led the league in regular old ERA), and I think the Beane model is contributing to that success. I am not sure if Levitt would agree with me on this, because he does clearly state that “There’s very little evidence Billy Beane [the club's general manager] is doing something right.”

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