More on Levitt

Steve Levitt is right, when he writes about baseball he agitates a lot of people. I am a little bit disturbed at how Levitt’s comments have been received. Now, Steve is a big boy (and a lot smarter than I am) so he can defend himself. I don’t 100% agree with his take on Moneyball, but I think the things he is saying are largely correct and backed up by data. If people would, if just only for a moment, actually sit down and read his posts for what they say, they might see some interesting things.

Here is exactly what Levitt claims to have demonstrated with his most recent post.

The fact is that all of these teams are generating runs in almost exactly the same way. Oakland has been successful because they have great pitchers and because they have had good hitters (who look a whole lot like the good hitters on other good teams). Billy Beane may have done it with a smaller budget, but that is not the point that is in contention. Lot’s of general managers do well with small budgets and don’t get best-selling books written about them. The story in Moneyball was how Billy Beane did it, and that story just isn’t an important part of the true explanation when it comes to generating runs.

I add the emphasis. How many people have just ripped into Levitt saying that Moneyball is about more than OBP, SLG, OPS, etc.? It is about more, but that’s not the point he is trying to make. As best I can tell, there have been very few people who have addressed exactly what he is saying. Don’t bring up Chad Bradford, don’t bring up drafting the big-3, don’t even think of talking about the philosophical creed of the A’s organization. Those things do have something to do with the A’s success, but they have nothing to do with the argument made by Levitt in his most recent post.

One thing that I have learned from following Levitt’s posts is that the A’s are like a few other teams that have similar budgets. I think Levitt has undersold Beane’s ability to win on the cheap, but he acknowledges this is not a contention he’s interested in. But, it caused me to look at the data in a different way. Below is a list of teams ranked on total budgets as a percent above/below the league average payroll and the number of playoff appearances by team.

Team	Payroll	Rank	Playoff		Team	Payroll	Rank	Playoff
FLO	-44.91%	1	1		BAL	-1.21%	16	0
KCA	-41.92%	2	0		COL	-0.59%	17	0
MON	-40.74%	3	0		ANA	1.08%	18	2
MIN	-40.27%	4	3		HOU	2.78%	19	2
MIL	-40.27%	5	0		CHN	11.11%	20	1
PIT	-34.91%	6	0		SFN	11.36%	21	3
TBA	-34.53%	7	0		SLN	16.04%	22	5
OAK	-32.61%	8	4		SEA	21.19%	23	2
SDN	-28.81%	9	0		TEX	25.57%	24	0
CIN	-24.57%	10	0		ARI	26.08%	25	2
DET	-17.10%	11	0		ATL	38.22%	26	5
CHA	-15.36%	12	1		BOS	49.39%	27	2
PHI	-5.05%	13	0		NYN	50.39%	28	1
TOR	-4.93%	14	0		LAN	57.84%	29	1
CLE	-1.66%	15	1		NYA	94.13%	30	5


The A’s are just out of the bottom quartile of teams in terms of payroll average as a percent of the yearly league average. They have done quite well in that position, going to the playoffs 4 of the past 5 years. Billy Beane ought to be praised, and praised highly, for his success as the A’s GM. But take a look at the Marlins and Twins. They may have gone to the playoffs fewer times than the A’s, but they have also spent less than the A’s. The Twins have been quite good over this same span, and Florida has won a World Series. The one area where the A’s outdo the other small payroll teams is average wins. Does this mean Billy Beane is a bad GM? No. But, as Levitt says, “Lot’s of general managers do well with small budgets and don’t get best-selling books written about them.”

I think Steve has made his point clearly and the data support his contention. Do I think the A’s do something better than other teams at exploiting inefficiencies in the market? Yes, I do. And I think Skip Sauer and Jahn Hakes have shown conclusively that the A’s did do it by correctly valuing OBP when it was mis-priced by the market. The success of the Twins, and to a lesser extent the Marlins, shows that Beane is not the only guy to win without money. The success in producing runs through sabermetric-approved stats is also something the A’s share with many other teams.

I am at a loss as to why people have become so agitated with Steve. I like sabermetrics and sabermetricians, but I don’t understand the defensive reflex that Levitt invokes. My goodness, he probably got less flack from his abortion and crime study. This is not just some idiot journalist who’s spouting off why he hates Billy Beane because of things he heard while dipping some cherry Skoal with old scouts during batting practice. This is a pretty well thought out argument that should be addressed, if for no other reason but to possibly gain new insights.

24 Responses “More on Levitt”

  1. Jeff says:

    I don’t think his argument is valid. Oakland doesn’t score runs in a fundamentally different manner than other teams. But that’s not what Moneyball is about. Oakland scores runs, but for less money. Those five teams he compares spent 94% more, 49% more, 21% more, 1.5% less and 32.5% less than the average payroll, with Oakland being far below the others. The fact that Oakland competes with Boston, NY, etc. with such a low payroll is the point of Moneyball. None of this evidence disproves that.

    Of the 17 teams that spend less than average, only two teams have made the playoffs more than once – Oakland with 4 and Minnesota with 3. Of the 13 teams that spend more than average, only 4 teams failed to make the playoffs more than once. So yes, Oakland is doing something different than most teams. Only Minnesota (which should get more credit) is comparable.

  2. Rob says:

    “Lot’s of general managers do well with small budgets and don’t get best-selling books written about them.”

    Probably this is the first point that upsets people. This just isn’t true. Something like the following suggests he really should shut up:

    “And for all these comments about how I’m an idiot for not controlling for Oakland’s tough-to-hit-in home stadium, Oakland had an OBP of .350 at home in 2004 and .336 when on the road. They also scored more runs at home than away. The Oakland ERA was not much different home or away either (4.06 vs. 4.29).”

  3. JC says:

    Rob, did you read my post? Either argue with the data I present or don’t respond. This is the problem. You are flat wrong. Did you see the point about the Twins and the Marlins? That statement is true. If you disagree with my interpretation you need to respond.

    And I’m not sure why you’re being so smug about the second statement. He’s responding to the argument that the A’s have lower OBP and runs because of their tough park. That is not true.

  4. josh says:

    I haven’t read Moneyball, but why should that stop me from throwing my two-cents in?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but an important part of the book is about how the A’s discover their talent and why it is a more cost-effective method. I think a more relevant study would be to look at the track records of players Beane aquires and compare them to those of others. Specifically, do they have less in the way of major league track records that other teams might over-value when compared to minor-league track records. Also, a look at how the A’s farm system compares to others and a comparison of how Oakland and other teams’ prospects turn into Major League commodities would be nice.

    How is this relevant to the argument that Levitt makes (that the A’s don’t score runs differently from other teams)? It isn’t. Perhaps, the A’s don’t score runs any differently than other teams (although, maybe a look at not giving away outs via CS or Sac bunts would be relevant to how the A’s score). Levitt’s argument is in itself a strawman; if you’ll recall, Levitt’s original
    thesis was that he saw no evidence of Beane’s “genius” (probably itself a strawman of word-choice). He also says that the A’s don’t win because of the reasons outlined in Moneyball. If what he is arguing against isn’t the Moneyball hypothesis, all Levitt has done is created and dfeated a strawman argument. Good for him. Did I mention I haven’t read the book. Maybe it does say the A’s win because their players get on base more and slug more than other teams, but from my second-hand, hearsay knowledge of the subject, I don’t think that’s the case.

    I’m a big fan of Levitt’s work as well and I agree that he is a brilliant guy, but let’s not forget that his original point was that he does not see any proof of Beane’s genius. He hasn’t proved that and has essentially ried to using the wrong arguments.

  5. Marc Schneider says:

    “I am at a loss as to why people have become so agitated with Steve. I like sabermetrics and sabermetricians, but I don’t understand the defensive reflex that Levitt invokes.”

    Because sabermetrics has become a dogma and like any dogma, the true believers can’t tolerate anything or anyone that questions the pieties of the true religion.

  6. Adam says:

    I guess I just don’t get it. I think Moneyball has been one of the most misinterpreted works in recent memory. This is partly due to the sensational way in which it was written, but that’s also why it was a best seller. As far as I can tell, there are two things that it says that Beane has done. One is to actively search for market inneficiencies and exploit them, which seems kind of obvious. The second thing, and by far the most interesting, is applying the scientific method to baseball. It basically says two things, future performance can be predicted based upon past performance, and that performance can be measured quantitatively. He suggests that these quantifiable measures of performance are more reliable than any other measures, which is what has pissed off so many scout types. On base percentage just happened to be one example. Whether or not it is the best example, the only example, or one that has been used exclusively by the A’s is kind of a silly discussion, mostly revolving around the way in which Moneyball was written.

  7. Aaron says:

    Levitt on The Daily Show tomorrow, Thursday, April 28.

  8. Adam S says:

    What is so frustrating to me about Levitt is that he is hyping a non-issue here. as your table shows, the interesting question for an economist is realted to maximising resources. Your table shows Minnesota and Oakland to be outstandingly good over the period, with Texas, LA and the Mets outstandingly bad.

    Furthermore, levitt presents his data somewhat dishonestly (I think perhaps inadvertently as he doesn’t know enough about baseball). It would be far better to show BA, ISOP and ISOD (or whatever you call isolated plate discipline), as OBP and SLG include batting average. I can’t be bothered to crunch the numbers, but it is certainly true that the Oakland offense of 1999-2001 (before the rest of the league caught on to the OBP buzz) was heavily built upon plate discipline and slugging. In those years the A’s ranked 13th, 10th and 9th in the AL in batting average. Yet they ranked 4th, 3rd and 3rd in on base percentage and 8th, 5th and 5th in slugging. I’m almost ceratin the difference would be even more stark if you looked at ISOP and ISOD rather than OBP and slugging.

    That to me is the sign of an offense crafted very differently from the league average.

  9. Adam S says:

    What is so frustrating to me about Levitt is that he is hyping a non-issue here. as your table shows, the interesting question for an economist is realted to maximising resources. Your table shows Minnesota and Oakland to be outstandingly good over the period, with Texas, LA and the Mets outstandingly bad.

    Furthermore, levitt presents his data somewhat dishonestly (I think perhaps inadvertently as he doesn’t know enough about baseball). It would be far better to show BA, ISOP and ISOD (or whatever you call isolated plate discipline), as OBP and SLG include batting average. I can’t be bothered to crunch the numbers, but it is certainly true that the Oakland offense of 1999-2001 (before the rest of the league caught on to the OBP buzz) was heavily built upon plate discipline and slugging. In those years the A’s ranked 13th, 10th and 9th in the AL in batting average. Yet they ranked 4th, 3rd and 3rd in on base percentage and 8th, 5th and 5th in slugging. I’m almost ceratin the difference would be even more stark if you looked at ISOP and ISOD rather than OBP and slugging.

    That to me is the sign of an offense crafted very differently from the league average.

  10. Adam S says:

    Sorry for the double post – my system playing up.

  11. J. Cross says:

    JC, I think Rob’s point is that Levitt’s second statement reveals that he doesn’t know how to calculate park factors (he uses only the A’s data at home and on the road instead of the A’s and their opponents numbers neglecting the fact that with a neutral park a team will score more runs at home than on the road). Now, many people don’t know how to calculate park factors. The problem is that Levitt rejects the “conventional wisdom” that Oakland is a pitcher’s park and immediately assumes that he knows better and that those of us who say that the A’s play in a pitcher’s park have never looked at the data. It really makes me question his work when he’s willing to assert that he knows best when he clearly doesn’t.

  12. J. Cross says:

    This is not just some idiot journalist who’s spouting off why he hates Billy Beane because of things he heard while dipping some cherry Skoal with old scouts during batting practice.

    That’s why we expect more.

    This is a pretty well thought out argument that should be addressed, if for no other reason but to possibly gain new insights.

    It doesn’t appear to be very well thought out to me. I think the problem is that Levitt THINKS that people can gain new insights into sabermetrics from him but he doesn’t really have any. He also didn’t address many of the points brought up in comments on his first post either because out of laziness or because he doesn’t like to admit mistakes.

  13. JC says:

    The problem is that Levitt rejects the “conventional wisdom” that Oakland is a pitcher’s park and immediately assumes that he knows better and that those of us who say that the A’s play in a pitcher’s park have never looked at the data.

    1. No, the problem is that he is trying answer the claim that the A’s OBP is low because of their park. That is clearly not true from the data he presents. Park factors would actually be the wrong type of correction in this situation.

    2. Steve does know quite a lot about sabermetrics and baseball data. I think you ought not be so quick to dismiss him. The thing is, I have only seen two people answer Steve’s question about who the team’s are on his list: myself and Walt Davis on Primer. This bothers me for two reasons. First, the bashing of Steve without looking at his point. Second, calculating that type of an average over 5 years takes some skill. That alone tells me Steve has used the Lahman before and understands how to manipulate it. You don’t just pick that up.

    I think the problem is that Levitt THINKS that people can gain new insights into sabermetrics from him but he doesn’t really have any.

    That’s funny because I have learned quite a bit, and I know quite a bit about sabermetrics. It’s amazing what you can learn when you actually take a serious researcher seriously, even when he seems to be off at first.

    Why doesn’t he address points from people who behaved like complete and total jackasses? And now you expect a civil debate? I certainly would not want to jump into that. Once the name calling starts you should not expect a response, especially when it’s clear the people are not correctly reading what he wrote.

  14. Danny says:

    When comparing the A’s and Twins success, you have to take their competition into account. The Twins have played in teh weakest division in baseball the past 5 years, while the A’s have played in the toughest. Not only is it easier for the Tiwns to win more games (unbalanced schedule), but it’s also easier for them to win the division against lesser foes. The Twins actually had the 2nd highest payroll in their division in 2004. The A’s have had the lowest payroll in their division for each of the past 5 years.t

    It seems likely that the Twins would have zero playoff appearances over the past five years if they had played in the AL East or West.

  15. J. Cross says:

    JC, my point is that eh figured out the OBP park factor incorrectly. That’s what he’d need to figure out how Oakland’s park affects their OBP. He used half of one year’s worth of data to “prove” his point. How can you defend that?

  16. J. Cross says:

    I’m assumming you thought I meant the park factor for runs? Is there some reason why the park factor for OBP would be the wrong number to use?

  17. J. Cross says:

    That’s funny because I have learned quite a bit, and I know quite a bit about sabermetrics.

    I’ve been impressed by the work on this site so I don’t question the second part of that statement but, honestly, what have you learned from Levitt’s quick posts on Moneyball? Do you really understand the book or the theory any better than you did?

  18. JC says:

    J., if you don’t like the way Levitt makes a quick and dirty calculation of a park factor on a blog, that’s not a real reason to get upset and blast the guy and declare everything else useless. I suggest that you calculate the number correctly (or the way you wish it to be done) and then toss it forward. Why is what Steve did wrong? How is what you propose better? I see nothing inherently wrong with what he tossed forward.

    I would like to add that no one squirmed when the whole of the sabermetric community incorrectly used Vinny Castilla’s home/road splits to declare him a Coors-only wonder. Steve is facing a double-standard here.

    I’m not sure I understand Moneyball (the book) any better than I did, but I’m not sure what kind of standard that is. I do now think that what Beane does is less of an exception than I used to, which actually brings back some suspicions I had when I first read the book. I like Beane, I do think he is very good — heck, I want the Braves to hire him away when JS retires. But, that doesn’t mean he’s the next coming of Branch Rickey.

  19. Danny says:

    Why is what Steve did wrong? How is what you propose better?

    He should have looked at both the A’s and their opponents’ performances in home and away games, and he should have used multiple years. That’s really standard stuff.

  20. JC says:

    He should have looked at both the A’s and their opponents’ performances in home and away.

    Why is knowing how opponents performed in Oakland relevant to the point Steve is making? I do understand park factors and why they are calculated that way when making numbers neutral across teams. That is not what Levitt is doing. He is just trying to show that the A’s have not been disadvantaged in their OBP too much by their home park.

    he should have used multiple years

    Again, this is a quick and dirty calculation. Is it different when you look at previous years? I don’t know. It’s you’re job to prove it is relevant. Just saying what Steve did is wrong, when he has actually the only person in the debated providing information, is not very helpful.

    Look, if anyone has a problem with Steven Levitt’s analysis, sit down and write up a thorough and polite critique. Point out his mistakes and provide corrections. Levitt doesn’t care about being wrong. He’s interested in truth. Why do you think he goes to these lengths to find answers? Send it to him, and if the data shows him to be wrong I suspect he will clearly admit it and change his mind. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care what a bunch of sabermetricians think of him.

  21. J. Cross says:

    I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care what a bunch of sabermetricians think of him.

    It’s this attitude of his that makes people rip him. And, btw, I defended him after his first post and look forward to his book so it’s not like I’m against the guy.

    I don’t have to calculate the park factors because the information is readily available. Over the last 3 years (02-04) the Network Associates Coliseam has reduced batting average by 3% and walks by 1%. If you were to only use one year’s worth of data (04) you would find that the park reduced average by 4% but increased walks by 3%. One year park factors are known to be unreliable.

    To answer your other question to Danny, you can’t use just the Oakland data because that doesn’t take into account home field advantage. As I think I wrote above, in a neutral park a team will hit better at home than on the road. There’s been a fair amount of writing on this topic. And, I and others commented on problems with Levitt’s calculation in his earlier post but as far as I can tell he didn’t address those coments in his most recent post.

  22. JC says:

    J., please do a study showing how the grand conclusion that Steve has presented is incorrect or stop. You are nit-picking about a factor that likely does not effect the results. Why are you so concerned about a 3-year park factors in regards to walks? There may be a difference, but is there a statistical difference? Why not 5-year factors? Why not use play-by-by data to generate more accurate factors instead of the Palmer home/away innings correction? Would Oakland’s OBP be so much higher that all of those other teams on Levitt’s list after your correction? The burden of proof is on you.

    And you missed my last point about Steve no caring about what sabermetricians think of him. My point is that Steve would gladly change his mind if you made a worthwhile effort to show the correct answer. He certainly would be interested in hearing this. But sarcastic taunting isn’t going to elicit a nice response. Please don’t try and pretend you’ve taken the high road either. While you have been very polite to me, you have not extended that courtesy to Steven on his own website or on Primer. You may have already missed your window to catch his ear. In the future, I suggest taking a different approach to making your points.

    NOTE TO ALL POSTERS: I’m done on this topic until someone presents some counter evidence. No more nit-picking in the comments please.

  23. J. Cross says:

    JC, I was merely pointing out that the way he judged the park affects was incorrect. I’m not claiming that it makes his conclusion invalid. I don’t think it’s a nit-pick especially considering that I was responding to a question you asked. I guess both sides of this one think that the other side is being rude here. I would claim that my tone is a reaction to Levitt’s post but I know you won’t buy that. You’d have to go back to an earlier primer thread to see that I did defended him against ruder posts (not that he would or should care about rude posts on primer).

    Anyway, I watched the Daily Show stored on my TiVo and he came off much better than I thought he did in his posts so I’ll take back my cockiness/attitude remarks for now.

    I’ll go back and look at the study again. Why did he just pick those 5 (good) teams? I guess if you show that several good teams scores runs similarly you can show that Oakland isn’t unique and I’d agree Oakland isn’t unique. There are an increading number of teams doing things the way they do (at least offensively) and as you’ve said (citing the study) OBP is valued more highly than it used to be. I don’t think he’s wrong on that point but I don’t think he’s breaking new ground.

  24. Gotowarmissagnes says:

    I’m still puzzling why Jeff’s first comment and Rob’s first point are being ignored, while people dedate park effects. Because it’s those comments that lead me to question Levitt’s analysis:

    “Lots of general managers do well with small budgets and don’t get best-selling books written about them.”

    Really? Not according to the data. According to the data TWO general managers do well with small budgets. And one of them was playing in one of the weakest divisions in baseball.

    Now, you can argue about whether Beane can sustain this or whether he is even responsible for it or whether he did it “differently” than others.

    But, to say that “lots” of others are able to do it is either ignorant or a lie.