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.