Why I Hate Moneyball

Coming in to the 2011 season, Major League Baseball had 9 teams with an Opening Day payroll that was greater than $110 M.  Aside from that fact, those teams all share one thing in common: they have all seen the end to their 2011 seasons.

The league championship series matchups will see the St. Louis Cardinals taking on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League, and the Detroit Tigers taking on the Texas Rangers in the American League.  The top 9 teams in payroll, heading in to the season, are out of the race, although numbers 10 and 11 (Detroit and St. Louis, respectively) are still in the thick of things.  There’s also number 13, the Texas Rangers, and number 17, the Milwaukee Brewers.

It’s not a big surprise to see these numbers.  Since 1994, only one team has won the World Series with a payroll in the bottom half of the league.  That team was the 2003 Florida Marlins, and it wasn’t easy for them to get there, even without the 25th ranked payroll in the Majors.  The team was largely built off of the remains of the 1997 World Series winners, who were all traded the following off-season in a massive rebuilding process.

There seems to be a picture painted that baseball is fair.  We hear things like “nine different teams have won a World Series in the last ten years” and think that anyone can win a World Series.  We see the New York Yankees eliminated by the Detroit Tigers, and the Philadelphia Phillies eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals, and we’re led to believe that the off-season spending by the Yankees and Phillies might not guarantee them championships after all.  We even see small market teams like the Brewers rise up and head to the NLCS in dramatic fashion, and it gives hope to other small market teams that they too might be able to do the same thing.

I got to thinking about that last part over the last week.  I went to see Moneyball a week ago, after having read the book at least half a dozen times.  I thought the movie was entertaining, and felt it catered to the casual fan, but it was more fiction than anything else.  However, the movie did bring up the discussion of Moneyball.  I saw some people reviewing whether the Oakland method worked.  I saw some people trying to find the modern “Moneyball” stat.  I saw some people proclaiming that “Moneyball” was dead.

All of this got me thinking about the status of Moneyball.  The point of Moneyball is often lost.  It’s not about walks.  It’s not about statistics.  It’s about finding a way for small market teams to compete with big market teams in a sport that allows only a select few to pay eight figure a year contracts.  Regardless of how that’s accomplished, if a team can find a way to get production from a guy at a fraction of the price that the same production would cost in free agency, they’re playing Moneyball.

An example would be in Milwaukee.  If we’re looking at the modern day Moneyball, I’d say it’s the draft.  The draft is the only chance that teams like Milwaukee have of landing elite talent.  It’s how they got Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and Yovani Gallardo.  It’s how they got guys like Brett Lawrie, which allowed them to make trades for guys like Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke.  The Brewers have one of the best young players in the game in Ryan Braun, and they’ve got him for $4 M this year.  Similar production would easily cost the Yankees or Red Sox at least $20 M a year if they’re buying it on the free agent market.

I was set to write an article about the new Moneyball.  I was going to talk about how the draft is the answer for small market teams.  I was also going to focus on the phenomenon of top prospects losing their status after one bad season, even if they still have the talent that made them top prospects.  That phenomenon is what allowed the Pittsburgh Pirates to acquire Jose Tabata, James McDonald, Jeff Locke, Gorkys Hernandez, Andrew Lambo, and others who were previously regarded as untouchable.  I was going to write all of this, but then I got to thinking about the real issue here.

Moneyball was released, and we all got caught up in the debate of the old topic of whether Moneyball works, and what Moneyball means in 2011.  What everyone seemed to ignore is the problem that exists which provides the need for Moneyball.  Despite what Bud Selig wants you to believe, Major League Baseball is not an even playing field.  If it was, we wouldn’t have even heard of Moneyball.  There would have been no need for Moneyball, as everyone would have been on an even playing field.  The smart teams would have won, the dumb teams would have lost, and no team would ever say “we’ve only got (insert young star here) for six years before he goes to the Yankees”.

Again, look at the Brewers as the perfect example.  Milwaukee has done everything right.  They’ve drafted well.  They’ve added some low cost players who have played key roles.  They were patient with their young players, not giving up on Rickie Weeks or Corey Hart after a few down years.  They added key players at the right time, trading for Greinke and Marcum to boost the rotation heading in to the year, and trading for Francisco Rodriguez to lock down the bullpen at mid-season.

You could argue that the approach by the Brewers was perfect.  They made the playoffs because they made all the right moves, whether those moves were draft picks that panned out, trades that worked as expected, or just the luck that is involved when guys like Yuniesky Betancourt step up as key role players.  Despite all of this, we probably won’t see the Brewers repeat their success next year.  Prince Fielder will leave via free agency, creating a huge hole in the middle of their lineup (no pun intended).  A year later, Marcum and Greinke will be eligible for free agency.  After next year, there’s a good chance that they’ll be missing two of their top starting pitchers from the 2011 season, and their best hitter.  They traded a lot of their top prospects to get to this point.  If they don’t win this year, they might not have another shot for awhile.

Then you look at a team like the Yankees.  They were far from perfect.  They featured huge free agent busts like A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin.  They saw guys like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira play well below expectations.  They spent almost $12 M a year on a set-up man (Rafael Soriano), who posted a 4.12 ERA in 39.1 innings this year.  They traded away a ton of top prospects over the years, mostly for short term upgrades.  Yes, they were eliminated, but they’ll be back.  All they need to do is throw $100 M at C.J. Wilson this off-season, or trading a top prospect away for a top young pitcher to help their rotation.  Unlike the Brewers, they don’t need the top prospects.  They can just go out and fill their needs on the free agent market.

There is no way that this is a fair system.  The Brewers have done everything right, and they’re in “win-now” mode.  The Yankees, meanwhile, have been run horribly.  It just goes unnoticed because $200 M a year covers up a lot of mistakes.  Despite this, the Yankees will be going to the playoffs year after year, while the Brewers will be focused on building for a window of opportunity.

That’s why I hate Moneyball.  I don’t hate the idea of Moneyball, or any of the executions.  I just hate the need for Moneyball to exist.  It gives the impression that anyone can compete in Major League Baseball, all while hiding the fact that it is extremely easy for some teams to compete, and extremely difficult for other teams to compete.  When you realize this, there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing things like Moneyball being hailed as a success, and an example of how any team can compete in baseball.  The fact that a team has to go through that much of a process, and be that innovative just to compete in a league where it’s easy for big market teams to compete, just shows how uneven baseball is.  In fact, baseball is so uneven that the Detroit Tigers, with a $105 M payroll, still get the “David vs Goliath” treatment when they eliminate the New York Yankees from the post-season.

The frustrating part is that nothing will change.  Baseball is fine with the current system.  They tout the fact that every team has a chance to compete, all while ignoring the fact that it’s harder for small market teams to compete, and nearly impossible for small market teams to compete for a long period of time.  Every team in the majors can compete.  However, while the Yankees make tons of mistakes on their way to the playoffs, teams like the Brewers are doing everything flawlessly, and teams like Oakland are recreating the game to just have the same chance that the Yankees have without even trying.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Brian Bernard

    Tim,
    I think you TRULY captured the essence of what frustrates the Pittsburgh fan base with this article – at the least you nailed my feelings on the matter.

    We as fans don’t WANT to feel like we will be able to ROOT for a team once a decade, or for that matter once every 20 years – we want to be able to have hope that our team has a chance each year. Perhaps the parity of the NFL is taking things too far in the opposite direction, however what MLB needs to at least consider is that without the ability to get the NATIONAL attention each year rather than the REGIONAL attention it actually gets it will never again compete as America’s favorite game. 

    The only way they regain that national focus is if all the teams have a considerate opportunity to compete year in and year out.

    Great Article, again… and I hope this article gets some national attention rather than being a regional piece!

    Brian Bernard

  • Anonymous

    A few things that irk me:

    The media wants a Yankee Philly or Yankee Dodger – SF World Series every year because of the ratings numbers so they don’t really say too  much about the situation .( or Boston too).

    Bring up the uneven money to a sports talk host in NY or Boston and they say teams like Pitt are stuffing their pockets and not putting the money they recieve from them back in their teams.

    The Yankee fans are allready calling for the team to sign Fielder, they don’t even think about the fact that they have Teixira (sp?) for 18 mil a yr. or more, oh well its just another 150mil

    One thing that does give me some satisfaction is to know that the Yankees are tied to 180mil contract with A-Rod and if they want him to do something they are going to have to find a way to sneak some steroids to him. Maybe MLB will give him a special dispensation. You know ” for the good of the game” .

  • Anonymous

    Tim:  Exc, especially the fact that small market teams need to do step up and take some gambles.  You mentioned Braun – drafted 5th (Clement 3rd, Andrew 11th) he played at Lo A and AA before being called up by Milwaukee in 2007.  He played very well and the Brewers signed him to an 8 year contract after only one year – that’s why he is only making $4 mil in 2011.  But, before we annoint the Brewers, they are the same people who signed Suppan for $50 mil for 4 years after he was washed up!  You win some, you lose some.  They also have the ability to play fast and loose with the $$$ because they have averaged almost 3 million fans over the past 4 years.  
     
    The Bucs are doing the right things, but they have to sign Andrew this off-season for a Bruce-type contract – 6years/$55 mil, and possibly even Neil Walker.  Both have established themselves as solid contributors that we need to build around for the future.   

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      The Suppan thing only further establishes my point. If the Yankees, Red Sox, or even the Cubs make a $50 M over 4 year signing that doesn’t work out, no one really notices. That’s because they’ve got a lot of money to throw around to correct that problem. It’s a much bigger deal when a team like Milwaukee makes that kind of signing and it doesn’t work out. I think all you need to do is look at A.J. Burnett’s deal with the Yankees. They can still compete, despite that bad deal. Same with the Red Sox and John Lackey. I don’t think the Brewers are able to compete with either of these contracts.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OGCKUSO5MA5VUCJHW2YSJ2K3TM Bob

      So Braun didn’t even play in AAA?  Another item that the Pirates suck at is that they coddle guy in minors and keep them there longer than needed.  That is why Pirates have so many AAAA hitters b/c we coddle them and they learn to hit minor league pitching instead of getting them to the show and having them learn how to hit major league ptiching. 

  • Anonymous

    What I rreally hate hearing is how the Yankees blabber about it’s their rite to win the WS. They claim that it’s the Steinbrenner Way. Give me a $200 million dollar payroll and I could run an MLB team out of my garage.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OGCKUSO5MA5VUCJHW2YSJ2K3TM Bob

    Pirates have just as good of a chance as anyone else but when you refuse to spend money and bring back a hitting coach that managed to have you in bottom 5 of every offensive category what can you expect?  You talk about good decisions that Brewers have made, why can’t the Pirates seem to make any good decisions?   They are poorly run and we will see our 20th straight losing season next year.    

    • Anonymous

      This is PP not PG … I think I hear Smizik calling you.

  • Anonymous

    IMO,  Pirate management wants to build through the draft but they prefer experienced players and you can’t have both, as a result they are reluctant to use their in house talent unless they are forced to and they prefer to go out into the market and get some over the hill bum like Overbay and a few others. They have Hague and Jordy Mercer at AAA and my money says they won’t go out in the market and find anyone better.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OGCKUSO5MA5VUCJHW2YSJ2K3TM Bob

      Hague should have been given a chance this year, it’s just stupid and pathetic.  

  • Anonymous

    The argument is not about parity because there is some degree of parity in baseball, about as much as in other sports.  The problem is that this parity is achieved in spite of baseball’s system, not because of it.

    The issue is, as Tim points out, a significant competitive advantage that is inherent in baseball’s economic system.  Over the past 5 years, the third spenders (10 teams that spend the most on payroll), have won all of the past four World Series.  If the Tigers or Cardinals win it this year, that streak will continue as both have a payroll of about $105M.  

    The top third payroll teams have a combined winning percentage of .520.  Both the middle third and bottom third spenders are below .500.  Of the 40 teams that have made the post season in the past five years, 24 (53%) have come from top 33% of spenders.  Just 9 (again out of 40) of these teams have finished at or near the bottom of the league over the past five years.  Using any measure of success, the teams that spend the most are over represented.  Using the same measures for on field failure, the top spenders are under represented.

    Here is the real problem with Moneyball or Moneybell v2.0, that the Rays are using.  Whatever advantages the smart small market clubs create, they are quickly copied by the teams who can spend.  The large market teams combine these best practices with spending and push out the small markets or at least make them come up with new ways to win.

    PS…no Pirate fan should want a hard cap on the draft.  That would simply negate another opportunity for small market teams to compete.