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March 11, 2005

The Inexplicable Cult of "Anything but Moneyball"
by Larry Mahnken

In last week's sophomorically written column, Toronto Star write Richard Griffin praised the Blue Jays for apparently moving away from the "Moneyball" philoposhy of the A's and towards the more traditional philosophy of the Twins. "It seems the Jays are finally headed in the right direction," Griffin wrote.

There's a really obvious problem with this reasoning: the A's are a more successful organization than the Twins.

Since 2002, the Twins have won 276 games, the A's have won 290 games. The A's have done this while playing in what is pretty much universally considered a far tougher division than the one the Twins play in. The Twins have, of course, won a postseason series (in 2002), which the A's have not done, and that series was against the A's. But the A's actually have a better postseason record than the Twins since 2000: 8-12 to 6-12. The A's may have lost every series they played, but they always took the series to five games, while the Twins have been crushed in the three series' they've played since squeaking past Oakland in 2002. So while Minnesota may have had more postseason success than Oakland, that's hardly indisputable, and would be by only the smallest margin if true.

So why does Griffin prefer the Twins?

Because they're not the A's. Griffin simply doesn't like the way the A's play baseball, he prefers teams that hit-and-run, steal bases, sacrifice bunt. Griffin, like Buster Olney, remains convinced that this is how baseball games are won, despite not only not having any evidence that this is the case, but mountains of evidence that exactly the opposite is true.

The Boston Red Sox were dead-last in all of baseball in "Productive Out Percentage". They laid down a total of twelve sacrifice bunts all season, they stole only 68 bases. But they were second in the league in walks, hit 222 home runs, and led MLB in OBP and SLG. They were the epitome of a "Moneyball" team. And they won the World Series.

And along the way, they swept the Anaheim Angels and St. Louis Cardinals, teams whose offensive strategies prominently featured bunts, hit-and-runs and steals. They didn't just beat them, the beat the crap out of them, by the combined score of 49-24 (an average score of about 7-3). The only team to challenge them? The Yankees, who hit more home runs and drew more walks than them, and were the second-worst POP team in the playoffs.

You'd think that this would at least put the so-called "Moneyball" strategy on an even respectability level with the traditional strategy, but of course not. The Red Sox had scored the tying run in Game Four of the ALCS after Dave Roberts stole second, then scored on a single.

Never mind that Roberts was on base because Kevin Millar had walked, the fact that Roberts stole a base, and that it made a huge difference, does not refute the "Moneyball" philosophy.


Sabermetrics does not espouse sitting around waiting for the three-run home run. Earl Weaver espouses that. Sabermetrics does not say that you shouldn't steal bases. Earl Weaver says that (you remember Earl, little guy, won four pennants).

Sabermetrics says that you win by getting guys on base and bring them home, and conversely, keeping your opponents off base, and making sure the ones that get on don't get home. You win by scoring more than your oppponent, and that's how you score more than your opponent.

So what's wrong with stealing bases? Nothing, a stolen base is a great thing, it moves a player up a base and brings him closer to scoring. The problem isn't stolen bases, it's when you get caught trying to steal a base. Moving up a base improves your chances of scoring, but getting thrown out -- losing both an out and the baserunner -- decreases your chances of scoring by about twice as much.

But that doesn't mean don't try to steal, it means that if you're going to steal bases, do it with guys that will usually get there safely.

Like, say, Dave Roberts, who has stolen bases at an 81% clip in his career. In the situation the Red Sox were in, stealing second wasn't just an acceptable call, it was the right call. That's not revisionist history, that's what the numbers say, and they didn't change since the playoffs.

See, the problem is that guys like Richard Griffin hate sabermetrics, but they don't understand it. It's not about sitting around waiting for home runs, it's about getting on base and hitting for power. This isn't a new fangled idea, it's how baseball games have always been won. Moving guys up with the hit and run and stolen base can help if excuted succesfully the vast majority of the time, but not as much as a couple of home runs will help (In 2003, the Twins were 94/138 stealing, creating about 1.5 runs, while the A's were 48/62, creating about 6.5 runs). If you can do these with a high rate of success, then there's no reason not to, but you shouldn't choose a player who can do this over a player who can't, but gets on base more and hits for more power. The latter player will help you win more games.

The sacrifice bunt, on the other hand, is the most overrated play in baseball. It's beloved because it's a "selfless" play, and people want something selfless to be valuable, but it simply isn't. There are very few scenarios where you're better off trading an out for a base. By choosing players who can bunt over those who can't, but get on base more and hit for more power, you'll be successful more often when those few scenarios come up, but you'll win fewer games.

The Twins don't win because they hit-and-run, sac bunt, or steal bases. They win because they have good hitters, very good starters, and outstanding relievers. They win because they have the players, not because of how they deploy them.

And the same is true of the A's. They win because they have good players. If they started bunting, stealing, hitting and running, they'd probably win fewer games, because they don't have the kinds of player that can do that, but they'd still be a good team, because they have good players.

The problem with the Blue Jays has never been that they sit around and wait for a homer, it's that they haven't had enough good players. Playing "Minnyball" wouldn't have helped the Blue Jays a damned bit last year, or the year before, and it won't help them this year. What will help them is when they start bringing in good players.

Which, incidentally, is what the Baseball Prospectus authors Griffin rips at the start of his column were critcizing the Blue Jays about. Griffin writes:
The inexplicable "cult of J.P." appears dead. Baseball Prospectus, the Bible of stats seamheads, has come down hard on the Blue Jays in its sophomorically written 2005 edition.

The honeymoon is over. The Jays front office is accused of abandoning its reverence for the three-run blast. GM J.P. Ricciardi's own stats geek, Keith Law, a former Prospectus contributor, is viewed as a traitor.
At no point in BPro's Blue Jays preview is Keith Law ripped or even called a traitor. At no point do they rip the Jays for changing their offensive philosophy. Their criticism of Toronto is:
  • Overpaying for unexceptional talent
  • Not recognizing their prospects for competing in 2005 were poor
  • Blocking young, cheap talent with older, expensive players who aren't really any better
  • Wasting draft picks
  • Not putting enough effort into choosing a manager
Nothing about homers, or about steals, hitting and running, or sacrifices. They're not criticizing them for losing the faith, they're criticizing them for not running their team well, the same as they criticize every other poorly-run team.

Emulating the Twins is not a bad idea, they're an organization that's developed good talent, and has been successful with a small budget. You could write a wonderful column on the merits of following Minnesota's example. You can do it without taking a crap on Oakland, you can do it without misrepresenting the views of proponents of a different way of running a team, and you can do it without being petty and myopic.

Or you could do it like Richard Griffin.