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Monday, July 04, 2005

Moneyball versus Three Nights in August

The link between this school of thought and this one, both of which have been well articulated, is hurt. Again.

The link is J.D. Drew, the guy who fulfills the Moneyball criteria of having a good on-base percentage but who flunks the Three Nights in August criteria because he's too brittle, puts up numbers but doesn't seem to be at the heart of his team, and, well, doesn't come up when you use the term gamer.

Now, Moneyball is, to a degree, an elegy for the numbers crunchers and, to a large degree, supports eschewing the porkpie hat-wearing, fried-foods eating grizzled old scouts who still liked to grade prospects, in part, on whether they had the "good face." (Click here for a captivating book on the topic of baseball scouting.) Moneyball implies that the numbers matter a ton, and that if you get the players with the right numbers, you should win a lot of ball games.

To a degree, the Moneyballistas have a point. I mean, why carry a shortstop with an OBP of .284 even if he's a good fielder when he gives you two automatic outs at the end of a National League lineup? Put differently, the Moneyball theory proves why certain players who seemingly always have gotten the job done get it done -- because they have good batting eyes. A major argument in support of a strong Moneyball policy is the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who actually hired stats guru Bill James as a consultant. Then again, the Red Sox had the second highest payroll in the majors, and that's a somewhat un-Moneyball number because one of the basic premises of Moneyball is that teams with less money had to figure out how to win more games -- and that's where the numbers crunching came in. Another strong supporting argument are Billy Beane's Oakland A's, from which we got the Moneyball moniker. But those A's fall victim to former Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty's line about potential ("Potential means you ain't done it yet."). The A's, put simply, haven't done IT yet.

To a degree, though, the LaRussaistas have a point, too. The LaRussaistas might grudingly concede with the strong Moneyball wonks argue -- that a good manager doesn't mean that much to his team's performance, perhaps as many as 6-10 games a year when compared to the role coaches in other sports (particularly football) play. That said, those games are critical games and could make the difference between making the playoffs and not making them or getting to the World Series and not getting there. And before you think that the LaRussaistas don't care about numbers, read the book. They most certainly do, and they watch tons of film and crunch tons of numbers, all with the hope of getting the right matchups.

So what's the difference?

The principal difference between the Moneyballistas and the LaRussaistas is type of player that should be emphasized. The Moneyballistas look at the numbers so much that they probably overlook other characteristics, such as work ethic, leadership, ability to get along with 25 other guys, coachability, etc. Mathematically, to them, the numbers matter a lot more than, say, whether the .250 hitting first baseman with 35 HRs and an OBP of .370 whom the numbers love backbites the manager or is such a hard partyer that his bad habits are wearing off on the rookies. The LaRussaista would like to have that player too (but definitely would like him less), but would be happy to trade him for a more team-oriented player with slightly less skill but a better work ethic because, in the end, he believes that the qualities of a person that cannot easily be reduced to a mathematical formual matter a lot.

That's not to say that the Moneyballistas are the free-love advocates in baseball, don't have standards, are blue-state America haters who don't take our nation's traditions seriously. Hardly, and it's also not to say that they'd advocate having players of so-so character on the team. But what it is to say that at the forefront of advocating change, they're locked in on the numbers at the expense of almost everything else. Their metrics have shown them to be a very creative bunch, and there are teams out there who have adopted the Moneyballista metrics and have succeeded.

It's also not to say that the LaRussaistas think Moneyball is totally without merit. How could they? Anyone who played APBA or Strat-o-Matic years ago (in leagues where you drafted teams) could tell you the value of OBP for a hitter and OBP yielded for a pitcher. That's what made the Darrell Evanses and Frank Tananas of the world so valuable (even if the former hit .240 and the latter had a .500 pitching record at times), not to mention the Mike Schmidts and Joe Morgans. LaRussa and his guys know all about the numbers, and they work them to death to try to get the best matchups within games. Moreover, they're not even the neandarthals that some of those in the modern baseball camp try to make them out to be. They're not solely searching for huge HR hitters or 92 plus flamethrowers. To the contrary, they're looking for situational hitters, hitters who know the strike zone and know when to pounce on the pitcher's first pitch and when to make him work. They'd rather have pitchers who torture hitters with pitches in the 80's that have movement than with throws in the 90's that don't.

So who's right -- the Moneyballistas or the LaRussaistas? There are merits to both sides, and both sides probably have a good degree of overlap. One thing is for sure, guys like LaRussa prove that a good manager can make a difference, and we'll all realize that when he's inducted to the Hall of Fame and he joins Sparky Anderson, who managed the great Reds teams in the 70's and the outstanding Tigers' team in '84, there. Part of being a good manager is staying out of the way of talented players and letting them go to work. But the other part is, as Dusty Baker would say, trying to turn on the light bulbs inside them to get that little bit of extra out of them that can make them something special. As Three Nights in August points out, that's not such an easy thing to do.

Both are excellent baseball books, as is Lawrence S. Ritter's The Glory of Their Times, an oral history of baseball in the 1900's and 1910's that should be a must read if you haven't read it yet (if you click on the link, you can buy it right now -- you will not be disappointed). People sometimes talk about matchups between ballplayers then versus now, and, I think, despite evolution and advances in training, I'll take the ballplayers back then if there ever could be head-to-head competition.

The reason?

The game meant more to those guys than it does to the average player playing today.

Moneyball or no Moneyball.

Because back then there was a lot more to playing than just the money.


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