The Moneyball revolution from someone who helped it happen
The author spent 12 years doing cutting-edge analysis at Baseball Prospectus
Several BP alums, like Keith Woolner, now work in major league front offices
The 'stats vs. scouts' debate is over and both sides just want great baseball
Today, the movie version of the book Moneyball will be released. I've seen the movie, and I enjoyed it. You can read a thousand reviews by sportswriters on the movie itself, and I encourage you to not do that and just go see the darn thing for yourself. You won't walk out of the theatre mid-film, I promise that much.
For someone who has had a pretty good seat for the changes in baseball over the last 15 years, the movie's release is strange. It's about a moment in time -- 2002, to be exact -- that feels very, very long ago. The battles that Michael Lewis' book reported upon, such as selling the value of on-base percentage, raising up performance analysis to the same level as skills analysis in player evaluation and applying business principles and practices to the administration of a baseball team, are long over. There are holdout organizations on an approach here or there, but there's no one making long educational speeches about getting on base, and the false dichotomy of "stats vs. scouts" exists only in the minds of columnists needing to make deadline. The most successful organization of the Moneyball decade, the Boston Red Sox, openly aped what Billy Beane and the A's were doing, aided by an extra $100 million or so in revenue a year.
The revolution is over. Well, that one, anyway. The new ideas earned a place at the table on merit, by being good ideas that contribute to winning baseball games. While I'm no capital-S stathead, I was fortunate enough to work at Baseball Prospectus for a dozen years alongside some of the best in the field, from Clay Davenport and Gary Huckabay, through Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner, through Dan Fox and Nate Silver.
What Michael Lewis wrote about, while Brad Pitt is playing, is a story that began not in a clubhouse or stadium office, but to a large extent, by outsiders. Few people inside the game were screaming about OBP and pitcher usage and smallball abuse when Davenport and Huckabay came up with the idea of doing a book with these new ideas as its centerpiece, to get reality-based -- no, it wasn't called that in the moment -- baseball analysis into the hands of as many people as possible, specifically including those within the industry. The book served as a gateway to the website, and the website to any number of new, occasionally radical, ideas about what baseball really was, what mattered, where the real edges -- and the fool's gold -- were.
The next generation of statheads has it much easier. There's no jealousy in that statement, trust me. The idea that people who haven't played professional baseball can make a contribution within front offices may be the most lasting legacy of the Moneyball revolution. Paul DePodesta, thinly disguised as the fictional Peter Brand in the movie, wasn't the first non-playing GM, but he represented a class that has now replicated itself, its DNA, across the industry.
It's because of Moneyball and the ideas within that every team has statistical analysts, many drawn from the ranks of Prospectus alums, many my own friends and former colleagues. Keith Law went to the Blue Jays and came back to media. Woolner and Fox were contributors to the surprising early success this year of the Indians and Pirates, respectively. Chaim Bloom and James Click are in the Rays' front office. Outside of Prospectus, there's Mitchell Lichtman and Ron Shandler and "Tom Tango" and many other smart guys whose intelligence about the game we love has been tapped because of the path blazed by DePodesta, who himself advanced to GM of the Dodgers and helped build division winners in Los Angeles before being scapegoated by an owner desperate to curry favor with the craven local media.
All of this probably happens without Prospectus. The ideas were too important and there was too much money to be made for them not to become the way in which baseball teams were run. Nevertheless, Prospectus happened, and became the way in which many people within the industry were introduced to these ideas. Prospectus was, for a time, the center of the stathead world, publishing research that would set the discussion for years to come, that would change the way players were evaluated. Fielding Independent Pitching ERA shows up on the MLB Network. Felix Hernandez is honored with a Cy Young Award with 13 wins. Every team has a Peter Brand or three, collecting, parsing and presenting data, gaining credibility every time a defensive shift or pitch sequence or lineup change puts a W on the board.
Moneyball captures the tipping point in that revolution, when a team embraced something new because it had to, and won a lot of games because of it. I'm proud to have been a part of the history. The smoke has cleared and the guns have been laid down, and I'm excited to see what will come now that so much less energy is being spent drawing lines between two sides that both want the same thing: great baseball.
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