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Twins Blogosphere


Happy Birthday, Moneyball!

Happy birthday, Moneyball!

Yes, as Yahoo’s Jeff Passan alerted us via Twitter over breakfast this morning, Michael Lewis’ seminal baseball book, Moneyball, was released 15 years ago today.
I have to admit, I was picturing the entire SABR community simultaneously Skyping and toasting Lewis and his book, each member raising a glass of their favorite obscure local craft beer. It made me chuckle.

Moneyball’s birthday seems like a good day to discuss the state of baseball, today, given that Passan argues that the book, “set into motion the most significant changes in baseball since Jackie Robinson integrated the game in 1947.”

Wow, right?

So, let’s talk about the changes (and potential changes) to the game of baseball that we can could credit (blame?) Moneyball for.

Before we do that, though, a few personal recollections of Moneyball, the book.

I read it not too long after it came out. I didn’t rush out to buy it the day it was released or anything, but I’m pretty sure I read it within a few months of its release.

I enjoyed it. It didn’t cause an immediate seismic shift in my feelings concerning conventional baseball strategy, but I thought the points that A’s General Manager Billy Beane made were worth considering.

Sometime later, I remember reading that the film rights to the book had been purchased and I tried to imagine how anyone would be able to make a commercial movie out of a book about the application of statistical analysis to baseball. Yes, bringing Brad Pitt on to star as Beane would get a few fannies in the seats, but still.

It turned out my skepticism was well founded as Hollywood had some trouble coming up with a usable script. Then Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “SportsNight,” “A Few Good Men,” et al) was reported to be taking on the task of doing re-writing the teleplay. At that point, I knew I would have to see the movie, not because I’m much of a Pitt fan, but because I’m a huge Sorkin fan.

Sorkin managed to fictionalize the underlying story enough to make it be entertaining without losing the underlying point of the book, in my opinion, but I know some feel otherwise. Regardless, by the time the movie came out to critical acclaim in 2011, most MLB teams were already subscribing to most of Beane's philosophies, anyway.

Anyway, let’s get back to talking about changes to baseball that may be directly or indirectly traced to Moneyball and also a bit about what some see as inevitable future changes that we might as well blame Moneyball for also while we’re at it.

Passan traces the current focus on “three true outcomes” to Moneyball, as well as defensive shifts, current bullpen usage and the significant spike in pitching velocity.

I’ll let you decide for yourselves whether Lewis’ book about Beane’s Oakland A’s is responsible for those and other changes. In truth the Moneyball reference is just something I’m using as a hook to get your attention (how's that for honesty?). I just want to talk about the changes themselves, whether they’re good or bad for the game and what, if anything, should be done about them.

I also want to bring in topics that Jayson Stark brought up in his piece at The Athletic last week, specifically, expansion and resulting realignment.

Look, I’m kind of old school. I’m one of those “fat old white men” that are responsible for everything wrong with baseball (and the country in general, I suppose) according to… well… seemingly everyone who ISN’T a fat old white man.

I’d have probably been perfectly happy if Major League Baseball still had the ten teams in each league that existed during my childhood in the 1960s. But I was fine with putting a team in Kansas City and thought their stadium was really cool the first time my family went to a game there. I still think so.

I was OK with the designated hitter rule. Maybe that was because it meant I got to see one of my boyhood heroes, Tony Oliva, extend his career a bit longer than his knees would have allowed had the Twins been required to find a defensive spot for him.

Divisional play and pre-World Series postseason games? Sure, no problem. After all, my Twins won the first couple of AL West titles in seasons that they would have otherwise had virtually no chance to prevent Baltimore from winning the pennant without a playoff system. Of course, they couldn’t prevent that outcome, anyway, as it turned out, but the Twins won SOMETHING anyway in 1969 and 1970,

I’d have probably appreciated that even more had I known it would be another 17 years before they’d do it again.

All of this is by way of pointing out that I have not been universally opposed to changes to the MLB game.

In fact, changes for the sake of making the game more competitive and to improve/broaden fan interest (aka “make more money”) is about as woven into the fabric of the game as any of the rules governing the game, so let’s just stop using “tradition” as an excuse for rejecting any and all suggestions concerning potential changes.

MLB has tried best-of-9 World Series. They’ve tried having two All-Star Games. Some changes worked better than others. Some changes took far too long to make (desegregation, for example).

So, let’s go down the list of changes Passan and Stark have written about and this one fat old white man will tell you what I think of each.

Defensive shifts: I’m pro shift. If you’ve got data, it would be stupid not to use it to prevent runs. I’m against adopting a rule requiring two infielders on each side of second base, but if baseball decides that’s what’s needed to bring more offense back into the game, I wouldn’t whine too loudly about it.

I’d like to think, though, that hitters could and would make adjustments to beat the shifts, causing teams to shift less and, thus, correcting the trend over time.

That said, I’ve had people inside baseball that I respect tell me that making such an adjustment isn’t quite that simple. Maybe Wee Willie Keeler could, “keep my eyes clear and hit ‘em where they ain’t,” but it’s unlikely Keeler saw too many 95-100 mph fastballs in the 1890s.

I think if most fans had to step into the batters box to face a 95+ mph fastball, they’d wet themselves.

Hell, I wouldn’t want to try to CATCH a ball thrown at me that fast. Which is why I don’t often criticize a catcher who occasionally doesn’t get in position to block one of those throws that a pitcher doesn’t deliver on a straight line to the catcher’s mitt.

Pitching: Just a few years ago, I was talking to a couple of Twins pitching prospects who had spent time with the Cedar Rapids Kernels and I mentioned something about the scoreboard pitch speed indicator not working. One of them chuckled a little at the reference to what he somewhat derisively termed the “talent meter.”

That conversation took place at a time when pitch “velo” was starting to generate a lot of discussion.

Now, as Passan cites, the average fastball velocity in the big leagues has risen from 88.9 mph in 2003, when Moneyball was released, to 92.2 mph today.

If the young pitching coming through Cedar Rapids is any indication, that trend is not going to be reversing any time soon. It seems very rare to see any pitcher – starter or bullpen arm – who isn’t hitting at least 92 mph on that “talent meter.”

I was a pitcher (well, as long as my high school coach isn’t likely to read this, I’m going to continue claiming that, anyway), so I’ve tended to side with pitchers in just about any pitcher vs. hitter debate. But we are soon going to be watching games where the average fastball is going to be nearing 95 mph.

You can’t tell me that pitch velocity alone isn’t largely responsible for less hitting and, thus, the proliferation of the three true outcomes – a strikeout, a walk or a home run (if you DO get your bat on one of those things squarely, it’s likely to travel some distance).

That gets us to…

Pace of Play: The “three true outcomes” thing is what’s slowing the game down. Not much you can say will change my opinion of that. Two of those three outcomes take a long time to accomplish and can get pretty tedious. That is not good for baseball.

Changing the rules to require just three balls for a walk and two strikes for a strikeout would speed things up, but would just get to those two potential boring outcomes faster. Likewise, changing the rules to make the strike zone bigger or smaller would also just get to one of those outcomes sooner. No thanks.

No, the increase in velocity has shifted the advantage to the pitcher too far. We need something to bring more doubles and triples into the game.

Here’s what I think: Let’s move the rubber back a foot. Maybe it would only take six inches. I dunno. Someone smarter than me could figure out the right distance. But give the hitters just a little more time for their brains to send the communication to their bodies concerning whether or not to swing.

Right now, hitters are just guessing. I was taught by my coach-father to read the spin on the ball, identify the pitch, then make the decision concerning whether to swing or not.

There is no way a human can take the time to do that on a 95 mph fastball. They have no choice but to guess.

But 60 ‘ 6” is what the distance has always been! We can’t change that!

Of course we can. Baseball lowered the mound in the 60s. Why? Because the then-current-height gave pitchers too much of an advantage and hardly anyone was able to hit .300. Sound familiar?

Personally, I think it’s the one rule change that could get more action back into the game while minimizing all other aspects of the game. Just do it, already.

Umpiring: Implement the technology to call balls and strikes electronically. I’ve had it with strike zones that change from umpire to umpire, from pitcher to pitcher and even based on count. (Take a look at the differences between what’s called a strike on 0-2 counts vs. 3-0 counts. It’s absurd and there is NO justifiable reason for it.)

We’ve given the umpires and their union long enough to get it right. Maybe it comes back to the velocity thing, again. It’s tough to accurately judge where today’s fastballs are crossing the plate. Fine, but that’s an argument for using technology, not for defending an outmoded system.

When the game was invented, the best technology available to determine a strike from a ball might have been to put a guy behind the catcher to make that call. That is no longer the case. Make every pitcher and every hitter use the same strike zone.

Expansion and realignment: It’s hard to believe that, in less than two decades, we’ve gone from Bud Selig pushing contraction to Rob Manfred strongly considering expansion.

I’m not really convinced there are two more communities in North America that would successfully support a MLB franchise. I’ve looked at Stark’s list of potential cities and I’m not optimistic about any of them. They are:

Portland
Charlotte
Nashville
Montreal
San Antonio/Austin
Las Vegas
Mexico City

Frankly, I find more reasons why teams might NOT succeed in each of those locations than why they would, but if baseball becomes convinced, I would say, “go for it.”

32 teams are better than 30. It just is. The scheduling issue alone makes this true.

I kind of liked inter-league scheduling when it was first introduced. Now, not so much. There’s just no way to make scheduling a handful of inter-league games fair for everyone. It screws up competitive balance and that’s not a good thing.

Stark writes that eventually we’ll see an alignment based on geography. Well, maybe most of us fat old white men will be dead by then, but our kids will see it.

I’m good with that. Adopt the designated hitter across the board and give us eight four-team divisions (four divisions in each league).

Stark throws out a couple of possible scenarios for realignment. There are problems with both, but they’re starting points.

One has the Twins with the Cubs, White Sox and Brewers. The other, which tries to largely keep the current AL and NL intact, lumps Minnesota with the Tigers, White Sox and Indians. Not ideal, perhaps, but I understand they can’t build a system with, “what is best for Twins fans?” as it’s starting point, so I wouldn’t get bent out of shape with either alignment.

In the end, here’s where I come down:

I would love for some of my grandkids and their kids to love baseball as much as I do. Whatever it takes to make that happen, I’ll try to be open to.

If some of the changes are hard to swallow, I’ll simply do what I always do – blame someone else.

Damn you, Moneyball. (See how easy that is?)

(This article was originally published at Knuckleballsblog.com.)

  • deanlambrecht, KGB, PDX Twin and 1 other like this

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15 Comments

A very enjoyable, thought-provoking, and informative read.Well done.

    • snepp likes this

Nicely done.Baseball has changed more than most people would admit and Money Ball is one of the markers along the way.I would not say that batters never saw a 95 - 100 mph pitch in the pre Babe Ruth days.That first era when pitchers through 9 innings or maybe 15 in a game.Of course they also used baseballs that had been put in at the beginning of the game and were misshapen, stained, and soft.They also were covered in spit.They moved the mounds, let fans be in the outfield, and many other things we would not believe today. 

 

Then, along came Mr Moneyball (sorry Billy Beane) - the Home Run hitter - Babe Ruth and the game entered era two.We know the stories - he hit as many HRs as other teams did collectively.Then suddenly every team grew HR hitters - where did they come from?Maybe the ball changed, maybe the fences came in.Maybe the pitchers weren't as good.But it changed.

 

The next change was really dramatic - Jackie Robinson changed the complexion of the game.Suddenly a wave of really great players demonstrated that skin color was not an indicator of talent.Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Robinson... great players brought speed, fielding, hitting and the game altered very dramatically.

 

So it was time for era 4 - the expansion era and 162 game seasons.Lots of teams, a newHR record by an unlikely hero from Fargo, and dominating mound talents like Koufax and Gibson mixed with old time workhorses like Spahn.So we lowered the mound and still maintained all the same records even though there were more games, lower mounds, more teams...

 

What next? Contraction, strikes, shut downs and then the PED era. We celebrated Sosa and McGwire until we found a tube of cream in Mark's locker.And then that curmudgeon in SF took PEDS and broke all the records and suddenly we had congressional hearings.But we kept the records.

Finally moneyball, analytics and three true and boring outcomes.Coaching staffs and front offices that looked like Silicon Valley and now we look for the end of this era and the beginning of what we hope will be a more fun style.But most of all we and the game will continue to evolve.I even skilled the Hoss Radbourne era and the WWII period.We lump all the records together and always claim the athletes of our era are the best ever.That is baseball. 

    • Vanimal46 and Broker like this
Great read, thanks! I agree something needs to be done to get out of the three true outcomes era. If moving back the pitching rubber is the answer I'm all for it.

I just don't see me enjoying baseball long term the way the game is heading right now. Like you said, it takes too long to reach 2 of the 3 outcomes. I'm also bothered by everyone swinging out of their shoes to hit 700 ft HRs instead of simply putting the ball in play.
    • mikelink45 and PDX Twin like this
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Hosken Bombo Disco
Jun 19 2018 08:37 AM
The movie was as good as the book, but the book was excellent.

I think a lot of the suggestions being offered are solutions in search of a problem. What the commissioner wants is more offense and quicker paced games. Those two things seem to be at odds with each other. The game could use an impartial commissioner again who represents players and fans. The desire to expand seems like a horrible idea for the game, though great for the owners.
    • Oxtung and mikelink45 like this
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tarheeltwinsfan
Jun 19 2018 08:45 AM

Great article SD. I recently toured Dale Junior's race shop with some of my buddies who were in my home town for an armyreunion. The shop was amazing...full of computers, laser measuring devices, robotic work stations, aerodynamically slick paint, and engineers with PhD's. NASCAR, baseball, and other sports are changing due to external changes in our human abilities to do things quicker, with more strength, and with more precision. In our society, our athlete's average physical sizes are increasing due to diet, environment, medicine, improved training techniques.The wealth and resulting time away from having to work sun-up to sundown to produce food and shelter, and the relatively peaceful existence that our society currently enjoys, allows our best and brightest to concentrate on sports, instead of storming a beach in the Pacific or setting ambushes in a jungle.One of my favorite movies is Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life". I'm glad I can enjoy a "wonderful life" by watching and discussing baseball, instead of worrying whether my son will come home from Vietnam or Korea or some foreign land. Today I want to say thank you to allwho are in our military currently and to those who have served and especially to all those who died, to allow us to be discussing future changes in baseball instead of whether we are winning a war. SD, I have no idea how I got so far off topic...but it must have been due to your extremely thought provoking article. Thank you.

    • Han Joelo, SD Buhr and Hosken Bombo Disco like this

I can't agree more about the three-outcome syndrome being boring. Watching homeruns is about as interesting as watching weight-lifting. Yes, it's amazing that players can hit the ball a long way, but that doesn't make it fun to watch. A game-changing grand slam? Sure, that's great. But the game transitioning into 3.5 hours of home-run derby is not fun.

 

My favorite plays to watch (ahead of homeruns, walks, or strikeouts) would have to be triples, double-plays, diving and leaping catches, stolen bases, "hustle-doubles," and the occasional quirky play that no one would ever draw up on the tactical chalk board. (Rosario seems to be particularly good at the last ... not always to the Twins' benefit!)

    • Han Joelo, KGB and tarheeltwinsfan like this
I like Jim Kaats idea of making games 7 innings instead of 9. That takes care of pace of play problem and keeps starting pitchers relevant.
    • Oxtung and mikelink45 like this
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ashburyjohn
Jun 19 2018 10:46 AM

I like Jim Kaats idea of making games 7 innings instead of 9. That takes care of pace of play problem and keeps starting pitchers relevant.

Maybe. Stats say that batters do better against a starting pitcher the second time through the order, and better still the third time through. There's pressure now to start inserting relievers to avoid that third pass - a shorter game will only heighten the pressure to go once through the order and then bring in a new pitcher.

 

If excess relievers are the problem, only a shorter roster seems like a solution, to me.

 

For me, it's the excess time involved in bringing in the reliever - who's doing the pitching isn't itself the problem. New rules that insist on the reliever being warmed up and sitting in the team's dugout (a quick jog's distance from the mound), kind of like basketball or soccer players being in a defined location before substituting in, and getting just 1 warmup pitch, would be my preferred solution. I don't need to watch the pitcher hand the ball to the manager, who then waits and hands the ball to the next pitcher. Do it more like a wrestling tag-team - "Skip says you look tired, I'm in, you're out". :)

    • Han Joelo and markos like this

 

I like Jim Kaats idea of making games 7 innings instead of 9. That takes care of pace of play problem and keeps starting pitchers relevant.

I have to disagree.  The pace would be the same.  Actually slower, because I'd think that starting pitchers would become less relevant.  The best relievers would just come in two innings sooner.  Just my two cents.

    • notoriousgod71 and Vanimal46 like this

My idea for "fixing" the pace-of-play problem is to allow teams to DH for as many positions as they want while keeping the roster size fixed at 25. I think this will

- encourage the best hitters to be in the lineup all the time.

- encourage the best fielders to be on the field all the time.

- provide a strong incentive for teams to actually shorten their bullpens. 

- increase the usage of two-way pitchers/hitters.

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terrydactyls1947
Jun 19 2018 02:59 PM

I agree with everything in this post except "That said, I’ve had people inside baseball that I respect tell me that making such an adjustment isn’t quite that simple."When I was in High School and American Legion baseball, I spent hours after practice trying to hit any/all pitches thrown to me as a suicide bunt drill.I could lay down a bunt in fair territory on pitches behind my back, at my head, or even in the dirt.It wasn't easy but I learned to do it.There is no way a skilled professional hitter at the MLB level can't put the barrel of the bat on a bat and weakly roll it to the part of the infield the shift has vacated.I believe it is ego/vanity that prevents them from doing it.Roll enough bunt singles at a shift and it will end.If not, be content to hit .750.

Nice read SD. The biggest change I've noticed is $2 bleacher seats at the Met, to $7 at the Dome, to $16 at TF.

 

Moneyball indeed.

    • KGB likes this
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terrydactyls1947
Jun 20 2018 07:33 AM

I agree with everything in this post except "That said, I’ve had people inside baseball that I respect tell me that making such an adjustment isn’t quite that simple."When I was in High School and American Legion baseball, I spent hours after practice trying to hit any/all pitches thrown to me as a suicide bunt drill.I could lay down a bunt in fair territory on pitches behind my back, at my head, or even in the dirt.It wasn't easy but I learned to do it.There is no way a skilled professional hitter at the MLB level can't put the barrel of the bat on a bat and weakly roll it to the part of the infield the shift has vacated.I believe it is ego/vanity that prevents them from doing it.Roll enough bunt singles at a shift and it will end.If not, be content to hit .750.


I went to Double A game last night and have this follow-up observation. In four times at bat, the #2 hitter (left handed) came up with the bases empty. Each time, the third baseman moved to shortstop and three infielders were between first and second. In all four at bats, the hitter took two strikes looking before swinging for the fences and missing badly. This was the #2 hitter for crying out loud. If he doesn't know how to bunt for a hit, then what has happened to fundamentals? By the way, his team lost by one run.
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notoriousgod71
Jun 23 2018 09:08 AM

 

I like Jim Kaats idea of making games 7 innings instead of 9. That takes care of pace of play problem and keeps starting pitchers relevant.

 

 

My guess is that starters would then go four innings and another five guys would clean up the last three innings.

    • ashburyjohn likes this
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ashburyjohn
Jun 23 2018 09:55 AM

My guess is that starters would then go four innings and another five guys would clean up the last three innings.

Yes. There would be more relievers, not less, because starters would go fewer innings, to avoid facing the lineup a third time (or perhaps even a second!) You could end up with a four man pitching rotation, with only two or three innings to recover from. Larger bullpens could then be an outcome.

Long games are what put a premium on being able to pitch a long time without relief.