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Happy Birthday Moneyball (and Damn You)

Posted by SD Buhr , 18 June 2018 · 464 views

Happy birthday, Moneyball!

Posted Image

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, as well, 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 loud 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:

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.)

  • Oldgoat_MN likes this

The high velocity arms, the shifts, 3 true outcomes, the emphasis on launch angle and on working the count are all semi inter related. And making the game harder to watch. And longer to watch. That said I don't begrudge teams for implementing them, as they all are necessary in today's game, but seem to have unintended consequences. You pass up a FB down the middle on 1-0 count, to see more pitches and end up 2-2 to someone with a vicious slider? And wonder why you are hitting .237? True, analytics may show you ended up with a walk, making your OBP acceptable, but walks are not exciting, they are boring as hell. Teams shift, and take away a rocket with the second baseman 30' into RF. Good strategy, poor entertainment. You hit 14 fly balls, one leaves the park. 13 guys jog back to the dugout, one guys jogs around the bases. Maybe it's a 3 run game winner, maybe it's a meaningless solo. But it's really not exciting to see Robbie Grossman catch a fly ball. The reality is you can have winning baseball that is boring baseball. And heaven forbid if you are not winning. It's also possible to enjoy baseball via the analytical route and the old style route. That enjoyment, knowledge of the game, and appreciation of same doesn't have to be at odds. Solutions? At first glance moving the mound does seem interesting. But it would simply allow more home run emphasis, and less on getting on base via singles and doubles, and playing sound defense. I think the true answer is also the impossible one. Increasing the size of the parks, meaning the OF depth. Simply look at NY as an example, it's a band box. You practically can't hit a double to RF, it's either an out, a HR, or a long single. But needless to say, no one is going to start building all new parks in all new dimensions. I don't know what the outcome will be, but eventually the type of game now played will drive away fans. Plus 3 hour games, long AB's, pitching changes et al will force someone to find a solution. Whether I or we agree with it remains to be seen.

You won't see ballparks dimensions changed, but there's another way to accomplish dampening down the number of HRs, if that's what you want to do: Deaden the baseballs. Can't imagine it would be that tough. Certainly easier than moving walls deeper.

    • Platoon likes this
It would likely do the same thing but be more controversial. It seems to be a sacred topic. I hope someday something changes. I just don't find the game as entertaining as it used to be. While I do understand the effectiveness of advanced stats, there is a difference between from and function.