Friday, May 30-
By Jacob Kornhauser, KCOU Sports
“Why do we want these players?”
“Because they get on base.”
In one simple exchange, the movie Moneyball is able to perfectly sum up the approach itself. The movie, based on the 2002 Oakland Athletics team, follows general manager Billy Beane as he tries to navigate the baseball landscape with a limited budget.
Without as much money to spend as the wealthier franchises, Beane was forced to evaluate and sign players in more cost-effective ways. The main approach underlying this process was finding players who were undervalued, but could get on base consistently. This is a very simplified summary of the Moneyball approach, but it prompts an important question over a decade later: does the Moneyball approach still work?
Based on analysis of the bottom third of the league in payroll over the last 10 seasons, the Moneyball approach can work, but it’s almost never sustained. As a whole, the bottom third of the league in terms of payroll has been relatively consistent, averaging a high of 79 wins in 2007 and 2011 and averaging a low of 71 wins in 2004. There haven’t been drastic changes overall in the league as a result of the Moneyball approach, but it has proven effective in isolated situations.
In 2003, the Athletics were the only team in the bottom third in payroll that made the playoffs with a record of 96-66. With a lot of the same players featured in the book and movie Moneyball, the A’s caught lightning in a bottle by signing players that were undervalued by other teams.
Another team that utilized the Moneyball approach was the 2005 Cleveland Indians. The Indians went 93-69 even while owning the league’s No. 26 payroll. You don’t have to look far to see how the Indians overcame their low payroll to be a successful team.
First of all, their entire starting lineup had at least 16 home runs, meaning they were driving in runs from all spots in the order. Secondly, they had three players with an on-base percentage of .366 or higher. Those three players were Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Travis Hafner. Martinez made only $1 million, Peralta made only $377K and Hafner made just $2.7 million. Cleveland spent barely $4 million to secure their three most productive hitters.
A team that reached the World Series in 2007 with a payroll in the league’s bottom third, the Colorado Rockies utilized the Moneyball approach as well. Playing in Coors Field where offense dominates, Colorado’s hitters dismantled their opponents. Seven out of the team’s eight starters had an on-base percentage of .359 or higher. Usually when a team gets on base about 36 percent of the time, they’re going to score a lot of runs. Colorado benefitted in 2007 by having players at the beginning of their career so they weren’t making as much as they should’ve been at the time.
The most recent example of Moneyball at work is with the Tampa Bay Rays. For years, the Rays were mired in the basement of the American League East, but prospects and role players finally came together to produce a contender in 2008 when they won 97 games. Really, the Rays are the only team other than the Athletics that have experienced sustained success using the Moneyball approach.
Making the playoffs in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013, the Rays have found a formula that works. Instead of outscoring teams using players who regularly get on base, the Rays of 2008 found success by boasting a dominant pitching staff. With Andy Sonnanstine, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, James Shields and Scott Kazmir in the rotation, they had a chance to win every game they played.
Moving into the other years they contended, the Rays added a lefty named David Price. All he’s done is become the best left-handed pitcher in baseball not named Clayton Kershaw. Even though the Rays have had an average to above average lineup over the past five years, they’ve won with pitching.
What all of this tells us is that Moneyball is simply a way for small market teams to survive, not thrive. Only the Athletics and the Rays have been able to experience sustained success using this approach and that speaks to their talented front offices.
In reality, with baseball’s still-existing payroll disparity, all Moneyball can do for most teams is buy them a 2-3 year window in which they can realistically contend for the playoffs. When small market teams don’t hit that window, it’s back to square one.