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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Post-Moneyball Generation

James Santelli |
September 26, 2011 | 1:37 p.m. PDT

Senior Sports Editor

The Athletics are not the only team applying advanced metrics in 2011. (Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons)
The Athletics are not the only team applying advanced metrics in 2011. (Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons)
I have never read "Moneyball." I don't think I have much to learn from reading it.

That's no knock on writer Michael Lewis. From everything I have heard, "Moneyball" is wonderfully written and an engaging tale of the Oakland Athletics and general manager Billy Beane. Michael Lewis is a great writer, and his popularity is well-deserved.

For many, the book was revolutionary and a little scary. But that was back in 2003, almost half a lifetime ago for a college student.

The main theme, that teams should exploit market inefficiencies to gain an edge, will ring true for a long time. Baseball GMs continue to look for value that others may not see.

However, the inefficiencies that existed a decade ago, like on-base percentage and walk rate, are properly rated today. Teams have caught up, and so have writers and fans. If there is still a front office executive that thinks that stats like pitcher wins or RBIs can properly evaluate a player's ability, then I have a bridge I would like to sell him or her.

The book stands as a catalyst for moving sabermetrics into mainstream baseball dialogue, but it is by no means a Bible. Lewis was encapsulating a sabermetric train that was already well in motion.

The book came out when I was 11, so most of baseball writers I have read have been influenced in some way by saber principles or means of talent evaluation. Sites like Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, and numerous baseball blogs that subscribe to baseball's advanced metrics, have influenced most of my thought about the game in my formative years.

Pitcher Jon Garland (Djh57/Wikimedia Commons)
Pitcher Jon Garland (Djh57/Wikimedia Commons)
And I'm not alone. In May, I was in a car on the 110 freeway with three other baseball fans and Vin Scully on the radio. On the trip, one of my friends mentioned how Dodgers pitcher Jon Garland (seen left with San Diego) had benefitted from a low BABIP the previous season with the Padres, and was due for regression. We nodded in agreement. Do you think that conversation happens in 2002?

This is the post-Moneyball generation. Some older baseball columnists may mock the "alphabet soup" of stats like FIP, UZR and OPS+, but for young fans and smart writers, it has become common lexicon.

More than that, those stats are becoming more commonly accepted by young baseball fans as a strong way to evaluate player performance. They can even be used to predict the future. (You can put some earmuffs on for the next couple paragraphs if you don't like the sound of me tooting my own horn.)

Back on July 15, when Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens had a near-NL-leading 2.34 ERA, I tweeted that he "has stranded 88% of runners this season (by far the most in MLB). That is entirely unsustainable."

I pointed out that no ERA-title-qualified pitcher had finished the season with a left-on-base percentage above 88% since John Candelaria in 1977. I had learned previously that LOB% regresses to the mean, that getting hitters out with men on base is no more a skill than getting hitters out with the bases empty.

Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens (dbking/Wikimedia Commons)
Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens (dbking/Wikimedia Commons)
And I was right. Karstens (right) had a 5.43 ERA over the rest of the season, partly a result of his season LOB% dropping to 77.4%, 20th among qualified pitchers.

Nothing special happened to make Karstens a worse pitcher in the middle of July. In fact, his strikeout rate was actually higher from July 15 on (5.9 strikeouts per nine innings) than before it (5.0 K/9). But good luck in the early part of the season made him seem better than he was.

Jeff Karstens is not a 2.34-ERA pitcher, and any general manager worth his weight could have told you that. Just like they could have told you that Garland would have a worse WHIP than the 1.32 he posted in 2010.

And that is the most important facet of stats for fans of the post-Moneyball era. Some traditionalists decry the sabermetric movement as ruining baseball, but no one is telling them how they should or should not enjoy the game. The fact that advanced statistics say that Derek Jeter has below-average range doesn't make seeing him snag a ball in the hole any less of a thrill.

Post-Moneyball fans should really use the myriad metrics and measurements as a way of debating how teams should be built and managed by executives and on-field coaches to win ballgames. After all, fans want their teams to win games. Pennants. Championships.

GMs keep their jobs by acquiring those wins and chasing undervalued assets, not by building merely an exciting or fan-friendly team. For those in "baseball society" who discuss and debate the game, it's imperative to understand the best way to construct that elusive winning ballclub.

Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson (Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons)
Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson (Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons)
Luckily, The level of discourse has been elevated in the last two decades. Felix Hernandez can win a Cy Young with a 13-12 record. Curtis Granderson's (left) .268 batting average is not a death sentence in his MVP candidacy.

We've come to realize that players are good or bad for reasons, data and metrics that are different and better than the numbers and logic fans once clung to. We could get excited about Justin Verlander's quest for 25 wins while realizing that his record is not the best evidence that he is good at pitching.

I don't feel the need to read "Moneyball," because it is not the end-all, be-all. No general manager pulls out his copy and consults it before pulling the trigger on a trade. The book is just a contribution, albeit an important one, to the continuing discussion of how to win baseball games.

Welcome to post-Moneyball, already in progress.


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