Moneyball is NOT a Style of Game

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Moneyball is NOT a Style of Game

Moneyball.  Say the word to any average baseball fan and typically you'll get a reply back that the term refers to a "style" of baseball that involves high on-base percentage and a neutering of any speed on the basepaths.

See, it's been easy since the release of Moneyball in 2003 to completely misconstrue the message of that book.  People like Angels TV announcer Steve Physioc, who as recently as this past weekend, explained that the Oakland Athletics had given up on the Moneyball style because they were putting on the hit and run and actually stealing bases. They may be stealing bases, but that doesn't mean that they aren't still trying to do what Michael Lewis described in Moneyball. Remember the subtitle of the book was "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game".

Don't look now but the A's are fifth in all of baseball in 2009 in stolen bases with 103.  Over the past 30 days, they're second in baseball with 30 stolen bases, right behind the Texas Rangers.  That's five more than the Tampa Bay Rays, who have earned a reputation as being the most aggressive team in baseball on the basepaths.  And seven more than Physioc's beloved Angels who have become the poster boys of baseball for aggressiveness when on base.

So it's tough for people who've pigeonholed the Oakland franchise as being anti-speed or stolen base since the release of Lewis' landmark book on baseball.  Most commentators like the Physiocs or the Joe Morgans of the world find it easier to say that Beane has abandoned the "Moneyball" philosophy now that his team is stealing bases.  They say that the style change and the A's struggles over the last couple of seasons prove that Moneyball was a failure. 

In reality, Beane is still just trying to win that unfair game.  The key point in that remarkable book is that for small market teams like the A's, they need to find what is being undervalued in the game and then try and make that something that they value instead.  Whether that meant valuing OBP over batting average and RBIs in 2000 or it means valuing someone like A's center fielder Rajai Davis and the stolen bases he's bringing to the team in 2009 because so many other big market teams don't value the stolen base as much any more.  Hell in many ways, the Rays got to the World Series last year on the strength of a speedy team and they are most definitely a small market team.  You could argue that the Rays are playing their own version of winning an unfair game, especially since they're in the AL East with the two richest teams in baseball.

But Beane was always about finding players who excelled in one particular area as well because it's obscenely expensive to get a player like Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez who can do everything for a team.  So if you look at Beane's team now, you can see what he is valuing above others.  He's become a collector of young players that are under cost control for many years. Brett Anderson, Brett Wallace, Chris Carter, Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro have become the centerpieces of the new version of Moneyball.  You throw in a team that is right around 75 percent success rate with stolen bases and it appears like the A's are completely different than the portrayal that many mainstream outlets would have you believe.  And even though the team hasn't come close to sniffing the postseason since 2006, realize that Beane and the A's front office have been busy trying to exploit new inequities in the market.  Cost controlled young players are the new hotness in Billy Beane's world.  And yes, with guys like Rajai Davis, Ryan Sweeney and Adam Kennedy around, the A's are also valuing some speed on the bases.

I'll leave you with this quote from my interview with Michael Lewis on Athletics Nation back in May 2005 in regards to Joe Morgan and TV types like him who still didn't get the central message in Moneyball.

There's really no level of incompetence that baseball won't tolerate in the announcing booth, in the sports columnist's game.  The game is really designed for a kind of "make work" program for former ballplayers.  There's nothing Joe Morgan can do, short of scandalizing himself-- as the Governor of Louisiana once said, the only way Joe Morgan can lose his job is if he got caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.  Short of that kind of thing, there is no level of stupidity that he could express on ESPN that would get him canned because he's Joe Morgan.  What are you going to do about it?

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