The New “Moneyball” Approach

It is not very controversial to state that “Moneyball” was a divisive book. Michael Lewis wrote some things that can only be interpreted as denigrating to the scouting community, painting a picture of an out-of-touch collection of old men being replaced by smarter, better analysts. It should have been no surprise that people who considered themselves scouts, or had a lot of respect for the profession, were offended by some of the stuff Lewis wrote.

I wonder how different the book would be if it written today, though, because we are currently in the midst of a market correction based on statistical analysis agreeing with long held scouting beliefs. Defense is at a premium while high strikeout sluggers are struggling to find offers, and this charge is being led by the “smart teams” that Lewis would espouse are doing things the right way.

The Mariners focus on defense under Jack Zduriencik is a well known story by now. But, they aren’t the only ones heading that direction. The Boston Red Sox signed Mike Cameron to replace Jason Bay and have made their interest in Adrian Beltre well known. The A’s signed Coco Crisp and currently have an outfield with three center fielders penciled in as starters. Defensive specialists Adam Everett, Alex Gonzalez, Jack Wilson, Placido Polanco, and Pedro Feliz have all signed, while the guys who provide value with their bats are still sitting on the market.

The teams that use statistical analysis the most are doing what their scouts have been recommending for years. Stats geeks are validating the insights of scouts. If Lewis was following the game right now, documenting stories from inside a “smart” front office, the tone would have to be dramatically different, even if the point was still the same – good teams spend money on undervalued assets.

Timing really is everything. That Lewis chose to write the book when on base percentage was undervalued created a division between stats and scouting that simply would not exist if the book was written today. With the new found appreciation for defense and its place in a player’s total value, stats and scouts agree more than they disagree at the moment.

Perhaps the subtitle for the sequel to Moneyball should be “Why The Fat Scout Was Right All Along”.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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12 years ago

That’s the one criticism I had of Moneyball, that it painted scouts as total idiots. A nicer tone may’ve sold the idea of the book more.

That being said, a little bit of a bridge too far that high-strikeout sluggers aren’t going to get love? They still get way more than they would have 10 years ago, and teams like them more than, say, the typical fan who would quickly have you believe that Mark Reynolds is the worst player ever by citing his high strikeout rate. Still, it’s obvious right now that Moneyball ironically turned defensive specialists from overvalued to undervalued, and smart teams are feasting on it.

12 years ago
Reply to  JoeR43

“That’s the one criticism I had of Moneyball, that it painted scouts as total idiots. A nicer tone may’ve sold the idea of the book more.”

That’s been a failing of Lewis’s writing style in almost all his books: he’ll go to painful lengths to put his subject on a pedestal, usually denigrating any counterpoints as completely useless.

12 years ago
Reply to  JoeR43

A nicer tone may’ve sold the idea of the book more, but Lewis wasn’t really trying to sell the idea. He was trying to sell a book, and staking out an extreme position that generates plenty of controversy is a great way to do that. The people who are actually advancing the ideas — at least the folks who are making progress — tend to be far more even-handed. But they aren’t in the business of selling boat-loads of “must read” sports books to a general audience, and it didn’t do them any favors to be lumped in under the flag Lewis claimed to be flying.