Billy Beane, Moneyball and OBP

An article by posted on November 1, 2010

This past weekend, we had quite a battle here on MMO over a post I wrote regarding the so-called Moneyball Mets era Sandy Alderson is expected to usher in.

I never read the book, but several readers that I spoke with or chatted with via email, all told me that the book was based on Billy Beane and the formula for success with the A’s during the first half of this decade and part of the late nineties. No doubt that the A’s had a very impressive run and even made the post season four consecutive season between 2000 and 2003. They never advanced past the ALDS, but anything can happen in a short series, their accomplishments in that span were nonetheless noteworthy.

Several people who have read the book all told me that the original concept of Moneyball, was not to spend more money, but to spend less money while getting the most value out of your offensive players by focusing on on-base percentage. It was supposed to even the playing field between teams with extensive resources and those teams who didn’t have as much to spend. In other words, it was a “low budget strategy to stay competitive in the era of big market baseball” according to one sabermetric devotee.

A passage in the book Moneyball explains how all sabermetric followers of Bill James, including Billy Beane, understood that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were the two best ways to assess a players value. But the book explains how Paul DePodesta convinced Beane and others that “OBP is worth three times more than slugging percentage”.

As one reader emailed me this quote from the book on page 128,

A player’s ability to get on base in unspectacular ways tended to be dramatically underpriced in relation to other abilities. Never mind fielding skills and foot speed. 

So the conclusion which is now universally adopted by all saber heads was that the ability to get on base and avoid making outs was the most critical attribute of player and worth even more than the ability to hit for power. (pages 128-129)

Whether you agree or disagree with that premise is solely up to you. The purpose of this post is not to support or refute that but to pose this question:

Has Billy Beane abandoned the principles on which the book Moneyball was based on?

One of our readers sent me an email last night from another blogger who basically concluded that that impressive Oakland A’s run was due more to with having the best pitching in the division than with anything else especially on-base percentage.

I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I decided to take a look for myself and collected the last five years of data for the Oakland A’s for on-base percentage, obviously, but I also wanted to compare their OBP against the American League average and I also threw in the Mets just for another point of reference. Tell me what you think?

You can see that the Oakland’s on-base percentage has been at league average or worse for the last five years. In fact, take a look at how well the Mets stack up and remember that the Mets statistics include pitchers plate appearances, while the A’s had the designated hitter.

I thought the results were very odd considering how this topic has stirred up so much debate. I decided to take the basic conclusion and purpose of Moneyball which was to get value for your dollars, and see how that played out during the same span. I thought maybe the A’s payroll was slashed so much in the last five years that it was too difficult to put a competitive product on the field even for a moneyballer like Billy Beane. I decided to look at the payroll for the periods of 2000-2005 and compare it 2006-2010.

Once again I was shocked by the results. The A’s have actually averaged $17 million dollars more in payroll during the last five years than the first half of the decade when they were winning division titles.

Why not look at wins while we’re at it.

Again, the results are startling as well as dramatic.

It really does make one wonder what exactly has gone wrong for the Oakland A’s in the past half decade, because judging by these results it does give some evidence that the point raised by one of my readers was right. Has the Moneyball philosophy run out of steam in Oakland?

In the last five years, Beane has spent more money on average, finished below league average in on-base percentage, and has won 15 fewer games per season on average since the book Moneyball gained mainstream attention and shot through the roof in sales and popularity around 2005 after it’s release in 2003. Incidentally, the movie “Moneyball” is set to come out in 2011 and Brad Pitt has been cast in the role of Billy Beane.

What are your thoughts?

About the Author ()

I'm a lifelong Mets fan who loves writing and talking about the Amazins' 24/7. From the Miracle in 1969 to the magic of 1986, and even the near misses in '73 and '00, I've experienced it all - the highs and the lows. I started Mets Merized Online in 2005 to feed my addiction and interact with other passionate Met fans like you. Follow me on Twitter @metsmerized.

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