The 'Moneyball' Effect: Are Sabermetrics Good for Sports?

This reminds me of the old joke: Two statisticians go to shooting range. The first fires. He misses 50 feet to the left. The second fires. He misses 50 feet to the right. They turn to each other, high five and say "We got it!"

When we talk about stats, we have to talk about Moneyball, the Michael Lewis book about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane that, improbably, has been made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and is coming soon to a theater near you. Given that Beane's story has been Hollywood-ified, you've got to figure the film has the A's winning a World Series. Or two. They didn't. But the Red Sox did, with the help of Bill James, the founder of modern statistical analysis and a Royals' fan who was famously turned down for a job with his favorite team before Theo Epstein hired him in Boston. Ouch.

Baseball Hall of Famer/Former ESPN commentator Joe Morgan's angry dismissal of sabermetrics, online or on air, has always seemed like willful ignorance. That said, he's right. Stats only go so far. First, stats are much better at illustrating the past than predicting the future, and the future is all that counts when you are trying to win baseball games. More importantly, and the point Morgan has always flailed at, is that there's no stat capable of measuring team chemistry. There's no way to quantify how one player's work ethic or infectious optimism can almost magically make his teammates better. Think of David Eckstein, the 2006 World Series MVP for the St. Louis Cardinals. Numbers can't capture how much Eckstein's sheer presence and raw hustle inspired his teammates that year or with the Angels—not only on the field, but in the dugout, clubhouse, gym and batting cage.

Sure, statistical analysis has changed baseball's front offices for the better. A little. But most things haven't changed. The Red Sox version of Moneyball, after all, includes lots and lots of money, and there's nothing new there. Sabermetrics has had a dramatic impact for the worse, however, on how a large segment of baseball fans talk about the game. Like you say Jake, baseball talk has become filled with acronyms that make the head spin and eyes glaze, and that makes me mad—almost as mad as Joe Morgan.


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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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