Here’s What Happened When We Tried To Play Moneyball Without Any Money
May 9, 2016 12:54 PM   Subscribe

In the summer of 2015, FiveThirtyEight's Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, the editor in chief of Baseball Prospectus, took over the baseball operations department of an independent-league team in California, the Sonoma Stompers, putting their sabermetric beliefs to the test with actual professional players. As spring training approached, they compensated for their lack of connections, tight budget and even tighter time frame by using statistics to scour the country for overlooked talent. "If the [Moneyball] A’s were 'a collection of misfit toys,' as Michael Lewis wrote, then we’ll be building a team out of toys that got recalled because they were choke hazards." posted by DirtyOldTown (23 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Attn: Boston Celtics.
I am willing to do for North Shore YMCA League Basketball teams.
Memail for rates.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:59 PM on May 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

I kept reading both the 538 article and the deadspin one expecting to get bored halfway through. They were both riveting. Quite well written, I'm thinking I'll actually buy the book!
posted by Carillon at 12:59 PM on May 9, 2016

I read these articles the other day and ended up buying the book. I nearly read it in a single sitting - the whole thing is every bit as riveting as the excerpts are. It's also fun if you're a baseball fan to see which ideas of their pan out and which ones don't. They try stuff like drafting players without seeing them based only on spreadsheet data, infield/outfield shifts, using closers in nontraditional ways, and a bunch of other, smaller things.

(minor spoiler) They did manage to get some of their players promoted, so they must have been doing something right.
posted by zug at 1:15 PM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

A reminder that although statistical analysis is - rightly! - now much more valued than in the past, you are still dealing with human beings. And sometimes they don't do what you want them to.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:32 PM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

The authors also did a Deadspin Q & A about their Stompers experience.
posted by bawanaal at 1:36 PM on May 9, 2016

Lindbergh and Miller were interviewed on the Hang Up and Listen Podcast and they were a great interview. One thing that stuck out with me is that, while advanced metrics techniques take a large sample size to show their effectiveness, several times they said that if some of their strategies hadn't worked the very first time they tried it, they wouldn't have been able to continue with it because the team/manager would have lost confidence in it.

In baseball, a really good team still loses about 40% of the games they play. If you employ a strategy that helps you win 3-5 more games across a 162 game season, that's a big push of the needle. Nothing perceptible via "the eye test" though.
posted by mcstayinskool at 1:36 PM on May 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

Minor league baseball's #1 talent drain: actual jobs that pay people money.

Who'd have guessed?
posted by GuyZero at 1:43 PM on May 9, 2016 [16 favorites]

Thanks for submitting this article, it's fascinating and I'm going to try to get through the book before I read any comments that spoil the outcome (although I'm sure it doesn't go as planned).

IMHO there is a lot of corporate/statistical knowledge and management that has yet to translate to the world of sports, and vice time goes on it's extremely interesting to see how different strategies perform when taken in to the opposing medium.
posted by GreyboxHero at 2:22 PM on May 9, 2016

I was curious about how the players had actually done after I read this, so I looked it up. Spoilers for the 2015 Pacific Association season follow.

The team was above .500, for what that's worth. It also had a guest appearance from Jose Canseco for whatever reason. Of the guys the article talks about in detail, though, Gayday hit .230 with decent plate discipline but zero power, Conley was extremely hittable and overall quite bad, Conroy ended up being a decent but not spectacular closer, and Hvozdovic had decent control but couldn't strike anybody out and was overall mediocre at best.

On the other hand, they got quite good performances out of people who weren't even mentioned. Every aspiring sports management type nowadays wants to talk about process, and I'm inclined to give Miller and Lindbergh a pass on that even if the specific guys they're talking about here didn't end up being tremendously valuable.
posted by Copronymus at 2:32 PM on May 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't follow much baseball but the Moneyball thing is interesting to me, we're seeing something similar in hockey lately with what they are calling "advanced stats". the Arizona Coyotes just filled their GM vacancy with a 26-year-old that started a hockey analytics website in 2009. Gonna be interesting to see how that works.
posted by Hoopo at 2:54 PM on May 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

I will happily second Zug's recommendation of this book. I purchased it after reading the article the other day and also ended up reading it almost entirely in one sitting. Which given that, as an Englishman, I see Baseball as a sport where someone looked at Cricket and thought: "hmmm. You know what? We could make this even more obscure with a bit of effort" is saying something.

Basically I've always been a massive nerd for moneyball type stuff and, more specifically, how it actually plays out in reality when it comes into contact with real, living people and day-to-day logistics. They really learn and capture that on their adventure in the Indies.

The Jose Canseco appearance is a really good example of that. It's no spoiler really to say that it's something the team does (as, apparently, do a lot of other Indie teams) to provide a single quick payday. At this level, that single appearance is the difference between paying the bills one month or not, which is something that taking a moneyball approach at the top level of any sport rarely has to deal with.

It would have been really easy for this book, and the exercise itself, to have become very hipsterish or patronising. In the end it is anything but. They end up on a genuine, human adventure as much as a math-based one.
posted by garius at 3:25 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Minor league baseball's #1 talent drain: actual jobs that pay people money.

Ergo minor league enthusiasts really should be supporting a universal per-capita income, for the sheer love of the game.
posted by a halcyon day at 3:35 PM on May 9, 2016 [20 favorites]

This was really good! I think I'm gonna have to pick up the book.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:33 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you for pointing out Dad's Christmas present (unless he reads it first, erk, but here's a pretty mainstream media guy so I might be safe)
posted by maryr at 5:08 PM on May 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm avoiding everyone's comments because I loved the excerpts, am waiting for my copy of the book to arrive, and desperately want to avoid spoilers, but:

Theo Fightmaster is an unfairly awesome name. I bet he wins trades by picking up the phone and introducing himself.
posted by ZaphodB at 6:33 PM on May 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

Can't wait to read this as a business lesson to somehow justify both hiring under-represented minorities but also managing people rather than sets of statistics.☺️
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:00 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The title is sort of irritating and the stats guys keep trying to look for the next edge -- framing, shifts, defensive metrics. At some point, it catches up and becomes widespread, making the scarcity of clear talent and those who can acquire it the best. That being said, the votes of confidence here are reassuring.
posted by skepticallypleased at 7:10 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Skeptically, that is the very definition of moneyball, rememember. It's just an economic approach. Find something that is undervalued, and buy it, whatever it is, since it's cheaper than it should be. Don't waste money on overvalued things.* It's basically common-sense investing for dummies.

"It" was originally OBP, but as you say, everyone values that now, so it's always changing.

* Funnily enough, Billy Beane's team has been selling the same overvalued thing since the book was published, all those years ago, and the rest of the market still doesn't seem to have caught up for some reason. (Hint: it's still saves.)
posted by rokusan at 1:31 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, and skeptically, get used to hearing about BBV (batted ball velocity) a lot in the years to come. It's everyone's favorite new toy.
posted by rokusan at 1:37 AM on May 10, 2016

So is the owner trying to shut down the team and movie it away? Does one of the pitchers get remarkably better control once he gets glasses? Do they face their adversaries in the last game of the season and win clinching their cities love not only for baseball but of their gruff but quirky team? I've got to know!
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:19 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wasn't expecting to buy another book today. THANKS METAFILTER.
posted by slogger at 6:14 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Their podcast is a regular listen for me, nice to Ben & Sam's book get a mention here.

I want to take this space to publicly thank them for turning me on to The Dollop.
posted by john m at 10:13 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you are a Pirates fan

As all good people are.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:43 AM on May 10, 2016

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