Tony La Russa’s tribute to Moneyball

Moneyball fever is hitting the U.S., as people flock to theaters to watch a movie staring Brad Pitt where the theme of the movie is baseball, statistics, and finance/economics.  I did a quick informal survey of a class of 90 students here at my university, and found that everyone knew about Moneyball the movie, but only two had ever read the book “Moneyball; the Art of Winning an Unfair Game” written by Michael Lewis.  The book (and movie to some extent) tells the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics.  Beane realizes he doesn’t have the money to pay his star players, and instead starts to dive into a more statistical and analytical approach to identifying talent that is able to play in Major League Baseball (MLB).  Really, all of this goes back to Bill James who did a lot of work on baseball statistics, but Beane was someone in a position to really make the decisions based on these stats.

Following Beane’s success with a low budget (the A’s made the playoffs, won 20 games in a row during the season with a budget only a fraction of that of the New York Yankees), others in baseball began to pay attention to what is now referred to as “Moneyball.”  However, Moneyball does have its critics, and they have been especially vocal recently as the movie has helped gain the Moneyball movement some more popularity and notoriety.  In a previous post, I talked about how Tampa Bay gutted their team, cutting $30 million in salaries, and continued to win.  They mentioned that the only other team really to be able to do that was the Oakland A’s, referring to ball club under Beane’s management.  One big critic, is Tony La Russa, the manager for the St. Louis Cardinals who are facing a must-win game 5 of their playoff series against the Philadelphia Phillies.  The winner goes to the National League Championship Series, the loser of the game, goes home and waits till next year.  So, Tony La Russa paid his own special homage to Moneyball, telling what he thinks of it as a baseball manager.

“It’s my tribute to Moneyball,”

“I’m not a big Moneyball fan. I have this little place, don’t have a big place. So what we do is we take the square footage between the right field line and center field and the square footage and from left field to center field, divide that by pi and we multiply it by bulls***, and then we pick the dugout. The field that’s closest to the dugout and that’s where Lance plays. That’s almost always true. Some places there may be — if it’s spacious, probably not good. Here it’s close to the dugout, that’s where he plays.”

That’s right, Tony La Russa has pretty much said that Moneyball = Bulls***.  Or if you want the actual equation, John Finger of PhilliesTalk has written it out as:

That formula is written: (RF+CF)-(LF+CF) / π * BS (dugout) = Berkman

It is clear that La Russa is not a fan of Moneyball, and probably most managers will not be as the movie makes former A’s skipper Art Howe look like a bit of a fool.  That is, the movie really heavily pushes a new way of thinking, and classifies many of the old scouts and managers, the people who “know” baseball as the ones who really are ignorant.  I can understand people being defensive, but La Russa’s comments show a lot of the attitude which stands against better use of statistics to manage sport franchises.  Personally, I think there is a middle ground which could allow an understanding of both sides, that could be very beneficial to a number of clubs.  It could potentially make things a lot more efficient and cheaper for professional sport teams.  As Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf once said:

“We operate at the mercy of the worst decisions of our dumbest competitors.”

In other words, as long as some franchises are paying big money to athletes without careful analysis of their value and worth to the team, they are forced to pay these prices as well.

As a side note, my class will all have Moneyball assigned to them as a secondary text they will need to read in class next semester.

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