How putting a price on something can change everything

When the Oakland A's found that players who draw walks produce more runs, walks became part of many teams' strategy. The result of valuing walks more than before: slower, duller games. Fenway Park in Boston.

Merchandise at the ballpark.

Red Sox fans catch a game at Fenway Park

The influential book Moneyball was published ten years ago. It told the story of how the Oakland A's studied baseball player statistics to determine which skills actually led to scoring runs. What they found was surprising: the A's discovery completely changed the labor market for players. It changed the nature of the game itself, how it's played.

This is just one example of how markets are affecting not just baseball but nearly every sphere of American life. Michel Sandel is the author of What Money Can't Buy, The Moral Limits of Markets. He uses baseball to illustrate several key points.

So, we invited him to Fenway Park to see them in action.

Sandel is a proud member of Red Sox Nation, even though he grew up rooting for the Minnesota Twins -- back when games were much shorter.

"Today, it's common for games to go over three hours, sometimes three-and-a-half, four hours, and 'Moneyball' is actually partly to blame," Sandel says.

When teams analyzed player statistics, they found that it wasn't the exciting parts of the game like hitting homeruns and stealing bases that contributed most to winning. It was walks. So teams started hiring players who were good at drawing walks.

"That makes for a rather dull, long game, if everyone is trying to get a walk" Sandel points out.

He says this is an example of how putting a price on something can change its value. In the case of "Moneyball," it changed how teams valued players and it changed the game itself. And this isn't just happening with baseball. We pay kids for good grades, we've created a market for pollution in the form of carbon offsets. There is even a market for human blood.

"These may seem like small, relatively self-contained examples of markets running rampant," Sandel says. "But we see it in bigger institutions as well. In Iraq and Afghanistan there were more private contractors then there were U.S. military troops."

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Explore the whole series here.

This was not the result of a public debate about whether or not we should outsource war to private companies.

"But this is what has happened," Sandel says. "And I'm suggesting we step back and have a broader debate about what should be the role of money and markets in our society. Where do markets and market mechanisms serve the public good and where do they not belong?"

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

Merchandise at the ballpark.

Red Sox fans catch a game at Fenway Park

Log in to post4 Comments

I agree with you here David Weinberg. My brother and I used to bet on games. It was never easy. We lost money most of the times. But there are fantasy games available in the internet based on the player’s performance. If you managed to get the first rank, that means you get to win lots of money. They use these statistical tools analyze the games. It is even supported by ESPN and EA Sports. Do check my link if you encounter any Microsoft issues.

Ignoring the comment by rclarleton (which I fully agree with), I don't quite see the little bit about what the article is trying to convey about putting a price on things. How is changing a value system equitable to putting a price on things? It is merely changing the way people perceive and store the value of things, and not necessarily changing the price of it. http://www.supercheapstorage.com.au/storage-sydney/self-storage/storage-...

This story contains some major factual errors, and is a horrible mis-representation of Moneyball. The message of Moneyball is not "everyone should walk." It was that walks do contribute to scoring runs (as do home runs and stolen bases). However, the way that people thought about the game (through batting average) treated a walk like it was a non-event and contributed nothing to the game. Therefore, there were players who were already good at drawing walks, and their contributions were being treated as non-events. The A's recognized this value when no one else did and were able to exploit a market inefficiency. Moneyball is not about quantifying everything. It's about thinking about how the numbers shape our thoughts (and vice versa).

In reality, through 2013, walk rates are way down from 10 years ago. The average team walks 3.0 times per game , down from 3.3 in 2003. In fact, if the walk rate for this year stays where it is now for the rest of the year, it will be the lowest walk rate in MLB since 1968.

If we are talking strictly about money, the next step is for the baseball team to realize that no one wants to go to a boring game, even if the home team wins. Then ticket sales drop, and then merchandise sales drop. Are Mom and Dad going to drag the kids to a 4 hour game? Nah.

Now, I do realize that coaches and players have the incentive to win rather than provide entertainment. Their jobs are based on wins and statistics. That's the conflict, since the owners don't really care about that -- they care about sales of tickets and merchandise.

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