“Stay in Oakland!” was the plea from many a diehard Athletics fan in the stands of the Oakland Coliseum this past baseball season as the team planned its move to Las Vegas.
Some potential hurdles to a move remain unresolved, including a vote by Major League Baseball team owners next week on whether to allow it.
Even if you don’t follow baseball, you may know the story of how, more than two decades ago, the cash-strapped A’s pioneered the use of high-tech data analysis in the sport, which came to be known as moneyball.
Michael Lewis wrote a book about it. Brad Pitt did a movie about it.
For more on how the A’s changed the game, Marketplace’s Lily Jamali called up Keith Law, senior baseball writer for The Athletic, who explained that the team found an edge by looking at what some would call nerdy stats, like on-base percentage. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Keith Law: It’s the best measure of a hitter because the hitter’s fundamental job is don’t get out, if you just boil it down to the simplest thing possible. And it’s the thing that’s also the most under his control. He can’t control if there are men on base, for example, or whether he gets an RBI or if someone’s going to knock him in when he’s already on base. But he can largely control what he does himself when he’s at the plate. And that gave the A’s a temporary but significant advantage and led to several years of high win totals and playoff appearances.
Lily Jamali: But then, what happened is other teams are catching on, they’re seeing what the A’s are doing. On-base percentage, I assume a lot of teams are now paying a lot more attention to. So how did the A’s evolve “moneyball” from there?
Law: To me, it’s actually, it’s a baseball story, it’s also a bit of a business story. You find a temporary advantage in the marketplace. But, of course, your competitors are probably not stupid, and they see what you’re doing. You’re having success and they copy you. What really got Oakland is that several teams with better, with more resources, particularly the Red Sox under Theo Epstein, said we could do that and we have money. So the A’s had to keep chasing the next possible advantage. So they went from chasing on-base percentage, they went after defensive wizards because teams would pay for offense, they’d pay for pitching, but the A’s looked at the marketplace and said people aren’t really paying for defense, or at least not an appropriate price. So if we can get that for 60 cents on the dollar, we’re winning that side of the equation. We can build better teams on the cheap.
Jamali: So in terms of that data gathering, it was in 2015 or so that Statcast comes on the scene. Describe what that is and what does it do exactly.
Law: So Major League Baseball chose to invest to install optical and radar equipment in all 30 Major League ballparks that would provide extremely precise measurements of the movement of the baseball as well as the movement of all the people on the field. They’re tracking everything. And very quickly, some team said this is gold and started building these R&D departments and hiring people with much more technical backgrounds. So suddenly, Major League Baseball, instead of just competing with each other to hire front-office people, they were competing with Google and Facebook and hiring people with totally different backgrounds than anyone they’ve ever hired before to try to cope with the flood of data. And so that took the moneyball concept and gave us the real revolution. Moneyball was kind of an evolution, Statcast was a revolution, completely changed the sport permanently, changed the way teams staff their front offices, changed the way teams look for players, changed the way teams develop players.
Jamali: Have all these new stats that people in baseball and viewers have access to made the game better? Is it more fun?
Law: It has certainly changed the game. To me, the thing that’s most noticeable right now: Strikeouts are at an all-time high in the sport.
Jamali: That’s not very fun as a viewer.
Law: No, right? And as someone who really came of age as a baseball fan in the ’80s, when we had high stolen-base totals and players running all over the place, I miss that. To me, that’s a bit more exciting. And baseball has tried to make little changes to get more of that back into the sport. But we’re not there yet.
Jamali: You were one of the first people in the data-crunching, data-analysis business in baseball. You were the special assistant to the [general manager] in Toronto, at the Toronto Blue Jays. What was it like then, and what does this business look like today?
Law: So my boss, J.P. Ricciardi, came from Oakland and was the GM for the Blue Jays. … They said, Oakland is doing something we want to be able to do, but we’re Toronto, we might have a little bit more resources. And so I was one of J.P.’s first hires. He said, I don’t really have anybody to do this stuff at all. I have scouts, I have plenty of baseball people, I need somebody on the data side. And I joked that I was the whole department. And everything lived on my laptop, which is unthinkable today, given the sheer quantity of data and the number of people who fill what we now call the R&D department for most teams, or some people refer to it as analytics. But that might be 20 people.
Jamali: Twenty people? And you were doing all of it yourself?
Law: Yes. And there’s such a difference in the work that is being done. So much of my time back when we were still writing code was just gathering data. That was the No. 1 challenge, was finding the data, getting it, scraping it off of websites just to get it into usable format. Today, the data comes to them — not saying their jobs are easier. Now the job is much harder. It’s much more technical because you need people who have kind of Big Data backgrounds: data science degrees, often to the level of Ph.D.s, working in baseball … to work with terabytes of data that become available to them every year. And what I just find fascinating is, it’s still the same thing. You’re still looking for the advantages, you’re still trying to find something there that will give you a leg up, even a temporary one, over other teams when you’re looking for players.
Jamali: When you look at the A’s over the last 20 years, keeping in mind that this team is still very cheap, did moneyball work for them, ultimately?
Law: I would say yes. They have had far more success over the past 20 years than you would expect, given the low investment in payroll. And I would even say, if you go a little further into it, they have not been particularly successful at drafting, which is how many, most low-payroll teams find their way to compete — they invest in the draft and hopefully find success in the draft because it’s by far the cheapest, most efficient way to get really good, highly talented players into your organization. They’ve not been great at that. They’ve been really great at picking players off of other rosters who were underutilized, unappreciated, underdeveloped, and finding success that way. So I would say yes, that this approach, this whole idea, did work for them. And it even continued to work for them as other teams adopted it. But there’s a limit. I think it is also very fair to say they reached that ceiling. And it certainly wasn’t going to work forever. At some point, ownership was going to have to put more money into payroll. And I think that’s one of the motivations for them to try to move to another market.
Jamali: And it is now 20 years since Michael Lewis published his book “Moneyball.” You, by the way, are mentioned on Page 277 in my copy. It’s been really interesting to see how much the book has influenced the league.
Law: I think the book may have oversimplified things a bit. But the concept is really sound. This is something Lewis has done in a lot of his books, is he’s profiled people who’ve looked for hidden advantages, arbitrage opportunities in their respective industries, and capitalize them. And he recognized as well that this was the only way Billy Beane, who ran the A’s at the time, he’s still with the organization. And his group, we’re going to be able to compete on one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. And that book had such a huge influence in the industry because owners were reading it and saying, I would hear stories of owners putting that book on a baseball executive GM’s desk, why can’t we do that? Why aren’t we like the A’s? And I think a lot of owners sort of woke up a little bit and said, in my other, all these owners made money in other industries, we would compete, we would do things, we would innovate to try to stay ahead, why can’t we do these things? And so what Oakland did, accelerated by the existence of the book, was start what has been a 20-year process that’s still ongoing, of change, of innovation. And it’s not all positive, but it is, I think it’s inevitable, and particularly with the advent of Statcast, it has accelerated. And so now we see change is just normal in baseball. I think we’re all becoming used to it that the pace of change in the sport is probably permanently faster. And that’s great for me, it keeps things really interesting, but it also presents new problems that I think baseball is still grappling with, like how the sport has actually changed on the field and whether that’s still as appealing a product to the greater fan base.
Sports Illustrated is out with a piece on the top three reasons Major League Baseball owners should vote no on the A’s proposed move to Vegas. What will this project look like? Why leave a large market for the desert? And how will the owner of the A’s pay for all of this?
And thank you to radio producer Nina Thorsen, who once worked here at Marketplace and provided us with that tape of fans chanting at the Coliseum. One of the first things you learn about Nina when you meet her is that she is a longtime — and a very passionate — A’s fan and a member of the right field drum crew and the Oakland 68s, a group of fans trying to keep the A’s in The Town.
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