Moneyball: The New Old School
There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening. And this leads people who run Major League Baseball teams to misjudge their players and mismanage their teams– Peter Brand in movie Moneyball
Fans of the Kansas City Royals have found themselves in rarified air over the course of the last several weeks, and by and large are not totally sure what to do with themselves. When looking at standings across baseball, Kansas City’s TEAM is one that now sits atop its respective column, but another aspect is also on top and in full display, bringing in a whole new discussion about what is important in baseball.
Royals left fielder Alex Gordon currently holds the #1 position in the fangraphs WAR calculation for position players in Major League Baseball. (More on WAR here)
With the expansion of sabermetrics by many who cover and write about baseball, statistics such as WAR have become somewhat of a standard tabulation of what the overall value of a player would be if all things were quantified into a number. During the “old school” times, often a players merit was based primarily on his ability to hit baseballs, with many of the “little things” such as defense and base running, being merely icing on the cake to the truly important aspects of a baseball players skill set.
When Billy Beane invented the Moneyball way of thinking across baseball, he changed more than the perception of what a players worth was at the plate by placing a premium on walks and power, he also changed the way players are viewed in general. Things like defense and base running had never been quantified as a meaningful stat, and therefor much of a players value (or liability) were never being calculated to truly reflect that players ability to help a team win.
While much has been made about the On Base percentage and slugging percentage values being the primary points of emphasis in the Moneyball Theory, it actually is much broader in that to truly be successful, teams with limited funds must do whatever it takes to find the cheapest way to produce a run.
In 2002, the top 5 on base percentage teams in the AL all won at least 93 games, take that in comparison with today where 7 of the top 10 includes the Blue Jays, Tigers, Rays, Indians, Twins, Rangers and Red Sox, all of who currently are on the outside looking in regarding the playoff picture. With the steroid era seemingly over, the way the game is played has seemed to have shifted. With runs down all over baseball (over a full run per game less from 2000 to today), a new emphasis has been placed on run prevention rather than run creation. After all, a run saved is as valuable as a run scored.
Enter the new market efficiency.
Whether Dayton Moore has actively set out to construct a team based on the premise of “best bang for the buck” or he simply lucked out, either way he has been able to produce a product that is capable of winning baseball games in a manner that is far different from conventional wisdom. The Royals rank dead last in all of baseball in walk percentage, 11th in the AL in on base percentage, 9th in the AL in slugging, and dead last in the AL in isolated power.
In short, the Royals don’t walk, they don’t get on base, and they have no power.
What they DO have is a fantastic defense. And defense, by and large, is relatively cheap. Especially when you seek out the correct style of pitching, a pitching coach who preaches contact, and put them all in the spacious confines of Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals currently are ranked first (second, the also first place Baltimore Orioles, coincidence??) in defensive runs saved and second in UZR. One thing you will notice about the teams at the top of the defensive rankings, of the top 5, 4 are playoff teams and 3 of them are the division leaders in the AL with the other being the Mariners. Sixth on the list? The other team currently vying for a division crown, the Athletics. Of the top six teams ranked according to Fangraphs defensive runs saved list, only the Boston Red Sox do not currently sit in a playoff spot in the American League. When looking at the list from the bottom up, only the Detroit Tigers at 12th have any threat from the bottom ranks to make the post season.
Is defense the new on base percentage? In a world where every front office has a team of sabermaticians, (except the Royals, who I expect have “A” guy…I kid, I kid), on base percentage is no longer some secret you can find on the street for an affordable price. Its expensive now.
So what else beside defense is cheap?
How about base running? The Royals also currently sit 1st in the AL with 8.4 runs above average in base running. Being smart on the base paths and helping singles hitters turn a slap infield single into a double by stealing a bag or two is a relatively efficient way to generate offense. And while the Royals reside at the bottom of the scale in most offensive categories, they still manage to sit 9th in runs scored in the AL (and only 6 runs behind 8th, pretty much the middle of the pack). This isn’t lighting the world on fire, but it means that despite lacking plate discipline and power they can score some runs using good base running and timely hitting (first in the AL in batting average with runners in scoring position, .274).
Some other notables from the Kansas City base running, 1st in the AL (by a WIDE margin) in stolen bases with 110. Second in stolen base percentage (to Oakland) with 82% success rate.
They also rank 5th in the AL in opponents errors per game. This being relevant in the fact that when you have a quick, smart and aggressive base running baseball team, it will cause more problems for the opposing defense and will create results that will not necessarily show up in the final box score.
So what does all this mean? One way or the other, the Kansas City Royals look like a team that might be looked at in the future as one of the front runners for a new wave of baseball talent evaluation. With Dayton’s success in the international market producing players such as Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura, he has also shown his ability to tap into a market where talent can be find at a low level of investment (Perez signing for a $65,000 bonus). While in the years to come, new rules and a new appreciation for the international market may see the competition for that talent slowly become too expensive for the Royals to afford, they are producing players on the cheap from it now.
While this may sound good and dandy, the problem is general managers around baseball are typically savvy enough to figure it out, and begin capitalizing themselves, much as the Boston Red Sox did on the success of the A’s and GM Billy Beane. Keeping up with the new market efficiency is always the constant struggle, and the Athletics seem to be keeping ahead in that regard as well. While they still rank in the top 3 in on base percentage, they too are near a top 5 defensive team in the AL, depending on the metric used.
The winds of changing are blowing through baseball, and a new era has begun. The next several years will tell us more about how talent will be evaluated in the future, but with players like Alex Gordon slowly gaining appreciation for a truly great year encompassing all aspects of the game, as well as the trend of defensive and smart baseball teams, it might just be the era of Daytonball.
But first….it has to work.