Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Moneyball and Whiteyball and Market Inefficiencies

Few pleasures, in my mind, compare to the joy of reading a well written book. Although I was not overly impressed by the movie rendition of Moneyball, the book and its explanation of the acquisition of undervalued assets by the Oakland Athletics delighted me. It probably also helped that the 2001 and 2002 seasons are not prominent in my baseball memory (2001 was my first year of college, and in 2002 I was out of the country), and when I read the book in 2006 I was coming back from my baseball hiatus following another strong Oakland team while living in Minnesota. Watching the 2006 ALCS in the Metrodome and having Mark Kotsay’s inside the park homerun silence the crowd is one of my favorite baseball memories.

Reading Michael Lewis’s book, you get the sense that Beane and company had discovered something new, that in some way they had figured out how to game the system by identifying market inefficiencies and focusing on on-base percentage. To my surprise, however, I recently found this passage in Why Time Begins on Opening Day written by Thomas Boswell in 1984. Writing about the rise of the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1980s, he speaks about how Whitey Herzog built his winning teams as an anathema to Earl Weaver’s “pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers,” or what in that age most closely resembled sabermetrics. Herzog’s teams, instead, were built around speed (on offense and on defense) and relief pitching. Why Whiteyball? Well, it was this quote from the book that caught my attention:

“To Herzog it’s axiomatic that the contemporary Ace of Staff lives in the bullpen. Herzog starts with speedsters and relievers; then, as a kind of apologetic after-thought, he looks to see if any stray sluggers or starting pitchers–you know, the category of players who monopolize the Hall of Fame—happen to be left lying about. To Herzog, the most overabundant commodity in baseball is a respectable starting pitcher who can give you a few presentable innings. John Stuper, Dave LaPoint, Steve Mura—sure, dime a dozen. Win it all with ‘em. Now perhaps we can see why Herzog could build his team so quickly. He could get the guys he wanted because nobody else thought much of them. He sought precisely the baseball commodities that were most undervalued” (p. 73).
Just like Moneyball, Whiteyball identified undervalued assets and acquired them cheaply to create a championship team. What stands out in my mind, however, is that Boswell does not say that Herzog went looking for undervalued assets. Rather, Herzog’s managerial preferences for a competitive team matched exactly what the baseball market currently undervalued at that time. It’s this key point that I think Lewis’s book misses or is not clear about. Was Moneyball a conscientious decision to target undervalued assets or was it just pure chance that Beane and DePodesta’s desire for players who could not play defense and got on-base at high rates was the undervalued asset at the time?

As the market for baseball assets changes, I also have to wonder, in this age of information, will there ever be a market inefficiency that will last long enough to allow a club to build a coherent team on the field. In following the A’s attempts to rebuild in the last 5 years or so, they have moved from one inefficiency (defense: with the acquisitions of Coco Crisp, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Ryan Sweeney) to another (raw latino talent: Michael Ynoa and Yoenis Cespedes) to another (relief pitchers: Grant Balfour, Michael Wuertz, and Brian Fuentes). It seems to me that in only targeting inefficiencies, it becomes much more difficult to build a coherent team. Whereas Herzog’s transactions targeted inefficiencies, they were also part of a larger strategic purpose:
“He had little trouble trading for the heart of his new team—Lonnie Smith, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, and Bruce Sutter. These and other personnel moves, like signing free agent Darrell Porter, weren’t uniformly brilliant, but they all had the thread of Herzog’s guiding purpose. Each trade was greater than the sum of its parts, because each new Card complemented the others” (p. 73-74).
This is cross-posted at Baseball-Bob.

Amateur Academic

"The word amateur derives from the Latin for 'love.' An amateur is at root a lover--a lover of sport, science, art, and so forth... As faculty we are properly conerned about our professionalism. There is much to recommend the professional ethic, including rigor, methodology, high standards of review, and so forth... Yet I hope that we also never cease to be amateurs in our professions--that is, passionate devotees of our disciplines. I have told some of you that I hope to be an academic academic vice president by still teaching, reading, and writing a little. Even more, I aspire to remain an avid amateur, still smitten with the love for learning that first drew me to the academy."
-John N. Tanner, Inaugural address as Academic Vice President of BYU (2004)

As I begin teaching this fall, it is important to remember that I did not choose my profession because I will be come rich and famous.  I chose to do what I do because I love what I do and enjoy the learning process.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

We're still alive... case you were wondering.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Anyone want to play Bocce Ball? (Greensburg, PA)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Screen Door on a Battleship

From a NYT article on freshman Republican efforts to cut the budget:

“There are consequences for our actions,” said Representative Paul Gosar, a freshman from Arizona. “We’re not here to shut the government down, but it is going to take everyone to tango.”

Doesn't he at least watch tv?

Thursday, January 20, 2011


A couple of quick thoughts scripturally related:

I was struck by the two distinct ways of responding to information in a couple of versus in Helaman.
Helaman 9:39-10:1-- After hearing Nephi prophesy, the people come to many different conclusions, "insomuch that they divided hither and thither and went their ways, leaving Nephi alone."

Helaman 11:23-- The people begin to contend between themselves about different points of doctrine, but "Nephi and Lehi, and many of their brethren who knew concerning the true points of doctrine, having many revelations daily, therefore they did preach unto the people, insomuch that they did put an end to their strife in that same year"
Normally we focus in verse 23 on the spiritual greatness of Nephi and Lehi and the importance of receiving daily revelation and/or the importance of having a prophet on the earth who can receive direct revelation when points of contention and doctrinal disagreements take place. However, in both of these versus the prophet and his method are the same. The difference, in this case, is how the people listen or are willing to listen. In the first instance it seems to me that everyone is focused on speaking their own mind. They're presented with evidence and everyone comes to different conclusions and no one is willing to listen. In the second instance, even with a similar strife and disagreement about fundamental points of doctrine, the people are willing to listen, and what a difference it makes.
Listening, really listening, both to what others have to say and to what the spirit has to say brings people closer together.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

End of an Era?

Joe Lieberman announced today that he would not seek re-election. That shouldn't come as a surprise given his continued alienation from the Democratic Party. He would have been hard pressed to withstand a Democratic Primary challenge, and would have likely ended up losing in a primary like he did in 2006. Unlike 2004, however, he probably would not be able to count on Republican support to lift him to victory in the general election running as an independent. After a Republican tidal wave in 2010, Republicans are going to have an easier time finding a better candidate than Alan "Gold" Schlesinger.

Though some may point to this as another step in the increasing polarization of American politics, to me this is more than that. It is the end of a personal era of politics. In 2000 I turned 18 just a day before election day. I like to think maybe it was that election cycle that spurred my interest in politics. I could vote. Not only that, but I could vote by just a day. Maine was a battleground state, or at least reasonably competitive. George W. came to the state in October, I went and watched. But Joe Lieberman, running for Vice-President came to Bangor on my birthday.

I skipped a soccer banquet to go. Soccer was not my passion in high school, but I think in many ways I identify it as one of my greatest accomplishments in high school. I had a miserable time with some of my teammates, I wasn't a star, but I worked to get into better shape than anyone the summer before my junior year to make the varsity team. I invested a lot into it. But I skipped this banquet to go see Joe Lieberman.

In 2000 he seemed more reasonable than either presidential nominee. I've admired him as he tried to work for what he thought was right and best in spite of party pressures. Those are qualities to be admired despite what one thinks of his politics.

For me, an era began on November 6, 2000. I was eligible to vote. Joe Lieberman arrived, as the Bangor Daily News described it, "at the dank airport hanger" at the Bangor International Airport to win the hearts and minds of Mainers in that 2000 election. He did, in a way, win mine and helped cement my interest in politics.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


Maybe we're not always as happy as this, but may the New Year bring you joy in some small shape or another.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cliff Lee's "The Decision"

I originally posted this Philadelphia Inquirer story about the Phillies signing Cliff Lee on facebook. What caught my attention was the opening paragraph.

Well, this just doesn't happen. Highly coveted free-agent athletes take their talents to South Beach, or sign bank-busting contracts with the Washington Nationals. That's just how it is.

We think of the Cliff Lee signing as a repudiation of money and fame. In signing with the Phillies, Lee spurned the millions of dollars that the Yankees could have given him in order to return to a team with which he felt comfortable. In doing so, Lee isn't "taking his talents to South Beach" or is he?

In some ways, he's doing the exact same thing Lebron James did. By joining the Phillies he's becoming part of a team that no becomes the odd-on favorite to win the National League pennant and return to the World Series. With a rotation of Doc Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and who ever Charlie Manual throws out there on the fifth day, the Phillies have one of the best rotations, since, well...there's been a lot of speculation about that.

What Cliff Lee is doing is EXACTLY what Lebron James did. He's going to the place where he thinks he has the best chance of winning and where he will feel comfortable. James wanted to play with his friends Chris Bosh and Dewayne Wade and Miami was the only place he could do that and also become an immediate NBA Finals contender. Remember, that because of NBA salary cap rules, James could have signed a bigger contract with the Cavaliers. Cliff Lee has friends on the Phillies and by joining that team, and turning down a larger and longer contract with the Yankees, the Phils easily become the favorite to return to the World Series and even win it.

The difference? Well, there was that botched ESPN hour long special, and the infamous quote "I'm taking my talents to South Beach." Sometimes it's better to keep your mouth shut and just sign on the dotted line.