"Moneyball", the movie, premieres nationwide tomorrow, Sept. 23. That will, obviously, center a lot more attention on its prime subject, Athletics general manager Billy Beane.
Recently, I wrote this post suggesting Beane would be a good hire for Cubs general manager. I still feel that way. Beane's teams may not have had much success since 2006, but a lot of that is due to the franchise's uncertain stadium situation and future and as a result, its low payrolls.
But what exactly is "Moneyball"? Why is it good for teams to follow this idea? Or is it even good?
"Moneyball" has been simplified by the mass media to mean, in general, "teams that draft and develop players with high OBPs". Obviously, it's not nearly that simple. But the Cubs have, during the Jim Hendry era, been just about the most egregious example of the "anti-Moneyball" philosophy of baseball. Let's discuss this further after the jump.
Since the simplistic version of "Moneyball" focuses on OBP and walks, let's take a quick look at the Cubs' ranking in batting average, walks and OBP since 2002 -- the first year Jim Hendry was general manager.
|Year||BA (NL rank)||OBP (NL rank)||BB (NL rank)||R (NL rank)|
|2002||.246 (15)||.321 (13)||585 (6)||706 (11)|
|2003||.259 (11)||.323 (13)||492 (14)||724 (9)|
|2004||.268 (6)||.328 (11)||489 (14)||789 (7)|
|2005||.270 (2)||.324 (11)||419 (16)||703 (9)|
|2006||.268 (5)||.319 (16)||395 (16)||716 (15)|
|2007||.271 (7)||.333 (9)||500 (15)||752 (8)|
|2008||.278 (2)||.354 (1)||636 (1)||855 (1)|
|2009||.255 (12)||.332 (10)||592 (6)||707 (10)|
|2010||.257 (7)||.320 (11)||479 (14)||685 (10)|
|2011||.258 (4)||.316 (10)||409 (15)||638 (8)|
This table is illuminating. Note that the highest team BA was in 2008 -- but that's also the highest OBP, and the highest number of team walks in that period, 636 (that came within 15 of breaking the club record). Not surprisingly, the Cubs scored 855 runs, leading the National League; it's also the most runs a Cubs team had scored since 1930 (which was an historical outlier -- the entire National League hit .303 that year).
I don't think I'm telling you anything you don't already know. Get more men on base and you are going to score more runs. This lesson seemed lost on Dusty Baker, whose 2006 team walked almost 200 fewer times than the 2002 team, the last year before he took over as manager. Look at the team rankings in walks during Dusty's tenure; the 2003 team won with great pitching even while ranking just ninth in the National League in runs.
The danger is that Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts will see this year's team batting average -- .258, ranking fourth in the league -- and think there don't need to be significant changes in philosophy. That's dangerous thinking; the team OBA of .316 is the lowest in the ten-year period, and the walk total (though it could still go up a bit in the last six games of the year) is the second-lowest. The team's No. 8 ranking in runs is, I believe, largely due to offense being down all across baseball this year.
And this, in a season where the Cubs could have a player -- Carlos Pena -- walk 100 times. Pena ranks third in the NL with 94 walks, behind Prince Fielder and Joey Votto. The problem is that Pena's total is almost 23% of the entire team's walks; Kosuke Fukudome ranks second with 46 and he hasn't even been on the team in almost two months!
Cubs teams have historically been hackers. There have been only four Cubs player seasons with 100 or more walks since 1930: Richie Ashburn, 116 in 1960; Gary Matthews, 103 in 1984; and Sammy Sosa, twice (116 in 2001, 103 in 2002). There's reasonable reason for doing this; over time, Wrigley Field has been a hitter's ballpark, rewarding power; but there's no reason those power hitters couldn't also try some plate disicipline. If they did, the Cubs would hit more three-run homers instead of solo jobs. 56% of the Cubs' HR this year (81 of 145) are with no one on base; 47 more are with just one man on, and they haven't hit a grand slam this year, the only team without one.
This is one reason the Cubs shouldn't be so swift to let Pena go. This is a valuable skill. Whether it's teachable from one player to another is debatable; some (including me) credited Fukudome with helping his teammates be patient in 2008, but that didn't seem to carry over to the succeeding years. This implies that it has to be an organizational and coaching philosophy. But this doesn't mean simply sticking fancy software into a computer and crunching numbers.
It does mean hiring the right person or people to put this philosophy in place. That means more than statistics. I still believe Billy Beane is the right guy to do this. It didn't just happen in a movie with Brad Pitt, it happened in real life, and in addition to having great pitching, Beane's A's scored buckets of runs -- 768 or more every year from 2000 through 2006, peaking at 947 in 2000.
There's your answer, Tom Ricketts. Go for it.